Lean manufacturing allows Timberwolf to stay ahead of the pack
PUBLISHED: 10:41 16 July 2019 | UPDATED: 10:59 16 July 2019
(C) Copyright 2015 Joseph Casey Photography. Permission granted to reproduce for personal use and the promotional use of Entec I
Stowmarket wood chipper maker Timberwolf has doubled the size of the business and expanded into Europe in recent years, leading to it being named Suffolk's Business of the Year earlier this month.
As you make your way into the Tomo Industrial Estate in Stowmarket, the Timberwolf premises are easily identified - the striking logo of a snarling wolf's face bearing down on the approaching road.
But while the exterior may appear mean, inside the business is lean - a lean manufacturing operation that has enabled the business to more than double the size of its operations in recent years and build on its industry-leading brand.
Timberwolf is a manufacturer of professional wood chippers - substantial pieces of kit that are used by landscape gardeners, estate managers and tree surgeons to break down branches and other woody material when clearing areas.
The business started life as Entec based in Kent more than 30 years ago, before re-branding and moving to its Suffolk facility at the turn of the noughties - its position near the A14 giving the company a good base to distribute further into the UK.
According to sales and marketing director, Guy Marshlain, the company has produced more than 13,500 machines since it started operating from its Suffolk location - from hand-pushed garden models through to top of the range heavy-duty chippers on caterpillar tracks that can work on slopes and undulating forest terrain. The most popular model is the TW230 DHB because it combines power with lightness - weighing under 750kgs it is not bound by towing restrictions. All models are finished in the company's trademark orange.
"Timberwolf is synonymous within the wood chipper industry not just in the UK but in Europe," said Mr Marshlain, who together with managing director Chris Perry, steers the company.
"It's a very niche business but people will often refer to a wood chipper as a 'Timberwolf' in much the same way that Americans refer to a Xerox copier or a Hoover."
The firm's research shows that for some categories of wood chipper Timberwolf has 35% market share in the UK and the company has built on its solid position.
Strong partnerships with distributors have enabled the business to expand into Europe - a key reason why sales have increased by 256% since 2013. Last year alone, the company, which employs more than 80 staff in Stowmarket, increased sales by £4million to achieve a turnover of £16m.
Mr Marshlain says Germany and France are particularly strong markets for the company at present and along the way they have picked up prestigious customers including the municipal City of Paris, which runs a fleet of Timberwolf wood chippers to help manage its woods and parks.
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And this success has brought recognition. Alongside being named the East Anglian Daily Times Business of the Year at the Suffolk Business Awards earlier this month, Timberwolf was also recently listed as one of the '1000 Companies to Inspire Britain' in the London Stock Exchange Group's 2019 Report - an annual report celebrating the UK's fastest-growing and most dynamic small and medium sized businesses. The Suffolk company was selected among a group of five businesses nationwide to represent the engineering and manufacturing sector, while also being highlighted as a leader within the manufacturing sector.
The company designs all of the machines in Stowmarket and makes 30% of the components for its machines while it outsources fabrication for the remainder of the parts. But it is in the assembly of the chippers that Timberwolf has stolen a lead.
The heavy metal music playing on the sound system in the assembly area may be out of fashion but the way the production line is set-up is definately slick and modern.
Operations manager Stuart Fuller says the company had a major reorganisation of the assembly area a year or so back, moving to a six stage production line.
Each machine sits at a certain stage for a designated time, during which a defined part of the assembly takes place. At a set time, the machines are moved along on castors to the next stage and so on. Chippers are no longer produced in batches, rather the team will work on a variety of different specifications of chipper depending on the order for that day - thus cutting down on unnecessary storage of machines.
Mr Fuller says he is always looking to introduce best practice and has visited a number of manufacturing sites - including the Toyota plant in Derby - to see how they do things.
A key difference in the new set-up is the central focus on the assembly line above all else, in order to drive productivity. Each work station has a traffic light system, with different coloured lights illuminating depending on the issue. A blue light means more parts are required, an amber light is a query for the engineering department while a red light will see the quality assurance team swing into action.
"Before the changes, members of the assembly team would have to go and find people but now everyone comes to them," said Mr Fuller, who has been at the company for 20 years.
"When I first arrived in 1999, we were producing around 19 to 20 machines a month, last November we had a record week and produced 31 in a week," he added.
The agility within the company means Timberwolf is well-placed to adapt to any changes, such as new legislative requirements.
Changes in legislation have in the past played a role in Timberwolf's success - the restrictions on bonfires and wood burning driving demand for chippers - and new rules around engine emissions offer another opportunity for the company to step ahead of the competition, according to Mr Marshlain.
"There's a requirement across the plant industry to change the engine technology to reduce emissions and move to a Stage V engine, and because of that there is an enormous amount of innovation going on in the marketplace," he said.
"We've got some new product that will be coming out that will help us manage Stage V - nothing is public yet, so watch this space."