MAS helps Brafe Engineering defy reported slowdown in manufacturing

Brafe Engineering at Woodbridge.
Photo: Jason Bye

Brafe Engineering at Woodbridge. Photo: Jason Bye - Credit: � Jason Bye/ UNP 0845 600 7737

Small and medium sized manufacturers (SMEs) in the East of England are defying predictions of a slowdown in the sector by posting increases in current and predicted sales, according to a recent survey.

Near six out of 10 respondents (59%) to the latest Manufacturing Barometer indicated that turnover increased in the previous six months with 62% expecting further increases over the next four months.

In further positive news, more than a third of firms (36%) are still looking to recruit and 44% said they were planning to increase investment in new technology – a clear indication of a movement towards more advanced manufacturing.

Among the companies setting the pace in East Anglia is Woodbridge-based Brafe Engineering, which is tapping into new opportunities in the nuclear sector to boost sales and create new jobs.

Brafe Engineering, which produces alloy castings for valves and pumps, has added more than £500,000 to its turnover in the last 12 months and is on course to smash the £9.5m barrier in 2015.

Backed by support from the Business Growth Service’s Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS), the company has been able to make a number of improvements to its processes in order to be in a position to take advantage of nearly £60billion of investment in civil nuclear new build.

The changes have not only resulted in an increase in sales, but also an expansion of the workforce from 105 to 116, with seven of these new roles involve apprenticeships.

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Andrew Dalby, managing director, said: “We’ve been manufacturing and exporting goods to ASME nuclear standards for many years, but this was almost exclusively to overseas markets, with some 95% of our output exported.

“We are only 10 miles from Sizewell and, when you combined this with the growing UK market opportunity in nuclear new build and decommissioning, it made sense to turn our attention a bit closer to home.

“There were a few business areas we identified that could benefit from external support so approached the Manufacturing Advisory Service to help meet these challenges. The results have been impressive.”

MAS introduced Brafe Engineering to the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) product verification programme.This enabled the company to develop an action plan focused on a number of key improvement areas, including improved CMM calibration arrangements, temperature controls within a physical measurement context and a system to demonstrate capability to customers and third parties.

The firm also used the support to develop a formal training programme for all of its inspectors and production operatives.

MAS business growth manager Robin Cheyne added his support: “NPL has definitely given the company additional systems that has allowed it to win work and plan for further growth.

“It’s on course for nearly £10m over the next 18 months and that could increase dramatically, as more and more domestic nuclear opportunities come online,” he said. “I’m also delighted to see the management team investing in the next generation of engineers.”

Robin has also since introduced Brafe Engineering to Fit For Nuclear (F4N), which helps manufacturers to measure their capabilities against industry standards and works with them to bridge gaps.

Developed by the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and backed by top tier partners including Areva and EDF Energy, the initiative offers a business improvement journey that will identify strategy, implement new processes, secure necessary accreditations and provide supplier matching opportunities.

F4N has also recently announced a £1.5m funding call, which will provide grants of up to £10,000 to manufacturers looking to increase their market share or get into nuclear for the first time.

The Manufacturing Barometer, operated by SWMAS Ltd, is the largest independent survey of SME manufacturing companies operating in England and has been running since 2009.

Respondents to the latest survey included 78 SME manufacturers in the East of England, employing more than 3,500 people between them.

A specialist topic in the survey this time was “identifying barriers to growth”. Responses revealed that the burden of regulation (cited by 43%) and the pressure to pay higher salaries (34%) are the two main concerns for the region’s SME manufacturing base, closely followed by finding recruits with the right skills (30%).

David Caddle, area director of the MAS, said: “There have been concerns that manufacturing is slowing down, and GDP figures from the Office for National Statistics did indeed reveal a slight decline.

“I’m pleased to say that SME manufacturers are feeling more optimistic. Turnover for the last period has bounced back and the outlook for future sales appears very positive, with automotive and construction strong and new opportunities in offshore wind and nuclear opening up previously untapped markets.

“Investment plans in technology should be welcomed. This shows companies are recognising that they need to spend in order to compete globally, offering unique processes and technologies that establish themselves on the added value chain.

“Predicted recruitment of new staff has also remained high, although this could be due to companies not being able to find the skilled employees they need.

“Any slowdown by the bigger manufacturers will take a while to cascade down the supply chain. We have to be mindful that there might be a delayed reaction to the predicted slowdown.”

David added: “We also asked them to tell us which factors they felt supported growth. 68% feel their current business sales strategy is important to growth, whilst a culture of innovation and the motivation of non-management staff both scored highly (66% and 61% respectively).

“What was pleasing to see was MDs praising the motivation of their workforce as a significant factor in their success.”

The Business Growth Service, launched in December 2014 by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, brings together GrowthAccelerator and the Manufacturing Advisory Service, with additional elements from the Intellectual Property Office (intellectual property audits) and the Design Council (design mentoring).

The manufacturing offer is closely aligned with GROW:OffshoreWind and Fit for Nuclear (F4N), the latter delivered by the Nuclear AMRC (NAMRC).

The Business Growth Service also refers SME manufacturers to the right support provided by other agencies, including UK Trade & Investment, Innovate UK (including High Value Manufacturing Catapults), the British Business Bank, local Growth Hubs and UK Export Finance.

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