TURNAROUND Wednesday, 28 September 2011

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future." John F Kennedy

Eldon Tool and Engineering Limited is based in the industrial heartland of Sheffield, a city that is proud of its international reputation as being at the forefront of metal technology and manufacturing. Now in its 36th year, the company was originally formed as the Eldon Engineering Company in the Eldon Street area of Sheffield by Roy Kitteringham (who had originally been a tool and cutter grinder by trade) and a business partner. After Roy’s partner died he was joined by Phil Muscroft and soon the business saw expansion introducing CNC mills and lathes and a subsequent move from the original two-floor workshop into more suitable and spacious premises.

More sub-contract work was undertaken along with the move into the automotive sector leading to further expansion into the current purpose-built premises in 1994.

In 2006 Eldon Engineering came under the umbrella of Eldon Tool (a nearby company that Kitteringham and Muscroft had originally been shareholders of) after its purchase by Eldon Tool owner John Redman. Redman ran both companies concurrently for two years before deciding to put them on the market in 2008.

This decision interested Martin Smith, Managing Director of The Tool Connection, a Warwickshire-based tool distribution company that had been a long term customer of Redman’s. After negotiation Smith agreed to purchase both of the Eldon companies and they became part of The Tool Connection in late May, 2008. As Martin Smith and his team celebrated their latest acquisition it was announced that the country was in recession.

Martin Smith’s first task with his new acquisition was to choose a new General Manager and he appointed the then Technical Manager of The Tool Connection. Thus Stuart Smith was sent off in the direction of Sheffield.

At this point the recession was starting to bite; Stuart Smith discovered that sales at the Eldon companies were down 45% over quite a short period. His initial findings unearthed dated practices and procedures on the engineering side, a lack of material handling systems and inadequate stock control. Indeed technology had moved on but it had left the Eldon companies behind.

An early decision was to merge the two companies into one; thus Eldon Tool and Engineering Limited was formed, although initially the two separate premises were retained. Smith then initiated a substantial company restructure. He was assisted by the Tool Connection’s HR Manager, Tracy Williams who was brought in to address the HR issues that had to be dealt with. The skill set in the business was carefully analysed, training needs were targeted and addressed and a professional staff structure was put in place. A new Production Manager was appointed, and a new Quality Manager position was created and appointed from within the business; ISO 9001 accreditation was attained.

The staff at Eldon were quickly realising that the management culture was now completely different from what they were used to; with staff members’ tenure ranging from four to 30 years, change is not always welcome but the new management style was more about empowering the staff rather than dictating to them.

The company restructure continued with new Production Manager Ian Brailsford immediately setting up a new manufacturing system utilising cell-based manufacturing and assembly stations. Cooling and lubrication fluid distribution was now brought up to date with a new ring main system to all stations requiring it; raw material control was computerised and modern stock control systems were put in place by the newly appointed Stock and Logistics Manager Elaine Spooner.

A programme of preventative maintenance was undertaken on the equipment to reduce downtime, now 16 hours per week is being devoted to this.

A prototyping cell was established; previously a batch of a particular component would have to be manufactured, expensive if there was a design or manufacturing fault. Now two or three prototype components are made and thoroughly tested in the field before a full batch is manufactured.

Where previously the machine programming was done manually, the company invested in a new CAD/CAM system that enabled them to undertake technically more challenging jobs and interface directly with customers’ packages. An indirect advantage of the new system is that design and manufacturing changes can be quickly made resulting in less hand finishing, with substantial savings in both time and labour costs.

Investment continued with the installation of new machinery and equipment: CMM and projector measurement tools, new automatic saw, two new milling machines, surface grinder and centre lathe, new TIG welder; plus investment in training on new engineering techniques.

As every area of company expenditure was examined, Stuart Smith discovered that machine cutting tools were costing the company up to £96,000 per annum. This was addressed by setting up a computerised tool vending system that dispenses the correct tool and allocates it to a specific job and operator, while maintaining all these details on record. Thus tool usage and expenditure is kept under control. The system also streamlines the cutting tool re-ordering process, with ‘just in time’ ordering automatically generated. With this new system now fully up and running the machine cutting costs per annum have been cut in half.

One of Production Manager Ian Brailsford’s early tasks was to introduce a more rigid Health and Safety policy, an example of which was the introduction of strict and clearly marked areas where eye protection must be worn. Brailsford realised this was a priority as there had been 22 eye-related incidents in the previous 14 months. Since the policy has been introduced eight months ago, just one incident has been recorded.

In May 2010 the Eldon Tool premises in New Hall Road were closed, and all business and staff moved to the main factory at Don Road, Sheffield. They joined a tight and integrated team that enjoys The Tool Connection ethos of staff participation in the running of the company. For example, a pension scheme, and rare in a small company, a workers’ forum that lets management and staff come together and become involved in their own future as well as the future of their company.

In the three years since becoming part of The Tool Connection, with the substantial investment there has been steady progress, improvement and growth at Eldon Tool and Engineering Limited. The turnaround in the company’s viability has been due to careful and thorough analysis of every aspect of the business, from the staff skill set, the manufacturing methods and systems, to logistics and stock control. Bucking the trend? Perhaps, but this has resulted in a leaner, fitter organisation that is well placed to build and grow and fully prepared for the challenges ahead.

As Eldon’s General Manager Stuart Smith says, “We could not have achieved all this without all the skill and hard work that that has been put in — and continues to be put in — by the whole team at Eldon.”