More than a girl’s best friend

Posted on 2 Jul 2012 by Jane Gray
Coborn Engineering's largest European customer has just bought its sixth RG9 machine - seen here in assembly.

Queen’s Award winner, Coborn Engineering, talks to TM about global growth in the diamond tooling industry as it celebrates receipt of its hard-earned accolade for export success.

In April this year it was announced that Romford–based Coborn Engineering had been awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade.

On Friday last week the company officially received this accolade in a ceremony led by the Deputy Lieutenant for the London Borough of Havering, Colonel Mark Bryant. Coborn’s managing director, Steve Westlake spoke to TM about the recognition and the market forces behind the company’s exponential international growth.

Background:

  • Coborn Engineering increased its export sales by 362% between 2009 and 2011.
  • Coborn is family owned and employs 70 highly skilled staff.
  • The company manufactures semi-automatic and full CNC grinding machines for all super-hard materials.

Get more info here.

Steve Westlake, Managing Director, Coborn Engineering

TM: What does it mean to Corborn to win the Queen’s Award?

Coborn has been in business seventy years and is a family run company. For a small business like us it really is a remarkable success to have established ourselves so strongly as an international enterprise.

The big growth in international sales we have seen over the past couple of years is a culmination of a lot of hard work and testament to the skills of the staff here. Many of them have been with the company for thirty years or more. The award is a true reflection of them and their response to winning the award has been tremendous.

TM: Why is there such strong global demand for your tooling equipment at the moment?

Everything in life – certainly in technology – is pushed towards boundaries. Manufacturers are looking to run machines faster and become more productive. At the same time, a growing interest in the use of certain materials means that tooling is being pushed toward the physical boundaries of how fast and efficiently those materials can be cut.

Diamond is at the limit of this physical boundary. It is the hardest known naturally occurring substance and therefore diamond tooling can achieve what other equipment cannot.

For instance, the increasing use of aluminum – for light-weighting – in automotive manufacturing is driving strong demand for our PCD diamond tools.

When you are machining aluminum you need a very sharp edge for as long as possible. As soon as the edge blunts you start to rip the metal rather than cutting it, ruining the surface. This means you have to change the tool. Diamond tools last a lot longer and allow the manufacturer to take deeper cuts and run the machine faster.

Just now, another factor which is driving strong demand is the forthcoming release of the iPhone5.

This product requires the use of single crystal diamond tools and we now have customers demanding every machine we can make in order to meet demand from Foxcon and Apple.

The global diamond industry is a very young industry and we are learning what we can achieve with diamonds all the time. Coborn is fortunate to have established a position in this industry at an exciting time.

TM: You have strong exports to Europe, particularly Germany. What is the outlook there given the current economic instability in the eurozne?

Germany is actually doing very well at the moment. We have actually just taken three major machine orders.

We have a long established and reliable customer-base in Germany. Our largest machine owner in Europe, a German company, has just bought its sixth RG9 machine.

This is a reflection of the global strength of the diamond market which has barely been touched by the global recession and which is experiencing strong growth.

For Europe in particular there are very promising markets in the east. We are exploring Poland and have recently sold to Croatia, Czech Republic and Slovenia. A lot of our customers in this region are related to automotive manufacture and there is a strong steel industry in Poland.

TM: China is your biggest market at the moment. Are you looking to explore other big markets like Brazil for instance?

We are really victims of our own success when it comes to exploiting opportunities in big growth markets outside China. We are expecting another 30 per cent growth this year but our capacity to keep up with demand is limited.

We did investigate Brazil in 2007 and we made a sale there in 2009, but by that time demand from China was flying so fast that we have concentrated our efforts there. China is an extremely entrepreneurial market which is ready to absorb risk – more so than India or Korea and other markets where we see promise. We are now selling up to 25 machines a year to China.

TM: Have you come up against any bureaucracy or red tape that has made it difficult for you to enter or maintain business in a particular market?

Russia springs to mind as a difficult market. In order to do business and get orders there you need to have relationships with the Kremlin and we are still searching for a good agent in Russia. At the moment the main demand from Russia is for gem polishing applications, there is not much demand for our industrial tools. But we know the market is emerging.

Generally speaking though, because of the way we establish strong relationships through agents, we have not had bureaucratic problems when entering a market. The exception is perhaps India. We are seeking government help in establishing ourselves better there as it is intrinsically a far more bureaucratic country than, for instance, China.

The major difficulty we have had is in gaining visas for our customers in China. Chinese business representative can get a Schengen visa for Europe but then have to make additional arrangements to visit England. It’s a genuine hurdle for business relationships.

Having said this, I have received help from government in securing the visas I have needed and this assistance was critical in cementing the relationship with what is now our biggest single customer – in the last three years its orders alone have been over £2 million.

Historically we have not had strong relationships with UKTI but that is something I am looking to change because these, seemingly small, issues are critical to British business.

Keen to earn accolades for you business’s successes?

Enter The Manufacturer of the Year Awards 2012 and reward your teams for their hard work in difficult times.

Entries for TMYA 2012 close on July 31 and will be celebrated in style on Novemebr 21.