Sheffield blade manufacturer Durham Duplex celebrated its centenary in May this year. But its vintage belies a progressive, export-driven sales strategy, recently improved financial management and expansion into Asia. Most of all, as a leader of the regional business brand, it is proud to be ‘Made in Sheffield’. Will Stirling and Lorenzo Spoerry report.
Very few companies can claim to have 100 years’ experience in a single manufacturing sector. Durham Duplex is one. The one-time razor blade manufacturer began a modernisation drive in 1974, a journey which continues to this day as it exploits the worldfamous “Made in Sheffield” guarantee of high quality manufacture. Today the company exports 50% of its output of machine knives, industrial blades and other steel products, where managing director Charles Turner – chairman of the Made in Sheffield brand – confirms that the association with Sheffield is a big draw to buyers.
Durham Duplex makes both high volume runs (mainly industrial blades) and smaller volume, bespoke batches of machine knives. Its sales strategy is to carefully balance UK and export, and the firm has deliberately targeted overseas markets in equal measure; Europe, the US, and the rest of the world with notable success – its industrial razor blades and machine knives sell more or less one third to each market. In recent years it has performed solidly, increasing revenue, retaining headcount and employing a chartered accountant as finance director in 2006 to introduce more rigorous financial management. Often required to make small batches of up to 100 machine knives, the company also manufactures utility blades for hand knives and safety knives, supplied to distributors, and deals directly with industrial end-users such as packaging shops and food producers.
Charles Turner, whose father Neil bought the business in 1974 says that, whilst in a very competitive marketplace, the company is cautiously bullish about growth. One of two production facilities has just been moved across Sheffield to new local premises. Beyond its UK base, the company opened a facility in Thailand two years ago to service the ASEAN region. The integrated facility manufactures and supplies local customers direct when time-to-market is a crucial issue, with its Sales Office mainly selling high end UK products to Asian customers.
Business has benefited greatly from the absence of tariffs with EU and favourable conditions in relation to the Commonwealth and North-American Trade Agreements, and Turner hopes for similar advantages in the Asian markets: “In theory there are no tariffs in the ASEAN region,” he says. “In practice it will take a while to get there. What is crucial is positioning the company to ramp-up revenue going forward and invest in the next big project. Our Thai operation gives us close access to our Asian customer base, and helps to provides us with the revenue to continue drawing IP from Sheffield’s universities and developing our next product range.” In the UK output is evenly divided between machine knives and industrial blades. The company relies for its production on off-the-shelf lathes as well as customised CNC milling machines and CNC grinding machines. In addition, Durham Duplex has had strip blade machines and bespoke kit specially customised, some of which cost three to four times more than standard machines.
Turner credits the company’s location as one reason for its recent success. “We have access to grinders and machine operators with 40 years’ experience,” he says. “We use CNC machines for about 65-70% of our operations, but in certain areas it’s possible to get a much quicker changeover and higher quality by using a manual operator.
The Sheffield network makes that depth of experience and knowledge available.” How has Durham Duplex coped in the recession? “We have an experienced production director and took a board level decision to do everything we could to retain our skilled workforce,” Turner says. “At times we’ve had to make some painful adjustments and go down to bare 38-hour weeks.
Luckily we’ve only had to do that for short periods of time.
When we’ve lost someone, to retirement for example, we’ve made sure that we’ve filled that post with someone equally qualified and ideally multiskilled. There are moments when you wonder ‘how can we afford this?’, but when you have these skills you need to maintain them. If you’ve only got one qualified grinder and business picks up and you need three grinders as you return to capacity, you end up only being able to get a third of finished goods out of the door.”
Fulfilment flexibility, strong supplier links
CNC is used heavily for long runs and complex forms such as making machine teeth, while manual operations are used when accurate turnover and quick changes are a priority – in making small batches of 20 parts, for example. “Having great flexibility is important,” says Turner. “Even if you’re making a knife for a standard packaging machine, there may be four different types of that blade for different end users’ requirements.” Investments have recently been made; the company financed the purchase of three new machines in the last 12 months, including a £50,000 grinder in August. “Whereas the broker previously offered a better price, now it’s the finance company, Lombard. We have had no problems with securing finance.” Durham Duplex works closely with its steel suppliers locally and internationally. “Working out what is or isn’t available is very important,” comments Turner. “In particular, having local stockists that can supply requirements quickly while having the international connections to get a good price when volume purchases are called for is extremely important to ensure that we have flexibility and can purchase steel at a competitive price.” There exist very strong links between Sheffield’s educational facilities and local businesses, a partnership Turner believes is vital to the region’s economic prosperity. “There are some fantastic academic facilities here. A lot of material science is done here, and that flows into Sheffield businesses. Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre has a great reputation in the field of aerospace, and there’s a nice flow between education and business – of advanced manufacturing expertise, of highly trained staff, intellectual property and of knowledge transfer partnerships.” He adds: “For example, we’ve used physical vapour deposition (PVD) coating from Sheffield Hallam University to great effect. We’re also involved with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and we have a PhD student at the Materials and Energy Research Institute.
We take full advantage of local metallurgists’ considerable expertise. We’re only one of many, many firms to benefit from this region’s fantastic opportunities.”