As a specialist in steel fabrications, MTL Group has carved out a successful niche as an approved supplier to some of the world’s largest manufacturers. Tim Brown talks to managing director, Dr Henry Shirman, about the company’s post MBO growth, its technical know-how, and its capacity to be considered a project management company rather than simply a contractor.
MTL Group is a company big on technical capacity. Under the one roof at Rotherham lies a 300,000sq ft premises housing the latest in machine tools and stateof- the-art equipment to offer what Shirman refers to as an “enhanced value proposition”. The scale of the company’s machines are enviable and include: a 20 metre bevel laser; a 25 metre high-definition bevel plasma machine; the UK’s largest water jet machine; and the world’s largest press brake and robot system that combines a very large 640 tonne and 7.2 metre CNC press brake with a 600kg capacity robot.
The company’s equipment is complemented with an in-house CAD design capability and a design-for-manufacture service aimed at lowering customer costs and improving product integrity. In addition, MTL has strong affiliations with partner companies to allow it to take projects all the way from concept to completion.
“Rather than call us a contract manufacturing company, we like to think of ourselves as a project management company because we will project manage the entire job for the customer,” says Shirman. “We market ourselves as a one-stop-shop for everything that the customer needs and utilise all the processes that we’ve got in-house such as laser cutting, plasma cutting, bending, welding, machining, fabrication, and assembly. We can then project manage any processes that are not in-house such as surface finishing or painting. A customer can give us the job and then relax knowing that the project will be delivered on time and to the right quality.”
MTL Group was established in 1995 and underwent a management buyout, led by Shirman, in 2006. In just five years since the buyout, the company has trebled sales to £50 million through a combination of investment in people, equipment, facilities and a strategic targeting of both specific sectors and geographic territories.
“Most of our new customers become known to us through our advertising and sales campaigns,” says Shirman. “We take part in a lot of international exhibitions and we promote ourselves aggressively on the Internet. So a combination of physical and online presence together with our growing reputation attracts new customers.”
The company started with one factory in 2006 but over the next five years expanded to a total of four sites. In February this year MTL consolidated all four factories into one new site at Rotherham. In addition, due to the requirement of some its larger product orders, the company has now established an off-shore fabrication facility in the port of Blyth.
“We produce a great variety of products, from small items such as brackets that can be picked up by hand, to products with weights of up to 300 tonnes. The facility at Blyth has been established specifically to service the offshore wind energy business where we are manufacturing welded fabrications which are too big to transport by road. Some of the transition decks that we make are 17 metres by 15 metres when they are welded so they are actually wider than the M1. As a result they have to be transported by water.
“We do all the main processing at our Rotherham facility and then we transport the parts by road to Blyth where they are welded together and then shipped out by boat or barge.
“The Port of Blyth is a centre for renewable energy and it was the first port in the UK to have its own offshore wind turbines and there are a number of renewable energy companies that are located in and around the Port of Blyth. We saw it as an excellent facility with a deep water port and the can-do attitude of the Port’s management gels very well with the same sort of attitude at MTL.”
At the same time that the company was moving into its new premises, the UK Government awarded seven grants to help improve the renewable energy supply chain. MTL was one of the selected recipients and the funding allowed the company to acquire two of its most recent technological purchases.
“That allowed us to buy the high-definition plasma machine,” says Shirman. “It also allowed us to design and build our own robot plasma pipe cutting machine. We decided what we wanted and how we wanted to do it and then sourced the components and built it ourselves.
“We looked at the market to buy a machine like that and it was very expensive with a very long lead time. We needed it to be lower cost and quicker so we sat down and designed one ourselves and it works very well. We designed and built it for about half the market price and it is exactly what we want. From a clean sheet of paper to operating the machine took us about four months.”
A focus on defence and energy
Defence and renewable energy represent two of the most important sectors for MTL. Defence is its biggest market accounting for over 30% of the company’s sales. In comparison, renewable energy is one of the company’s fledgling sectors but already the company has established itself as a key supplier.
MTL counts as its defence customers companies such as BAE Land Systems, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Rheinmetall, Ricardo and Force Protection. As a specialist in the processing of armour steel, one of the reasons for the company’s strength in the defence market is down to the literal strength of its products.
Currently, MTL is working on a number of important defence programmes including the armour upgrading of the Snatch Land Rovers as well as the construction the Snatch’s replacement, the Ocelot. “The snatch Land Rover which is being used in Afghanistan and has been used in Iraq, has been widely criticised because it is being used to do things that it really wasn’t designed to do,” says Shirman.
“The armour protection level was not as good as it could be for the environment in which it was being asked to operate. So there has been a big programme to increase the armour protection level by adding on additional armour. We have been heavily involved in cutting, bending and welding the add-on armour for the Land Rovers.”
The Snatch vehicles are being replaced by a new vehicle, the Ocelot, which has now been renamed the Foxhound by the MOD. It is designed and built by Ricardo, a British automotive engineering company and Warwickshire-based Force Protection Europe. The vehicles are due to be ready for troop training this year. The Foxhound, partly designed by Formula 1 engineers, has a V-shaped armoured hull designed to safeguard those inside from IEDs. MTL is working very closely with Force Protection and is supplying the armoured hull.
MTL has also been very active of late in the renewable energy sector and has established itself as the UK’s number one supplier of boat landing systems. Shirman explains: “When an engineer goes out to visit an offshore wind turbine, when the boat arrives at a structure, the technician will transfer from the boat to a landing platform. There is then a ladder which leads to an intermediate deck and then a second ladder which leads to a large deck on which the turbine is mounted. That construction comprises the boat landing system which is what we manufacture.”
Having just secured an order for 98 boat landings for a Norwegian customer supplying a German energy company, MTL is confident of the future strength of the renewables market. “We think that this is an area of significant growth in support of the UK government strategy to install close to 8000 wind turbines around the UK coast over the next 10 years.
We are a part of the supply chain that is busy gearing up to manufacture the quantities that are required to support the Government’s renewable energy target.” In addition to the defence and off-shore wind energy markets, MTL has developed expertise in other sectors including:
- Construction machinery, with customers including Caterpillar, JCB and Komatsu
- The rail sector, with customers such as Bombardier
- Recycling sector, with customers such as refuse vehicle manufacturer Dennis Eagle
- Quarrying sector, with customers including Sandvik and Terex.
- Wave and tidal renewable energy
Continued growth and improvement
MTL Group is a six sigma company and has deployed six sigma throughout the organisation. With three black belts (trained by Caterpillar) and six green belts (trained in–house), the company has a number of teams constantly running improvement projects. “We use statistical process control in many areas of our business and the six sigma system is being rolled out throughout the company,” says Shirman. “Our objective is to train every employee to at least yellow belt level. We are seeing significant benefits from a number of the projects that the teams have been running both in terms of quality improvement and cost reduction.”
As well as continuous improvement and investment in equipment, MTL undertakes a considerable investment in its people through a well developed apprentice programme. “We will hire a significant number of about 15 this year for what we call a traditional engineering apprenticeship.” The company also encourages applications from engineering graduates as well as welders and machinists. While skill level is important, Shirman says what the company really looks for is the right attitude. “This is a very progressive and growing company and we need the right people who are keen to learn and who want to work hard.”
And it is that exact mentality that has led MTL into its current strong position. With plans to continue to invest in the company in order to grow and support its customers, MTL is ensuring that it is not only able to satisfy current market requirements but is positioning itself well to take advantage of future opportunities.