Victoria Fitzgerald met with Mike Adams, CEO of HiETA, at the opening of the firm’s purpose built technology centre in Bristol, to discuss the endless possibilities of additive manufacturing.
Reflecting on the whirlwind of success that sums up the first four years of HiETA’s existence, CEO and one of 2014’s TM Top 100, Mike Adams referred back to an old mentor of his, who once told him, “it’s better to be lucky than clever”.
He explained to a room full of eager additive manufacturing champions and enthusiasts that it was a collection of ‘convenient events’ that kick-started the business.
However, it’s hard to believe that Adams’ considerable intellect and sharp business sense didn’t play a role in the firm’s success so far.
I caught up with Adams at the beginning of February when HiETA officially opened its Additive Manufacturing Technology Centre at Bristol and Bath Science Park.
More than 60 guests packed out the centre, many of which were the company’s collaborators, clients, partners and suppliers.
Robin Wilson, lead technologist for High Value Manufacturing at Innovate UK and Neil Mantle chairman of the Steering Group for UK National Strategy for Additive Manufacturing/3D Printing, provided presentations, and the centre was formally opened by Kingswood MP, Chris Skidmore.
Additive 2016, taking place on April 21, 2016 in Sheffield, is the must attend UK additive manufacturing event and will feature both the latest technology and also presentations from the most forward thinking end users.
In the beginning
Adams started out as a bushy-tailed robotics engineer and has spent much of his career exploiting new and emerging technologies, ranging from vision systems and automation, through to complex and large IT systems programmes.
MIKE ADAMS – BIO:
Since graduating and emerging as a bright-eyed robotics engineer, Adams has spent his career exploiting new and emerging technologies including robotics, vision systems, automation through to complex and large IT systems programmes.
He has worked in engineering companies including Maganese Bronze, 600 services and John Brown Engineering; retailers such as Woolworths and Sainsburysl and equipment suppliers such as Dexion and Morris.
As well as his executive role, he supports the technology team with his experience of the challenges presented by designing and implementing systems that bring radical technology, new skills and business change to businesses.
He has been CEO of HiETA for two years and is an evangelist for the rapidly developing production process that is Additive Manufacturing.
Before starting HiETA he had two or three companies, in fact, he explained that he met his business partner and HiETA’s technology director, Drummond Hislop, after a “particularly vociferous previous venture”.
He continued, “I got this strange phone call from Drummond, he said ‘Come and have a chat, I think I’ve got some technology and IP that I think is ready for the market’.
“So I went off and looked at additive manufacturing and it was at the stage when everybody was talking about it. It was in the Economist and Forbes, it was everywhere you looked, and being reported as the next big thing.”
In addition to the intellectual property and the sophisticated technology, Adams was adamant that without the right people, the venture would not have been possible, “If you want to grow a business, the fundamental thing is the people. We came together with a vision.”
The success of the operation is fundamentally based on Adams’ take on entrepreneurship, and at this point he referred to Harvard University’s Professor Emerit Howard H Stevenson, “What is entrepreneurship? Entrepreneurship is pursuing an opportunity when you don’t have the assets and the capability.
“The key thing is, how do you grow beyond entrepreneurship? What you see today is a combination of four years’ work, building end-to-end capability in additive manufacturing, the ability to take something from concept all the way to a quality product.
“We’ve grown quite quickly, we started off as couple of old codgers doing virtual officing, working through business plans, we employed George Hopkins as engineering manager in 2012, and since then we have employed 24 very talented engineers.”
Beyond the hype
Additive manufacturing has garnered a plethora of news coverage and hype in the past four years and Adams admits to me that the technology is still in its infancy, with relatively low volumes, with very high value products.
He explained, “The most famous one people talk about is GE’s fuel nozzle, that’s the first one that’s really complex and gone to high volume.”
He predicted that over the next couple of years we are going to begin to see these products sitting in the market.
He added, “This will change the whole market, because suddenly people understand it is an industrial capability.
Then the machinery manufacturers and the technology manufacturers, will be driven by customer pull, whereas previously it was ‘I’ve got this fantastic technology what can I do with it?’ That alone is the most significant change in the industry.”
Pride and joy
A lot has happened to HiETA since 2012, so I asked Adams what he found most fascinating about the work achieved by the firm so far, “When we started we couldn’t even get the CAD designs that we were doing off our computer and into the machines, and that’s progressed so far now.
“Engineering is based mostly on straight lines. And with some of our products there isn’t a single straight line. That is very hard to define and it’s even harder to model.
“So the most interesting thing for us is, how do you figure out what the thing you are designing is going to do? It’s really difficult. And what we have found is that we work right on the edge of the technology’s capability.
“Generally you don’t always get what you design and most people would throw that away and we don’t. You can almost look at it as an evolutionary process, so as long as you have the systems to be able to, whether you produce what you expected or not, then you can make big progress.
“I think the key thing that we have designed and developed is agile manufacturing, which has been everybody’s goal but no one has really achieved it, we think we are pretty close that to be honest.”
With success, naturally comes challenge, and HiETA has had its fair share of obstacles to overcome, the greatest of which Adams told me was people, but this is also something he regards as the firm’s biggest success.
When they began HiETA, Adams and Hislop were told that the appropriate skills were not available and it wasn’t possible to attract young engineers into the business.
He elaborated, “We decided we would go for really clever individuals and grow them over four years. A wealth of knowledge can be learnt in four years, and some of the people have been with us since the beginning, throughout the whole product development side.
“That has been a fantastic journey. The great thing for me is when you look at the team, it’s such a good team to work with and they like being with each other, which is a great thing.
“The average age is around 28-30. We’ve taken those young people and tried to support them with experienced engineers. If anyone is having problems, we get a contractor in or a more experienced person to help them.”
Adams is acutely aware of the value in training and supporting the workforce, as well as, attracting young talent into the sector, “We take interns every year and that has been very successful and they always come back to us,” he added.
“We work in a very collaborative way, you have to work with your colleagues at the same time as standing your corner. And that works across the whole team.
HiETA in brief:
HiETA Technologies Ltd. is a design and manufacturing company already exploiting the technology of metal additive manufacturing (AM).
Its patented designs are used to make lighter and more energy efficient components for the aerospace, defence, automotive and microgeneration sectors.
With specific experience in heat management and engine componentry HiETA works with its customers to assess the value of using AM to realise innovative designs.
The company designs and makes products optimised for the AM process and advises on how to secure the full value chain required for effective commercialisation.
HiETA has a number of projects in progress with Innovate UK (IUK) and the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE). It is also regularly asked to contribute to media discussions on additive manufacturing.
“It’s a very flat structure and anyone can come to the directors and tell us we are wrong, what we ought to be doing, or coming and asking for help.”
Facing the future
The official opening of the 270 sqm, purpose-built, technology centre was a culmination of four years of grit and determination.
Adams told me that in that time, and against all the oddsl HiETA has built a strong portfolio of products from microgeneration, to waste heat recovery and light weighting products.
He said, “Everything that we’ve done, people told us we would not be able to. We hit numbers that people said we couldn’t achieve. But we knew if we got the right people and the right partners we could achieve our goals.”
I asked Adams how he would measure the success of HiETA in the long run and he told me what he wanted out of the whole venture, “I would feel that I had achieved my goal, if in five or 10 years, I was sitting in a restaurant or a bar, having a quiet beer and next to me was a table of young engineers, talking about going to an interview at HiETA and how they think it is the best place to work.”