Aerotherm Group – the heat is on

Posted on 7 Feb 2012
image of manufacturing facility

After more than 15-years experience in industrial ovens and driers, Chris Buckley decided to strike out on his own. Four years later and the company he built employs 34 staff and manufacturers all its own products on 15,000 sq ft premises in Stoke-on-Trent. Tim Brown caught up with the managing director of Aerotherm Group to discuss the progression of the business and the development of its three subsidiary companies.

Aerotherm at a glance

  • Staff: 34
  • Products: Industrial drying and curing systems; Industrial fume extraction; Environmental solutions – saving carbon and energy costs; Bespoke manufacturing solutions: spare parts, service, repairs
  • Location: Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire, ST6 4HG
  • Contact: +44(0)1782 820 960 www.aerotherm.co.uk
  • Group goal: In order to meet clients growing demands and growth plans, Aerotherm will be increasing staffing levels over the next two years. The company’s highly competent autonomous management team will achieve this and are supported by a framework of structured policies, procedures and systems. This, as always, will be underpinned by Aerotherm’s fundamental goal of providing innovative, environmentally focused solutions to industry.
  • History: Aerotherm started producing industrial ovens and fume extraction systems four years ago with a staff eight. The company orchestrated aggressive growth plans during tough financial times aiming to utilise best industrial practices. Originally it subcontracted all the manufacturing but in the last 12 months has been able to bring all the manufacturing inhouse and now employs 34 people.
  • KPI’s: 95% Ontime Delivery; 98% Delivered Quality – prior to onsite commissioning; 100% Installed Quality; Growth in Added Value per Employee

Aerotherm is a management-owned private company with a strong international reputation for the design, manufacture and installation of a wide variety of industrial ovens, product finishing systems and fume and dust extraction systems, as well as heating, ventilation and air conditioning solutions. Industrial engineers by trade, the company has an ISO9001 production facility where all its products are made and assembled.

The connection between the product groups is that they all involve the process of heating or cooling air and are therefore aerothermal solutions, hence the name Aerotherm.

An internal view of high powered extraction system
An internal view of high powered extraction system

Originally the company subcontracted all the manufacturing to a panel of external manufacturers but, in the last 12 months has moved all its manufacturing on-site. The company takes raw steel for fabrication and is capable of constructing oven walls up to 200mm thick that can operate in temperature ranges from 10°C above ambient up to 1200°C. This year Aerotherm plans to purchase a new CNC plasma cutting system to further develop their in-house competencies.

“We now have our own in-house fabricators, sheet metal workers and installation teams,” says Buckley. “The site has been remodelled inside for our own requirements including a segregated high-security area for the design of equipment for defence and aerospace contractors.”

And it is those defence and aerospace contractors such as Goodrich and Lockheed Martin that are the biggest purchasers of Aerotherm’s industrial ovens, driers and extractors, the company’s biggest selling products. However, the company also sells into other industries including the chemical, electronic, automotive and industrial manufacturers with the equipment used in the curing of rubber and plastic items as well as more exotic items ranging from carbon fiber to explosives.

The right structure

As with its products, ensuring the business operated correctly was a matter of finding the right configuration. Currently the Aerotherm Group is comprised of: Aerotherm Industrial, which handles the ovens, dryers and fume extraction; Aerotherm Engineering, which undertakes the manufacturing and installation on behalf of the group; and Aerotherm Environmental, which focuses on creating green solutions for the same calibre of client companies. In a practical sense, the structure delineates a carefully considered division of labour and helps to clarify staff responsibilities and ensure high levels of productivity.

Chris Buckley, Managing Director at Aerotherm
Chris Buckley, Managing Director at Aerotherm

Furthermore, Buckley installed current ‘best practice’ management principles and systems into the new company, such as the involvement of all staff members in regular communication meetings, and the use of Key Performance Indicators and the well-known 5S methodology. “We regularly try to gain insight from the people in the company that actually do the work so have suggestion whiteboards and have an internal email address for suggestions. The moment that somebody hits a snag either in manufacturing, design, project management or sales, they can immediately jot it down in one of many forms and that is reviewed by management. More often than not, suggestions are implemented so as to continuously improve how we do things.”

But the single biggest change to his previous working experience, he says, was the implementation of ISO9001 which we describe as the “company handbook for driving and keeping visibility” of the direction of the business. “We standardise through ISO9001 the way we gather and process the information within the company from concept design review, concept design, estimation, quotation, order processing, manufacturing, and delivery. The process for those steps for a product solution is standardised but we have never actually made the same solution more than once. Everything we do is completely bespoke. Because of that, we standardise how we reach the solution.”

To ensure the business is capable of continued growth and development, Aerotherm is also very focused on improving its in-house skill set. It is closely associated with local further learning institutions and is consistently looking to breathe new life into the workplace. “We work with Keele University and have employed six post graduates from there to help inject new talent and latest technical know-how into our existing portfolio,” says Buckley. “We undertake regular internal and external training assessment and implementation on everything from health and safety to latest products, technical solutions, IT, and legislation.”

A conveyorised pre-heat media oven for tempering, annealing, curing, pre-heating and drying
A conveyorised pre-heat media oven for tempering, annealing, curing, pre-heating and drying

Surpassing the standard

The investment in people and skills as well as management structure has allowed Aerotherm to expand organically to a point where it has become industry leading. According to Buckley, no UK competitor has been able to surpass the range of technical knowledge or the level of service offered by Aerotherm.

“No other company is able to put together the entire package that we can, at least not that I know of or have seen yet,” he says. “We offer a turnkey solution including any ventilation and extraction requirements, gas piping, and electrical works.

“We have dedicated client project managers and offer 24/7 contact with a senior member of staff. Fortunately we sell decent products that don’t go wrong so that need is underutilised – but thankfully so. But we insist on offering that extra bit of security – that at any time of the day or night somebody is available to give assistance if needed.”

For further customer piece of mind, Aerotherm backs up all data offsite and also operates a project management software system which allows clients to log-in externally and view the progress of a project.

The third company, Aerotherm Environmental, provides free initial site surveys to the group’s existing and new clients to assist them to find energy savings and detect environmental issues. “Where we differ from other similar companies,” says Buckley, is that we have the ability to look at the processes of clients and dig a bit deeper into the potential energy savings which might be available. We also look at pollution control and can supply abatement equipment as well as some land remediation equipment for cleaning up contaminated substrates.”

With a strong and varied offering, Aerotherm is able to work on a huge range of different types and sizes of industrial processing projects. Having in the past worked on orders from £1,000 up to £1m, the company’s offerings are also easily scalable. Proving that innovation, investment and teamwork provide a perfect combination for development and success, Aerotherm is helping to strengthen the backbone of the UK supply chain and has found a good recipe for maintaining forward momentum.

Case study: Aerospace sector

Problem:

A Major Aircraft Component manufacturer had undertaken a new project aiming to create a Composite Turbine blades (ELF scheme) made completely of composite materials. The ELF programme is being undertaken by the Aircraft component manufacturer and aimed at bringing new engine fan blade technologies to market. The composite engine fan blade being developed aimed to improve aircraft engine performance and reduce emissions. Building a research facility in the Isle of Wight, our client was looking for companies to supply large bespoke equipment in order to achieve this goal. High service standards were paramount to our client who insisted on the latest technology to ensure energy efficiency and precise temperature conformity.

Solution:

Aerotherm proposed the design, build and install of a large bespoke box oven system for the curing of composite blades. This oven had to maintain tight tolerances as well as high efficiency.

Benefit:

The client’s high standards of compliance as well as a need for innovation resulted in Aerotherm providing a bespoke solution to suit their exact needs. With the requirements met and exceeded, in tandem with high levels of innovation they were provided with a custom built curing oven system which maintains tight tolerances, reduced operating noise and is achieving the predicted energy savings. Also with this being in the testing phases Aerotherm insight and experience paid dividends into this research and development stage.

On budget/on time:

Through our many years’ experience in the manufacturing field, Aerotherm have refined working processes to ensure that it delivers on budget and on time. This is achieved by carefully managing every aspect of the design, manufacture and installation of each individual product.

“We have developed an innovative Project management process which enables us to monitor the progress of each project,” says Buckley. “During the working process we conduct meetings with the customer to ensure the project is progressing according to their guidelines. During which we can provide project plans and progress reports. These are run alongside a series of internal reviews for projects, with capacity planning and monitoring taking place.”

Case study: Automotive sector

Problem:

Aerotherm were contacted by a large automotive manufacturer in order to replace one of their oven systems. The previous oven was deemed inefficient and unreliable. It was costing a lot to run, causing long amounts of downtime and needed a large amount of factory floor to house it. Aerotherm’s reputation for high quality & energy efficiency meant that the automotive manufacturer turned to us for a solution. Following the success of this oven, Aerotherm were approached in order to supply a further oven system for a complete new project line. This was intended for the manufacture of luggage area lining for standard motor vehicles. Requiring the oven for a new project line meant that the company insisted that it met strict criteria for energy consumption, maintenance and floor space required to house it…As well as tight delivery deadline.

Solution:

Aerotherm replaced the existing, unreliable oven with a smaller, smarter, energy efficient oven. This bespoke product, was designed, manufactured and installed by Aerotherm. For the new production line, Aerotherm supplied a compact, user friendly, energy efficient oven which is maintenance friendly and has fewer moving parts. Both ovens included a built in heat exchanger to divert heat when products are not in the oven meaning that the energy consumption is minimalised whilst no product is in process.

Benefit:

Aerotherm delivered two energy efficient, compact and reliable oven systems which will provide safer working conditions while resulting in lower running costs and less downtime. The company have since returned to Aerotherm for further work after the successful completion of these projects. Aerotherm Engineering also provided relevant safety barriers and extraction out of the building, as well as ensuring safe delivery to site.

With these constant improvements, management is getting tighter and the stricter project management process means the company has greater control of each aspect of individual projects. Aerotherm always aim to deliver these high standards to every customer and ensure customer satisfaction. This is combined with a promise to always make sure that its customers get the very best service possible. “We keep our customers informed at every stage of the manufacturing process, from design and manufacture to installation and after sale service,” says Buckley. “We are so confident that our customers will be pleased with our work that we offer a two year warranty on our products and we also provide site installation engineers as well as after sales service and call out maintenance.”

Aerotherm, through a growing reputation for quality, have built up an enviable client base of some of the big names in the manufacturing industry which are listed on their website (www.aerotherm.co.uk).

This growth of client base has been due to the high levels of customer satisfaction from its existing client base and the company is looking forward to building upon this in the future.