Winner of The Manufacturer MX Award for Manufacturing Services in 2017, Agrimech exemplifies how great service gives the edge in a highly competitive market. Steven Barr met members of the Agrimech family to find out how this adds up.
Agrimech’s core business philosophy is ‘never lose face’. According to managing director, Darren Smith, maintaining a reputation for sorting things out is more important than defending short-term profits.
They may sometimes not get it right first time, but they will always send a field service engineer to site to fix any problems at any time. Even their suppliers, many of them much larger than Agrimech, follow their lead.
Of course, customers should be impressed by rapid response. But shouldn’t high quality products be enough? And why should customers pay for after-sales care anyway?
Darren says that in the low-margin farming industry, machinery quality is a given because failures cost farmers dearly in lost productivity.
Agrimech’s strong growth in market share (an average of 12% year-on-year since 2013) as a manufacturer of weighing, bagging and palletising systems is matched by the strength of feedback and loyalty from their customers.
This article first appeared in the March issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here.
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Built to last
Design for harsh service is an important factor. Agrimech’s products are built to last in the harsh environments their users put them into. Just as importantly, they are designed for ease of operation and easy maintenance in the field (sometimes literally).
Darren’s expertise in control systems stems from early days in the industry. He observed how machines often failed in service and had excessive downtime. So, he started his own business by servicing competitor products.
After a while, it became clear that customers wanted Agrimech to manufacture as well as service. Its machinery features standardised high-reliability components – the same motors and controllers for every machine.
Darren also developed a common control and interface module using an intuitive touchscreen, with all the major systems locked away. Now, operator error is minimised and all machines can be reset without access to the core systems.
All this reduces the number of times a specialist field operative is needed and cuts down the outage time. And customers value this greatly.
The Agrimech team of 14 works as a family in all senses, and their teamwork is focused on customer service.
Rebecca Fielding has a key role in getting products ‘right first time’. She receives the customer orders including their specific requirements. The bill of materials and drawings package is then built up and modified where necessary before she buys the parts needed.
Despite her experience, she calls on Nigel Clayton and Lee Wenn for help, and between them they work out the best way to give the customer what they want.
Responsiveness to customer needs is built into the way Agrimech works. The business selects suppliers not on price but on ‘fit’ with its own service philosophy. Fiat vans were chosen because the company’s support for Agrimech’s field team has outshone that of the more obvious players, Mercedes and VW.
B&R, one of the most technologically advanced makers of control systems, is another loyal supplier because they have a shared understanding of customer service and will work with Agrimech to sort out any problems.
Like the suppliers, Agrimech’s people sink or swim depending on how well they get on in the service-focused work environment. The pool of people available to them with relevant experience in high-tech machinery is so small that this factor is largely ignored at the recruitment stage. Attitude is the thing.
Jamie Wenn is one of those trainees given a chance to learn under Darren’s supervision. Attention to detail is a key to service performance, and Jamie has earned the trust of colleagues to get it right in the factory before the product reaches the farm.
He is now highly skilled as a control system programmer. Again, the customers benefit from high values in design and production.
The customer first, every time
A machine was failing repeatedly and every time Agrimech would send out a field service engineer to replace the motors. The machine was in an enclosed and very dusty space.
Rather than hide behind contract clauses and push the problem and the cost on to the customer, Agrimech chose to make and install special guards to protect vulnerable components.
The customer is now an evangelist for Agrimech and their commitment to service.
“It has been a pleasure buying this equipment from a company who care, constantly seeking the best and always with you in the event of a problem” – Richard Broster, R&H Broster & Sons.
Learning also finds its way into customer service. Improvements made to machines are generally offered free of charge to all existing customers.
In the long run this cost is more than recouped through reduced failures in service. And once again, Agrimech’s reputation for exceptional service is enhanced.
What of the future? Greater automation will be important if farming is to improve productivity and remain viable. Agrimech now offers robotised pallet stacking.
Using the same design and manufacturing philosophy that got them into the farm equipment business, Agrimech remanufacturers OEM machines with its own controllers.
Belinda Smith, Agrimech’s finance director, says they have not gone so far as to offering products on a fully servitized basis – customers still pay to own their machines.
So, why stop short of a full manufacturing product-as-a-service business model? As it is, Agrimech tries to accommodate customers who have been let down by competitors, by offering trial periods and delaying payment schedules.
And of course, Agrimech will recommend finance companies it knows will offer a good service to customers.
But the major banks refused to lend to Agrimech in its early days and so they have reinvested revenue to fuel growth. There is a limit to what a small company like Agrimech can do to finance its customers’ cashflow.
So, Agrimech is a worthy winner of The Manufacturer MX Award for Manufacturing Services. Not because they have implemented the ultimate in a pallets-by-the-hour service business model.
Rather, they get the basics of service absolutely right through constant attention on the customer from design to manufacture to field service.
“Engineering is the easy bit,” says Darren. “The thing we’ve invested in getting right is seeing our products from the customer’s perspective, as vital to controlling their time and cost.”
Dr Steven Barr is a chartered engineer and expert in manufacturing business strategy and performance. He is the managing director of Hennik Edge, The Manufacturer’s networked expert advisory team, and is an active contributor to university research on collaborative decision-making. Steven is a member of several industry panels promoting the adoption of digital technologies and new business models in manufacturing.