The UK is in the top tier of the global aerospace industry, a position it owes in part to the expertise of smaller firms in the supply chain, such as Coventry’s Arrowsmith Engineering. Maddy White reports.
Founded in Coventry in 1967, Arrowsmith Engineering is a specialist in precision turning, milling and grinding, making components in titanium, magnesium and other metals for aerospace Tier 1 firms and primes. It may be small, but it delivers quality on spec, and on time.
“UK aerospace is a world-class industry, so you have to offer a service that matches that. Even though we are an SME, what we make has got to be comparable with any other company around the world,” Jason Aldridge, managing director at Arrowsmith Engineering, tells me.
The Aldridge family bought Arrowsmith Engineering in 1993. Jason, pictured opposite, with glasses, who is also chairman of the Coventry and Warwickshire Aerospace Forum, had been in the construction business but left to join Arrowsmith 13 years ago and run it alongside his father.
“Arrowsmith is a family firm,” he says. “We have always been an aerospace company, originally just doing bits of development work but expanding over the years. My father was going to sell it because of illhealth, but I thought it was such a good company that I stepped up and said, ‘No I’ll look after it.’”
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Since the 70s, the firm has supplied Rolls-Royce with engine parts, a relationship Aldridge believes has contributed to the firm’s success and precision-focused way of working. In 2017, he decided that if Arrowsmith was to grow it needed investment, so the company joined ASG Group, with Jason staying on as a shareholder.
“We wanted to join with a group so we could progress,” he says. “and over the last few years it has worked brilliantly for us. In the first year we grew 50% and our exports grew 400%, and this year we have already grown 20%. We have now linked up with an Indian supplier that we work with exclusively. We have also just had our first robot installed. Two years ago I couldn’t imagine having a set up overseas and automation onsite,” he added.
Seeing best practice
The move from construction to manufacturing meant that Aldridge had to learn a whole new set of skills, and quickly. The best way to do this, he says, is seeing best practice in action.
“I visited many of our competitors to see what they were doing, and I soon realised how much we needed to move forward as a business. What you learn when you come into manufacturing late, and see the top factories, is what best practice looks like.
“Visiting companies like Renishaw, Mazak and JLR, you see what your site should be like. What I have done is employ people who can make that happen,” he says.
“This is essential. My background isn’t as an engineer: my background is business and building, and so what’s important is that I have the best engineers that I can possibly have,” he adds. “We are very proud to make components for Rolls-Royce engines. It’s strict about what we do. This makes us feel confident to work with any aerospace company in the world,” he says.
The robots will rise
Arrowsmith Engineering has recently invested more than £200,000 in a new CNC machining centre (image above) and robotic cell that will help it boost production speed and increase capacity by 50%. It is the firm’s first investment in robotics and it has been configured to suit the company’s needs: 24-hour manufacturing on a complex component for the aerospace sector.
“In the next two or three years there will be a huge explosion of robotics in the UK and this is important for British manufacturing,” Jason says. “When you start to introduce robotics, your process has got to be absolutely tied down because a robot is not going to be tweaking things. Your engineers have got to get the operation running absolutely perfectly and then the robot can keep repeating the process.”
A fan of automation
The company is using ‘lights-out’ manufacturing to run the machine 24-hours a day, seven days a week so that it can supply more than 200 components every month to its customers. Integrating robots into the operation has also seen the workforce grow 10% to 70 people.
“I’m a big fan of automation and don’t believe that it’s taking jobs, and if anything it will make us more competitive so we can take additional people on,” Jason says.
“At the moment, we are growing so much. I have spent the last 12 years trying to keep up with aerospace and what is happening. Now, technology is rapidly evolving, there is more and more automation and operations are 24/7.”
“What we know manufacturing to be is completely changing. As an SME, our focus now is on managing costs, making our Coventry factory as cost-effective and as lean as it can be,” Jason concludes.