Developing a strong niche in the commercial catering market through innovation and good customer relations has consistently been the remit of the Imperial Machine Company (IMC). Tim Brown talks to Tim Tindle, Managing Director, about how the company’s focus on innovation has continued to strengthen their differentiation and a new Welsh Government initiative has assisted them to weather the downturn.
The client is the number one priority for IMC. In essence, and counter to most companies, IMC offers product individual customisation options on its product offerings. This ensures its end customers are always completely satisfied with their purchase. While IMC sell to dealers around the world , they take orders on an individual basis and while the company has a set range of base products, each can be modified both internally and externally depending on the needs of the customer.
“In our industry we fill gaps in the market where the main manufacturers choose not to go and we focus on those areas and we focus on flexibility,” says Tim Tindle.
The provision of commercial catering equipment for the hotel and restaurant industry is IMC’s market. The original company was founded in 1906 by Harold Beckett and its early products were potato peelers and silver burnishers. In the 1950’s the company launched a range of food waste disposers and in 1984, IMC diversified into bar equipment, with the launch of the Bartender Stainless Steel Underbar System, which was followed with the introduction of bar refrigeration. In December 1994, IMC became part of Lincat Group, a public company quoted on AIM that owns two other catering equipment manufacturers.
Currently IMC produce four main product ranges: Vegetable Preparation Machines; Food Waste Management Systems; Back Bar Refrigeration; and Under-Bar Serving Systems.
While IMC have a considerable market within the UK, the company has also experienced extensive international infiltration with products used by exclusive customers including a host of hotels in Dubai and the Ritz Hotel in Paris and also supplies to an increasing customer base in India. Overall in excess of 40% of their production is exported.
In comparison to the standardisation of most of their competitors, including those overseas, Tindle says that the IMC product range features an enormous number of possible variations. “With our range of Food Waste Disposers for instance we have eleven base models. However, when you multiply that by all the options that are available we have probably thousands of different variations available. We build those to order and we will ship them to any site in the world for installation and tailor the electrical needs to those that the client require for their market.” With this bespoke option, standard machines only comprise approximately 60% of IMC sales with the remaining sales requiring some modification.
Attempting to run a manufacturing plant in such a manner while maintaining the principles of Lean is undoubtedly complicated. However Tindle says that being able to produce the vast majority of their products and components onsite means that Lean is achievable. “When people visit our factory, they are always interested and impressed by what we do because we do so much in-house,” says Tindle. We are a high value manufacturer. We have our own fabrication shop, our own paint shop and our own machine shop so if anything needs to be constructed in a slightly unique way we are capable of doing that. As opposed to buying in our wiring looms, we also have our own wiring shop which can manufacturer about 200 variants of wiring and if it is 201 by next week, because it means we get another order, then so be it.” Partly due to this flexibility and partly due to the high quality of the product, IMC’s Food Waste Management is a product area that is currently experiencing a particularly high level of growth. IMC’s food waste disposal solutions now include food waste recycling via composting which is proven to reduce food waste volume by up to 80%, thereby substantially reducing the associated costs and environmental impact of food waste disposal. Currently most commercial food waste in the UK has to be incinerated or land filled, which is not only an environmental issue but also a considerable cost issue with landfill charges increasing every year. The eco-friendly system uses IMC’s food waste disposers and de-waterers in conjunction with a “Big Hanna” in-vessel composter to recycle the waste into high quality compost.
IMC recommends that any commercial catering establishment, but especially organisations such as schools, universities, hospitals, prisons, Ministry of Defence sites, retail parks, hotels and restaurants can benefit from this system. The system operates by first macerating the waste into consistent particle sizes and then passing the waste through one of IMC’s de-waterers in order to extract the solid fraction.
According to Tindle, the IMC range provides the perfect recipe for disposing of food waste and its benefits have been consistently recognised within the industry.
The end compost more than satisfies the requirements of the Compost Protocol under BSI PAS100 test conditions making it one of the most nutrient rich composts available and is, most importantly pathogen free.. The system was originally designed in conjunction with Imperial College in London and has won multiple environmental industry awards. Installations to date, says IMC, suggest that the savings made on direct and associated waste disposal costs can offset the cost of IMC’s equipment and the in-vessel composter in little more than 2 years.
The major benefit of IMC food waste recycling, says Tindle, is to decrease the volume of food waste. “For any business that means a considerable decrease in disposal costs.
Alternatively, if the venue has a flower bed or garden, which is common, the composted waste can be utilised on-site. This means you’re recycling your food waste and you’re reusing it, which is the holy grail of recycling.” According to IMC there are also no issues with this system with regards to odours or hygiene as it is a closed vessel system.
In addition, to continually developing and delivering new products to the market IMC continues to invest in new technology and training initiatives, to help it become, more flexible, leaner and more able to offer customisation. For instance at the end of last year, IMC further invested in its fabrication shop buying two new pressbrakes from sheet metalworking tool company, LVD. “We bought two new state of the art machines in December of 2008,” says Tindle.
“The machines feature Easy-Form® Laser, a laser camera based, ‘real-time’ angle monitoring and correction system that measures each and every bend that we do to make sure that it is absolutely accurate. The machines have a number of benefits including very fast set up times. With an increased bed length of 3 metres we can have multiple set-ups on the one machine. This together with the fast set up times means that we can reduce from large batch sizes to smaller ones and on occasions do single piece flow for bespoke client orders. The investment has increased both our flexibility and efficiency.
“Waste deficiency also improved markedly because we used to typically end up scrapping our first offs because the set up wouldn’t be exactly right. Now because the Easy-Form laser units are doing the measuring, it is set up right the first time. All the programs are loaded in to the offline CADMAN B-3D system, LVD’s offline programming solution for the press brakes. Now if a client has an end user that needs something particular, we can design that in our drawing area, the CADMAN B 3D software will tell the designer if the product can be bent in that way and it will go straight on to the machine. The operator uploads the programme, including which tools to use, where to fix them and the order in which to process the part. All this is proved before we punch any material. So we have less waste, a faster cycle time and we get more flexibility.” When the recession was approaching, IMC also decided to increase their sales and engineering teams and as a result have been able to release new equipment for niche markets such as the CS range, specifically for fish and chip shops. The company is planning to launch further new products in the new year to further help fight against the recession. “We have increased our employment levels in sales and design during the recession,” says Tindle. “History tells us that recessions end and if you want to exit a recession stronger than when you went in, you increase your engineering resource, you don’t decrease it. When the market slows down, you need to sell harder, innovate better and develop faster with market winning reliability.” IMC has also benefited from its adoption of a new training initiative introduced by the Welsh Assembly called Proact. The Manufacturers Forum in Wales developed a proposal to assist the fortification of the Welsh manufacturing industry against the impact of the recession and help it emerge even stronger. One of the areas that was identified as needing attention was skills upgrading and training. The Welsh Assembly has used European fund money to offer funds to train people in companies which can see that their sales have slowed down and are considering right-sizing.
At IMC, every shop floor staff member, a total of 48 employees, is currently receiving training from Deeside College, one of the top training colleges in the UK used by Airbus and Toyota as well as IMC.
The trainers attend the IMC site twice a week, training staff to level two and level three NVQ standards in a whole variety of subject areas over a nine month period.
It has been in operation at IMC so far for three months and by the end of the period all those involved will have received a total of 40 days training.
“That training will be paid for by the Welsh Assembly and we will receive a wage subsidy for each day’s training of £50,” says Tindle. “Effectively it’s costing the Welsh Assembly £177,000 and it’s costing IMC around £100,000. That is as opposed to the alternative of laying people off or introducing short-time working and we are very thankful for that and it means that our employees will exit this recession stronger. Our direct costs and efficiency have continued to be under control, whilst maintaining our staffing levels. With those costs under control it’s much easier to find the upfront funds for investment in extra salesmen and engineers From the company’s point of view, they benefit by being able to maintain their skilled workforce while further improving the skill set of their employees. As a result IMC are in good stead to exit this period of economic uncertainty with even greater flexibility due to the acquisition of a standard skill set across the factory.
“From our point of view it is immensely valuable,” says Tindle.
“It’s really is a win for us, a win for the Government and a win for our employees. It’s brilliant.”