How Design Thinking helped create one of Europe’s fastest growing tech businesses

Posted on 1 Jul 2019 by The Manufacturer

Tharsus is an innovation powerhouse, a new breed of company based in the North East that combines consulting, engineering and manufacturing to create advanced machines and robots.

Tharsus at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2018 - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
Tharsus at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2018 – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

Since 2009, Tharsus has grown 10-fold in staff numbers, and since 2015 it’s seen turnover treble to £50m.

In this month’s article, I bring together my visit to Tharsus during the 2018 The Manufacturer MX Awards (Tharsus was shortlisted for two awards and took home the title of ‘Progressive SME’), my subsequent research, and an interview with Brian Palmer.

What I’ve discovered is that Tharsus’s vision goes way beyond most manufacturing companies I’ve encountered, with Brian arguing that, “One day, machines will transform themselves to meet people’s needs – but until machines make themselves, we’ll be the best strategic machine maker on the planet.”

This is a long way from the metal-bashing business that Brian purchased in 2004, fabricating outdoor advertising panels and products for the Ministry of Defence.

What changed during those early years that prompted you to re-invent the company?

Brian Palmer: Like every business we had to evolve or die. Our business was no different to many others, and we were disrupted (by internet advertising) and as a consequence the product we made was no longer in demand.

So, we had a choice: we could look for other products to manufacturer, to tender for, to keep the lights on. Or, we could look to use our skills to design and develop products for customers that we could then manufacture.

Ultimately, we wanted to be in charge of our own destiny, so rather than being told what to make, at what price, we wanted to add value. We wanted to work with progressive customers who needed help solving complex problems.

And through solving these problems and designing solutions we would differentiate both ourselves and the customer… and the customer’s customer. Hence, it becomes a win-win-win situation.

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How did you choose which sectors to focus upon?

In the early days we had a much smaller team with narrower skills. But just as we had been disrupted by an external force, we realised others must be going through similar challenges.

We focused on industries which were having to adapt to labour scarcity – high labour costs, industries that were coming to terms with rapid change or order complexity.

Tharsus manufacture Ocado's robots - image courtesy of Tharsus.
Tharsus manufacture Ocado’s robots – image courtesy of Tharsus.

Net-net (valuing a company based solely on its net current assets), we were targeting industries where we could create new equipment, new processes, new solutions which delivered breakthrough, and created real competitive advantage in their industry sector and their bottom line.

We also realised early on we needed to work with clients with similar values to ourselves.

Clients where the leadership team appreciated the need to change their business, the methodologies, the equipment needed in order to compete. Where they needed a partner who would be with them throughout the journey. From concept to prototype, to manufacturing, to maintenance, to upgrade, and then beyond.

And what about exclusivity plus IP?

That’s a question I get asked a lot. Our view is that we need to work in long-term partnership with clients and that often means exclusivity plus confidentially until the customer is ready to publicise their advantage.

It also means that both companies need to dedicate resources and align around a set of common goals, common processes, timelines and desired outcomes. That sounds simple but it’s difficult, as often there is no manual, no standard guide on how to do it, and we’re often learning as we go along.

The partnership agreement also means that new IP belongs to the client, even though we often have the right to repurpose it in non-competitive applications/industry sectors.

So, how do you design and programme these complex assignments?

The simplistic answer is shown in our over-all workflow. The reality is it’s very complex, it’s about creating a project leadership dynamic which assists the team in navigating the project journey. It’s about bringing in the right skills to bear at the right time, about creating a team dynamic which focuses on the end goal but also task(s) in hand.

Also, we aren’t a ‘sausage machine’ – each client, each project is different, so we must ensure creativity flows throughout, everyone can fail fast, fail forward, and be given space to rethink.

The “trick”, if there is one, is to recruit high calibre people, better than yourself. Then, ensure they’re empowered, always open to new ideas, and give them the training and tools to succeed.

Tharsus - Design Thinking - Workflow Process

What’s your view on design thinking versus design doing!

As you can see in the workflow overview, our business is all about designing the right solution for our customers. Design thinking is like the words in a stick of rock – it flows throughout, from front to end, defining the problem. Needs can be identified, all the way to refining, and through to eventual production, including the business model.

In the formal ‘design doing’ phase, we use the latest CADCAM rapid prototyping systems to simulate, create prototypes, pilot products as well as continually test, so when we do physically build the first product we de-risk as much as possible.

In fact, for those interested in the detail, we have a ‘getting product development right’ on our website.

Given clients are delivering breakthrough innovation, is there one you can pick to showcase?

Our clients wish to create breakthrough advantage in their particular industry. One client that is changing manufacturing is Automata, through its EVA robot.

This technology is creating a market disruption similar to what FormLabs did with low cost desktop 3D printers. It’s democratising the robot market.

EVA has a payload capacity of 1kg, a reach of 800mm and with it costing just under £5,000, is half the cost of the nearest competitor. It’s also simple to program for small batch production, so ideal for SMEs looking to increase productivity.

Here, I’ve only managed to take a very shallow drive into what is an amazing British company, re-writing the rules of an industry. I urge readers to discover more on and think carefully about how – through adversity and strong leadership – it has transformed a commodity manufacturing business into a world-class solutions business.

What Brian and his team have done is no mean feat, is not for the faint hearted, and dare I say a manufacturing model that many, including those in government, would do well to understand.

For me, it shows the power of leadership in vision setting and how through understanding real customer needs, insights can be generated, new product opportunities discovered, and how design thinking plus design doing, combined with world class resources, can create world-class solutions.

And some final words from Brian: “We continue to re-invent ourselves and have to ensure that we aim higher, think wider, and work together, so we can do the right thing for all our customers and stakeholders.”

To find out how Design Tools + Thinking can help your business grow, contact The Brewery Group today:

Dr Paul Stead - Brewery Group - Design Matters