South Tyneside-based Ford Aerospace was established as one company over 100 years ago. However, this doesn’t mean that it is stuck in the past and chairman Geoff Ford has his eyes firmly set on the future. Jane Bordenave reports.
While 1910 was the founding year for what would become the Ford Group, probably the most important date for Ford Aerospace was 1982. “That year, one of our competitors went out of business and we took the decision to purchase the company’s assets,” says chairman Geoff Ford. “This enabled us to manufacture a material called laminate shimstock and ultimately afforded us entry into the UK aerospace industry.”
In 2008, the Ford Group split into Ford Aerospace and Ford Component Manufacturing. While they both have the same board, each company is entirely independent of the other. With an annual turnover of £6 million, Ford Aerospace is now a leading global supplier of pressed components and precision machined components to the aerospace industry.
As well as pressed and machined components, it continues to produce its laminate shimstock brand, Easipeel. “Easipeel is a very innovative product. It is comprised of layered foils that can be peeled off layer-by-layer to allow for a precise fitting of shims,” says Ford. As one of only two manufacturers of this type of product in the UK, it has a firm hold on a niche market. It is therefore no surprise that Easipeel clients include such big names as Agusta Westland, BAE Systems and Airbus.
As well as innovation, another contributing factor to Ford Aerospace’s success is expansion. “Expansion in tandem with Ford Component Manufacturing is at the heart of our company strategy, as the two companies do inter-trade,” says Ford. “However we put great emphasis on it being a controlled expansion.”
Helping to achieve this expansion and growth are two factors – location and independence. “Being located in the North East of England is a great advantage to us. Per head of working population, this area exports more than any other region in the UK, both traditionally and currently. We believe that our future clearly lies in export and we count China as one of our main export markets for Easipeel, which is quite a coup. Brazil is also a flourishing market for aerospace and we are looking very seriously at exporting our full range of components there too.” The business also has agents in Italy, India and South Africa, with a view to adding France, Germany and Scandinavia to the portfolio.
To manage such a global network requires a strict manufacturing strategy. For Ford Aerospace, lean manufacturing is the keystone to success in this area and something it takes very seriously.
“We began to implement lean strategies approximately five years ago and we haven’t looked back,” says Ford. “I say ‘began to’ as the implementation of lean is not something you can ever complete – it’s an on-going process. It’s also an all-encompassing strategy that does not start and end on the factory floor. When you implement lean strategies in your company, yes it’s lean manufacturing, but it is also lean administration, lean accounting and being conscious of the need to eliminate waste throughout the whole organisation. We have on display a set of photographs from before and after the initial ‘lean attacks’. These, of course, show the improvements in our manufacturing process, but also people’s desks, the contents of their drawers and so on. It is important to take a holistic approach if you want lean to really work.”
Ford Aerospace – at a glance
Inseparable from the lean business policy is the concept of continuous improvement says Ford. “Those two elements go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.” Rather than having a set system in place for this area, Ford Aerospace has teams who meet once a week and identify areas in need of attention. Teams are formed on a rotating basis and include all members of staff, including management. “No one is exempt, not even me,” he says.
This is another area that is perceived as an on-going process and further improvements are constantly sought. “The company is continuously evolving and so, in the same way that the implementation of lean processes is never finished, nor is continuous evaluation and improvement, ” he explains.
The Board and management at Ford Aerospace are keen to see the company measured against others, which is why one of the standards they are determined to achieve is the Supply Chain of the 21st Century (SC21) Bronze award. Also in their sights are accreditation to the Environmental Standard ISO 14001, and the Health and Safety Award ISO 18001.
Ford had to forego their Investors in People accreditation when the group was restructured in 2008, but it is their intention to reapply during the course of 2011.
The importance of perception
When it comes to training and professional development, Ford is just as passionate. “At any one time, we will have at least a fifth of our employees taking part in a learning programme run by a local business support organisation. In May, we also had eight of our managers across Ford Aerospace and Ford Component Manufacturing participating in programmes run by the North East Management Academy.”
This is another area the company sees as an on-going process that is vital to future success. Mr Ford explains: “Engineering is increasingly less labour intensive. The result of this is that we will need to employ fewer people, but those people will need to have a wider range of skills. This is why training and up-skilling is never ending and why we are so heavily committed to it.”
Yet Ford Aerospace’s belief in the importance of training goes beyond the borders of the company. Geoff Ford is something of an evangelist for the importance of manufacturing and the organisation works closely with local schools and the local educationbusiness partnership in South Tyneside.
“We want the people of South Tyneside to consider a career in manufacturing,” he says. “We find a major hurdle is that the sector has a real image problem – people regard it as being dirty, smelly, noisy and unattractive and this simply is not true. They also don’t realise that there is a wide range of career opportunities within manufacturing.”
He believes that the key to overcoming this lies in educating teachers. “They are the people who will be providing careers advice so if they don’t have a clear and realistic image, then we have no hope. So we work with them to enable them to understand the real opportunities engineering can offer.”
One scheme that the company has implemented to raise the profile of engineering and attract more people to the industry is Ford awards ceremonies. “It is a sad fact that 50% of engineering graduates are head-hunted by the finance sector, not for their engineering skills, but for their intellect. This is a trend we want to reverse. We hope that these awards and our work with local schools, colleges and universities will encourage more people to consider engineering as a career.”
A new day
And what of the future? In 2011 Ford won the Culture for Success Award, organised by business support organisations Service Network and Entrust. As the award is traditionally given to organisations working in the service sector, this is a real source of pride and achievement for the company and an important marker to a new era. “We are very proud to have earned this award. 2010 was our centenary year and as such celebrating 100 years of success was the focus of our company profile in that year. However, 2011 is the start of our next centenary. Our profile now is about our plans for the future.” These plans Ford explains, include becoming “leaner, meaner and greener”, increasing market share, particularly in terms of export, and adding new processes and products to its portfolio. And if the past 100 years are anything to go by, exciting times lie ahead for Ford Aerospace.