Fine times

Posted on 6 Jul 2010 by The Manufacturer

Fine Tubes Ltd has been making high-specification, precision metal tubing in stainless steel and advanced alloys for over 60 years. Managing director Ronen Day talks to Ruari McCallion about expansion, new markets and their culture of innovative improvement.

What do dentistry, the oil industry, aerospace and athletics have in common? The answer is Fine Tubes Ltd, founded in 1943 and based in based in Plymouth, SW England. As it has sought out opportunities for expansion into new, and increasingly demanding, markets, it has seen turnover more than double.

“We are a pretty traditional business. Visitors to our plant see a lot of factory and a lot of big machinery – the biggest of them would cost around seven to eight million pounds today” says MD Ronen Day. After lifting turnover from £16m to around £36m in five years, Fine Tubes is looking to double again, through new markets and innovation.

“We are expanding into new geographical areas and have invested in an expanded sales and marketing operation, including new offices in France, Germany and India,” he continues. “We are focused on markets that offer high value-added opportunities. We already have a presence in aerospace and nuclear industries. We are developing into the oil and gas, power generation and medical sectors, and their sub-segments, such as trauma and stents in medical, for example.” Every day Fine Tubes products are becoming more pervasive. It provides tubes for drilling in the energy industry and in dentistry; its products can be found in aircraft landing gear and in replacement human joints. It has customers in the chemical process industry, it makes cooling tubes for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and is a key supplier to Skylon, a low-orbit reusable delivery system for satellites, which needs tubes with walls less thick than a human hair.

Fine Tubes works in stainless steel and the full range of alloys, from nickel and titanium through to the latest super-light aerospace alloys. With attention to material and processes there is a constant effort to improve performance, cut waste and cost and improve quality through empowering problem solving and utilising workforce knowledge.

“Previously, it took us fifteen steps to reduce a tube from three inches diameter to stent size – just one millimetre.

We now have to do it in half the number of cycles,” says Day. Metrology and rework issues are also a major challenge. “When we are asked to supply a part five metres long, and which is measured in microns, if we get to the end and find a small defect then we have to scrap the entire load. The route out of that problem has been based on Six Sigma methodology.

“For example, when we began working on trauma needles around five years ago, we found we would have a period of high yield, then get problems. We had to understand why. We examined the raw material and found features in it, such as swirls, which caused the issue.” The problem lay in identifying the issue before production – but the method of analysis would destroy the raw material.

“In the end, we resolved the problem by finding other suppliers, with more robust processes.” Fine Tubes’ American parent company has largely allowed it to develop and manage itself autonomously. For quite a long time, the company has not made a big contribution but the focus on development and improvement over the past few years is changing that. It currently employs around 350 people, including agency staff, who are taken on according to demand. During the turmoil of the past two years, the total payroll fell from 380 to 320 but is now on an upward trend again, the growth being generated by the company’s willingness to innovate.

“We have invested in developing our own engineering function,” says Day. “We’ve just developed a new production line – we can’t buy in the technology we need, the product we’re making is unique. So we developed new machines ourselves.” A more mundane challenge, faced by many engineering businesses, is to stop using damaging chemicals like trichloroethylene. But Fine Tubes’ approach was very much its own.

“We worked with technical resources partners and a chemical company to develop a new cleaning solution, which is so safe it’s almost drinkable.

In tandem with that, we worked with a nano-filtration company to recover the chemical after the process – it is expensive, as you can imagine.” Product development is managed at director level and, in the best traditions of lean and statistical process control, different disciplines – including forecasting and material process control – work together, in the same offices, enabling close co-operation and shortening time to market. The core of the company’s success is its people, Day maintains – which is quite something as the company was more famous, in the early 1970s, for having one of the longest strikes in British industrial history. Those days are far in the past.

“You have to invest in people; if you don’t care about your own people then you aren’t caring about your customers,” he said. “Respect is extremely important. We share our objectives with our employees; we’re pretty open. You’re never going to eliminate conflicts completely but we work together to resolve them.” The obvious signs are the absence of an executive car park and the transformation of the second-floor management offices into the staff dining facility; now, everyone can enjoy its fine views of Plymouth. It has a training programme for upskillng permanent staff and recruits from its agency workers. A ‘lean champion’ is present in each production cell.

“The self-managed teams have their own budgets and meet regularly to discuss ways to improve performance,” Day explains. “We have a web-based information system, which displays how the teams’ internal customers are doing and enables them to prioritise. We have Six Sigma training and run business improvement NVQs. We’re talking to the local colleges to see if we can set up a Fine Tubes school for coaching and support.” Continuous improvement and a view to the future are embedded in Fine Tubes’ culture.

“One of my fellow-directors noticed a modification to a machine, which he knew nothing about. He asked [the team] what it was; they had discussed how to overcome a particular issue and came up with this idea. They went ahead and worked out a solution to a problem we didn’t even know existed,” he said. “Everything we achieve at Fine Tubes is about our people. We hunt as a pack, we work together and that’s how we succeed.”