Forging success

Posted on 8 Apr 2009 by The Manufacturer

Firth Rixson Metals has positioned itself strongly to face the hurdles of the current financial crisis. TM talks to general manager Brian McKenzie to find out how innovation and flexibility has ensured the company continues to thrive

In early 2003, Firth Rixson plc merged with Forged Metals, subsequently acquiring Turbine Ring Technologies in the UK and Schlosser Forge in the USA. Now, with its headquarters in Sheffield, UK, Firth Rixson serves customers worldwide across a vast range of industries, including the aerospace, automotive, defence, energy and medical sectors, producing metals and complex metal components for original equipment manufacturers throughout the globe.

The company currently owns 11 operating facilities in North America, Europe and Asia. Amongst these is Firth Rixson Metals Ltd, which consists of three sites – Glossop, based in Derbyshire and producing cast and wrought nickel-, cobalt- and iron-base superalloys; Ecclesfield, based in Sheffield, described by the company as “a one-stop shop for a complete range of forged and rolled products in special steels, nickel, superalloys and titanium” and the Rotherham-based Ickles manufacturing service site, which provides conversion services for raw material producers. The broad range of metals products emanating from all three sites are used across the aerospace, automotive, energy, and nuclear engineering sectors, to name a few.

For a company with such a broad range of products, services, clients and markets, to keep innovating and evolving in today’s changing and turbulent marketplace is imperative. With the pressure of the global financial crisis, complacency is not an option for those businesses wishing to remain ahead of the competition. Firth Rixson Metals has been proactive both in its response to such pressures and in its attitude towards innovation. As such, it has undergone a series of major changes over the last few years in order to ensure that its position in the marketplace remains strong.

Investing in structure
In order to achieve this, the company recognised that it was time to streamline and further define the various capabilities within its operations. This is being carried out using various tools, including lean: “Everything we do has a lean aspect,” confirms general manager Brian McKenzie. Lean was found to complement the other various investments and changes that were taking place. “The investments that we are making are to improve flow, enhance capability, and to streamline our process which will result in a more responsive organisation,” McKenzie confirms. The main resultant benefit of the overall initiative has been greatly improved efficiency and visibility. “Three years ago,” asserts McKenzie, “we were four different businesses competing against each other. Now, we are a vertically-integrated metals solution provider.”

Firth Rixson also recognised that a more streamlined and efficient operation should be underpinned by an increased emphasis on staff training and development. To this end, the company launched the Firth Rixson Academy a year ago, which provides comprehensive training to all staff, no matter where they are positioned within the business. The company has carefully planned the training on offer to best suit the needs of the individual. “We’ve presented it as a pyramid,” explains McKenzie. “The first level relates to graduates and apprentices coming into the business; the mid-section is all about training and equipping our current staff. Then the top part is, in terms of the larger Firth Rixson [company], a management development programme, providing specific training for senior managers.” The aim of the training is to make it available to all. The company has found that this aids in retention – crucial at a time when businesses are wise to utilise their assets and skill base to maximum effect.

As Toyota has recently discovered, no company is immune to the wider effects of the global downturn. Firth Rixson Metals has been forced to re-shuffle its resources in order to effectively address the slowdown from some quarters of its key markets, namely, automotive. However, other areas within the business are booming and it is for this reason that the company is also seeking to recruit what McKenzie calls the “best people” – a firm indicator of the company’s success through its flexibility and forward-thinking strategy.

“We are trying to be proactive in managing how we approach this economic cycle,” explains McKenzie. “To that end we are doing everything we can to retain capabilities and working on ways to remove waste, increase our flexibility, and become more customer facing.

“There is business to win, which is why we’re investing so much on the training side, why we’re always on the lookout for good people with the right attitude, and making the structural changes. It’s a real mixed bag out there in terms of industries; in some, like automotive, we’ve seen very significant impact but there’s other sectors that are going strong. That is why we need to be adaptable and flexible so that we can go to where the work is,” he asserts. “It will be those companies that can turn on a dime and respond first that will pick up the work that is available.”

Strategic success
This forward-thinking approach has ensured that Firth Rixson Metals itself is achieving this. “The general financial crisis has had an impact on every market, and on every sector in one way or another,” says McKenzie. “We started quite early in terms of preparing the company. Our focus in the main for the last two years has been on working to provide a much more seamless, customer-facing, responsive organisation. This investment in our structure is paying off for us and, I believe is the right strategy for the current economic climate. Really, in a lot of senses, I see our current success is in large part due to the changes over the last two years.”

As times change, so do the business models that companies have relied on for success in the past. Firth Rixson Metals has proved it is not afraid to adapt its own approach in order to ensure that it can meet current challenges. “I think in general our philosophy has changed. We’ve tried to be much more holistic and engaging with our team, steering away from some of the more traditional ‘us and them’ models.” McKenzie confirms. “We’re all participants; and business works the best when people realise that we all have an interest in it,” he explains.

In applying innovation to everything it does, the company has found its customer base to be loyal and far-reaching as a result. “I believe the benefits come to Firth Rixson Metals when we solve our customers’ problems,” McKenzie confirms. “[For example] when we can make them more profitable, or more effective, and give them the edge. The benefits come to us by offering the solutions. In Firth Rixson Metals you have an organisation that truly wants to be part of a solution, through [things like] offering different pricing models, adapting forging practices, and providing expert information we can add value in many areas. In addition, we have expanded our technical expertise and believe we have a strong technical function to leverage to the benefit of our customers.”

The company has clearly come a long way since its inception. As the global downturn looks set to claim an increasing number of corporate victims, Firth Rixson Metals looks strongly positioned to weather the storm successfully, thanks both to a business model that is streamlined and flexible, and to a solid staff base that backs up its substantial expertise.