TSP Engineering: Heavy engineering to Swiss watch tolerances

Posted on 8 Aug 2022 by James Devonshire

TSP Engineering emerged victorious in the Achieving Customer Value category at last year’s TMMX Awards, part of Digital Manufacturing Week. But what does TSP Engineering do? Where does the company have its roots? And what makes it stand out when it comes to adding real value for its customers? The Manufacturer’s James Devonshire caught up with John Coughlan, Chief Executive Officer at TSP, to find out more.

Please tell us more about TSP Engineering 

TSP Engineering was set up in about 1947. It originally supported steel production and the mining of iron ore. From there, it grew into developing steel processing equipment, which it still refurbishes and rebuilds for the steel companies like Tata, British Steel and others here in the UK today. 

In the 1960s, TSP specialised further and started producing vessels for the transportation of nuclear fuels and nuclear materials. We also do a lot of specialist transport flasks for defense and civil nuclear. In fact, we’ve just completed several packages for Sellafield, which they put into service about a month ago. The 50-tonne, lead-lined containers we supplied are designed to allow Sellafield to transfer nuclear waste from its legacy Magnox Swarf Storage Silo to new on-site storage facilities, where they will be housed for at least the next 100 years. 

So, as you can see, we’ve grown from heavy engineering through to heavy precision engineering i.e., really big toys to extremely tight tolerances. I like to explain that we do heavy engineering to Swiss watch tolerances. And some of the products we make are designed to operate in the severest of environments and harshest conditions, as is the case with transporting radioactive material. 

We have a floor capacity of 19,200 m2, two five-metre deep manufacturing pits and a lifting capacity of 130 tonnes. With such facilities, we have the capabilities to handle some of the biggest engineering and steel fabrication projects in the UK and beyond.

Workington-based TSP Engineering has a floor capacity of 19,200 m2, two five-metre deep manufacturing pits and a lifting capacity of 130 tonnes

TSP won the Achieving Customer Value category at last year’s TMMX Awards. What were the driving forces behind that success? 

We believe that our customers really are key to everything we do. But we don’t focus on just pleasing our customers; we actually focus on pleasing their customers. If we can deliver against our customers’ customers’ requirements, then we are really making a difference.  

We could be making something for an aerospace manufacturer which is going to ultimately end up at the Ministry of Defence. So, throughout the process we aren’t just considering what our customer has asked for but rather the role of the piece in its final application. We then work to ensure that what we produce perfectly matches the end requirements. 

It’s embedded in our culture that the customer is king, but we choose to take that one step further and say our customer’s customer is king and that’s why I believe we stand out from the crowd. 

What advice would you give to anyone who’s considering entering the TMMX Awards? 

Be prepared to go through a learning process where you’re going to discover how to improve your business. The judges will come in and look at what you’re doing. You might be 99% there and it’s via the judging process that you’ll learn how to achieve that final 1%. If you’re prepared to listen and make the changes, you’ll be in a better position and in with a greater chance of winning next time around. 

For us at TSP, winning a TMMX Award was huge. They’re like the Oscars of the manufacturing sector, the hardest to win and the most valuable.  

Nominations are currently open for this year’s TMMX Awards (they close July 15) can we expect to see TSP feature again? 

Yes, definitely. We’re currently working on our entry and will make sure it’s in before the deadline. To win again would be phenomenal. Our team have been working extremely hard and hopefully that will be recognised again.

TSP Engineering is now completely British owned once more, a reality that is already unlocking new opportunities for the firm

One of the biggest challenges facing manufacturers right now is the ongoing skills shortage. How is TSP addressing this? 

At TSP Engineering, we focus on three Ps: people, product and profit. We believe if you get your people right, they’ll get the product right and profit will follow. That’s why we do everything we can to not only attract the best talent, but also retain our people through education and training – something we’ve been very successful at doing over the years.  

We spend a lot of time training our people and we get them to a level where they themselves win awards and get shortlisted for honours. We normally have anywhere from two to four individuals who go through on The Manufacturer Top 100 every year, recognition of the type of people that we have and the level of training that we invest in.  

One thing we ask is that individuals remain with us for at least three years after they’ve qualified. But the reality is most stay for a lot longer. The great part is our people receive outstanding training and don’t get themselves into mountains of debt in the process. The individuals who do leave tell us that they’re going off to obtain some new experiences and that they’ll come back – and many of them actually do.  

In terms of apprenticeships, we spend a lot of time in local schools and colleges drumming up interest in engineering and manufacturing. We also bring students into our plant to give them a first-hand experience of what it’s like to work in such an environment. Right now, around 11% of our workforce (some 30 individuals) is in apprenticeships and training at the moment. And that’s across all disciplines too, so not just the manufacturing disciplines of machining, fabrication and assembly, but also accounting, project management, project engineers and design engineers. We do like to try to grow our own talent, that’s for sure.

John Coughlan, CEO of TSP Engineering, says the TMMX Awards are the hardest to win and the most valuable in the sector

What’s on the horizon for TSP Engineering? 

Our future is very bright. We’re now completely British owned again, having been acquired by GMET Engineering. Being foreign owned presented challenges when it came to our work in the nuclear and defence sectors, and we’re hoping the acquisition will unlock lots more opportunities for us going forward.  

Just in the past couple of months, we’ve seen an increase in orders from the MOD, for vessels to be built and we’ll start manufacturing advanced nuclear modular reactors at the end of the year a completely new area for industry in the UK. And to think the first modular nuclear reactors will be manufactured right here in Cumbria and then potentially shipped all over the world, is quite special. All of this has come about since we became a wholly British business again. 

Key takeaways

  • TSP Engineering has the capabilities at its Cumbria site to handle some of the biggest engineering and steel fabrication projects in the UK and beyond
  • TSP looks to grow its own talent wherever possible, and its people benefit from high levels of training, without the associated debts.
  • If you’re considering entering the TMMX Awards, be prepared to embark on a learning journey
  • TSP will begin manufacturing advanced modular nuclear reactors towards the end of this year, a first for UK industry

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