Hungry like the Wolf

Posted on 21 Mar 2022 by Tom St John

Tim Rutter is the new MD of Universal Wolf, an award-winning complex sheet metal fabricator business based in Blyth, Northumberland that works with companies like Heller and Sunamp. The Manufacturer’s Tom St John spoke with him to hear how he’ll be implementing digital strategy within the company.

Rutter joins from Hitachi Rail where, as Plant Manager at Newton Aycliffe (NAY) he oversaw data digitalisation enabling significant improvements in delivery output rate, increasing efficiency and productivity. Prior to this Tim worked as Business Director for Manufacturing Services for a northeast family-owned firm. He held early engineering roles with the MoD and then at BAE Systems progressing from Engineering Undergraduate to Senior Management roles within the BAE Systems Vehicles business.

Tim Rutter, MD of Universal Wolf Factory Photo Updated
Tim Rutter, MD of Universal Wolf

TS: What attracted you to this new role and how have you settled in?

TR: Universal Wolf is part of the Tharsus Group which is a really exciting, forward looking, locally owned engineering group in the Northeast of England. It focuses on developing technology that really matters and makes a difference. Universal Wolf itself has an interesting and pretty unique ethos that builds a sense of teamwork around what it calls the pack, hence the name of the business. What I sense since I’ve joined is that that really is true – the sense of teamwork is incredibly strong. People really enjoy working there and being part of the team.

I love northeast manufacturing, it’s where I’ve chosen to spend my career. It’s a strong, resilient and highly capable company that’s enjoyable to work for. And for me, it’s a great opportunity to continue building this team and to introduce digital technologies to a craft skill-based business. And then we as an organisation can help others to create tech that matters.

UW has a 50-year heritage in the northeast of England

You were able to implement digital programmes as Plant Manager in your old role which yielded improvements in delivery output rate, efficiency and productivity. What was key to achieving this?

I think the same principles of how that was achieved in my old role will apply here Universal Wolf as well. This involved having a really clear aim point of what you want to digitise and a simple plan that takes very incremental steps towards the end goal. And crucially, getting the right balance between understanding what the business needs are plus what the IT and digital technology can provide for you. Having that clear aim point will help you pick the technology that’s right for your context. In Universal Wolf’s case, that’s all about sheet metal fabrication and production management.

Ultimately, everything’s about people anyway. The systems, data and digitisation are all there to help people make good decisions faster. If you can blend all those elements, you can build a really successful digital implementation plan.

What challenges have you faced previously in implementing digitalisation?

In terms of manufacturing challenges generally, the last couple of years probably couldn’t have been more challenging. As we look forward to implementing digitalisation, Universal Wolf has also navigated COVID, utilities cost increases and certainly raw material cost increases – and we’ve done so carefully.

Universal Wolf and Tharsus Group are really resilient and stable businesses. We’ve got strong partnerships with our customers. And we’ve successfully maintained deliveries throughout the last couple of years, which is no mean feat. I think with all the global supply chain disruption, OEM manufacturers need reliable suppliers like Universal Wolf, particularly for the UK OEMs. We’re onshore, so we reduce the supply chain length and risk.

Then specifically to the challenges of digitalisation, the classic challenges are getting the business and operations team to express what they really need in a form that the IT colleagues can understand. And then getting the IT colleagues to bring to bear the technology that really meets the need. Balancing that equation is probably the key success in terms of digitalisation.

At an early glance, what do you think Universal Wolf can improve on in terms of digital adoption?

Universal Wolf has a 50-year heritage now in the northeast, which is amazing. We’ve got a fantastic team, massive skill level in complex sheet fabrication metal work. We provide skilled jobs in Blythe, one of the biggest private employers in Northumberland. That includes apprentices, we’ve got eight apprentices in the moment. The exciting opportunity we’ve got is to blend that craft skill involved with complex metal fabrication with digitised processes, delivered with great teamwork.

Our opportunity is to bring digitise processes, systems and tools into a traditional craft skill-based environment – this is something you might not normally see in a complex sheet metal work subcontract setting. I think that’s where we’ve got a real opportunity ahead.

UW is aiming to train up a skilled UK workforce for the future with its apprenticeship programme
UW is aiming to train up a skilled UK workforce for the future with its apprenticeship programme

What would you say is the most important aspect when implementing sound digital projects/approaches?

Understanding the operational process in detail. Understanding what actually happens in practice first, mapping out your processes end to end and seeing what the what the touch points and interactions are.

And also, working through where the opportunities lie, where the business pain points are and applying a sensible step by step approach to solving those interaction points. At a complex sheet metal work fabrication business like Universal Wolf, we have a very high volume of physical parts that move through the facility every year. Tracking those parts end to end is a key part of our plan ahead.

In 5 years’ time, what would success look like in your opinion? 

Universal Wolf is looking forward to 2022 and beyond. We’ve got lots of external factors like climate change, an increased focus on creating UK social value from UK projects and UK manufacturing. That translates to creating skilled jobs in the UK. In our apprenticeship programme, which we call growing our own, we’re developing skills in house at Universal Wolf.

What we’re really focused on and believe is different is the pack – that real sense of profound teamwork that enables us to deliver for our customers and deliver real tangible business improvements. For the next five years, Universal Wolf will grow, we’ll recruit and train more apprentices and we’ll strengthen our brand and enhance our capabilities. We’ll be supporting more customers in different sectors, and we’ll have blended that craft skill and digitised process that I mentioned earlier. All of that is really exciting – it’s a chance for Universal Wolf to contribute strongly to Blythe and the northeast and continue to help our customers make tech that matters.

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