Man of steel: an interview with locker manufacturer, Locit

Posted on 12 Mar 2024 by Joe Bush

Deeside-based steel locker manufacturer, Locit, recently achieved carbon neutrality and internationally recognised PAS 2060 certification. The Manufacturer Editor Joe Bush caught up with CEO Richard Williams to find out more.

PAS 2060 is the internationally recognised specification for carbon neutrality published by the British Standards Institution (BSI). It demonstrates that carbon neutrality claims are both credible and verified to increase accountability and consumer confidence. This is a significant accomplishment for the SME steel locker manufacturer, which has booked almost £5m of sales in its first year’s trading to the end of September 2023 and has created 40 new jobs at its new digital factory just outside Chester.

The rapid growth follows a £4m investment by Arete Capital Partners, a private capital investor, in 2022, which has backed Locit as a disruptor to the UK steel locker market valued at around £70m.

Customers already using Locit’s premium locker brand, Pure Lockers, include Marks and Spencer, Primark, LEGOLAND, the British Open, Bulgari Hotel London, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and Northumbria Police.

Locit is now continuing its push towards net zero manufacturing and is on target to reduce emissions at its factory by a further 50% this year. CEO Richard Williams picks up the story.

Can you tell us about the background to the company?

RW: Previously, I was co-owner of the UK’s biggest locker business. As my two partners were considerably older than myself, they were a little reluctant to further invest and, as such, we sold the business in 2016 to a firm that primarily sold pallet racking.

This business then hit hard times, leading me to attempt to buy the business back during the COVID pandemic. However, following a dispute over the value of the company I took the decision to walk away and I left the sector. Around eight months later I was approached by private equity with the suggestion of starting again. So, I put a plan together.

I wanted to offer something fresh and different, rather than just reappearing in the sector and expecting people to come and buy from me again.

In all my years trying to build a business, I’ve grown to realise that people are the most important part of any company and the biggest asset. So, when I started this new business, I understood that we needed to stand for something, and ensure (as we’re private equity backed) that the business is saleable.

So, we set off with a plan and a key objective to create a carbon neutral manufacturing facility. From day one, all the investor group bought into that vision and we now deploy a sustainable approach through our entire process, from supply chain and design to manufacture and delivery.

We established a set of core principles to manufacture as efficiently as possible, buy new cutting edge machinery to deliver on that, and make a concerted effort to minimise waste – any we do create is all recyclable and nothing goes to landfill.

The original vision of Locit was to create a sustainable business model focused on digital manufacturing, innovation, people and the environment

Also, a lot of the stock we buy in is rejected car material. For example, we have deals with JLR and Nissan, both of which have warranties on rust so their material is coated. However, if the thickness of that coating isn’t exact (even to the width of a human hair) it gets rejected.

We purchase this material because it has no surface imperfections and about 70-80% of the steel we use originates from that source. Therefore, it doesn’t go back to be smelted. We also buy as local as we can and our supply chain is around 99.9% UK-based.

As well as the PAS certification we’re also on the verge of securing three ISOs for health and safety, quality and environment. Therefore, what we weren’t necessarily expecting, is that many larger retailers and builders are now approaching us too, as a lot of their tenders are heavily focused around sustainability. So, the credentials of our products are in line with what they require.

Traditionally, this industry has been very labour intensive with high energy consumption. However, when you look at the way Locit has been set up, it’s new for the sector, in terms of the processes, machinery and technology used. We always try and be innovative.

We’re continually investing and we completed a £3m upgrade of our rolling mill just before Christmas. We go around the world, visiting other factories, to make sure we have the best equipment that is going to last – it’s not all about price – and we regularly hold operator forums where they can put forward ideas on how we can improve.

We started Locit with a vision to create a superior product that used less material and energy and created less waste, and we have accomplished this at our Deeside factory. We have achieved a UK – and potentially a world-first – for our sector using digital manufacturing techniques which put decarbonisation at the heart of our product, processes and culture.

We’ve come from nowhere over the last 18 months. And as far as the technology and what we can offer in this marketplace, we’re just about leading the way. And we will get to a position this year where we will be making some more giant leaps.

How have you achieved this rapid growth?

We’ve got a great mix of people, some of whom have worked for me before, while others bring a younger outlook to the team. There’s a lot of experience here, but also a lot of pent up frustration from those that have been with me before, who knew what we wanted to achieve, but were unable to fulfil that vision.

The industry we’re in is quite old fashioned and stagnated, with a lack of investment. We’ve come in with a fresh approach, have got that much needed investment behind us and offer a service as well as a product, which has been key.

The backing we have in place has now allowed us to sell to customers who were out of our reach before, due to a lack of product range, or necessary equipment and machinery to produce them. Now we’ve got the ability to produce virtually any product.

We’ve also now got the ability to design bespoke products, which means we’re able to work hand-in-hand with the customer. We’re seeing a lot of interest from schools, designers and architects, and we’ve just completed a project with JLR and Northumberland Police.

The latter has taken around six months and we’ve spent a great deal of time with the client; the project has ended up being very different from the original spec, meaning that close working relationship has been vital. We’re now covering the whole of Northumbria and hopefully we will roll out something similar across other police forces up and down the country.

Locit use recycled steel sourced from UK-based suppliers only

What does the PAS 2060 certification mean?

This achievement is attributable to a number of different factors. For example, on our powder line we recycle the heat that is generated to not only run our ovens but to heat water and the factory itself.

We use advanced manufacturing techniques to reduce energy consumption, including advanced sheet metal machinery, for fully-automated production runs, bespoke short-volume orders and R&D. Data-led manufacturing means that production is integrated with cloud-based material requirements planning (MRP) software to optimise stock and delivery management.

We also recycle all the water that comes off the roof to drive a turbine which generates electricity. So, the certification is about a variety of small gains that are getting us to where we want to be. And they are audited independently.

The challenge has been our gas usage. You can create electricity from solar panels, whereas gas is a natural resource which is difficult to generate. So, we’ve moved to a low bake powder and we’ve regenerated some of the gas back into the building.

Additionally, the Deeside Industrial Estate, where our factory is located, is involved in a large project to generate its own hydrogen. So, when we installed our ovens and key equipment, we made sure that, when the time comes, they are able to run on either hydrogen or a hydrogen mix.

The PAS 2060 certification is the realisation of a lot of hard work and a commitment to the highest standards when measuring and reducing our emissions. Sustainability is no longer an add-on, it is an imperative, not just for the planet but the future of our business.

What advice would you give to other SMEs yet to start their net zero journey?

Break the challenge down into manageable chunks – as the saying goes, there is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. Start off with things that cost very little, but which could result in bigger gains, and work out what investment you need to achieve them.

So, take advantage of those easy wins and do so quickly. That low hanging fruit can work in parallel with those larger goals. It’s easy to say, but you need to be fearless; energy costs are only going to increase – there’s no point in thinking otherwise. So, it’s not about investing for today; our equipment should last 20-25 years, or beyond.

It’s important to think with a long-term head on. So for us, it was a case of asking how much we were looking to save? What did we need to achieve that saving? And can we do it in one go?

Of course it’s important to establish the right partnerships. You’ll hear different things from different people, so getting the right advice (often from people who don’t necessarily want to sell you anything), is crucial. Fundamentally, this journey is about breaking down your biggest use of energy. If you have something in your factory which uses more energy than anything else, then that is what you need to start looking at.

The energy usage of every piece of equipment is monitored, which we can look at in real time so we know at any given moment how much energy we’re using. For example, we installed infrared cameras on our powder paint line that measure how much paint we’re using and checks if there are any gaps in the steel – which would essentially mean we’re painting fresh air.

We also know how much energy we can save by switching off machinery at lunchtime or running the machine at half the speed. We’ve even found that by using the most energy intensive machines during evening shifts – when the electricity is cheaper – it still offsets what we pay the workforce for those extra hours.

In terms of future developments, we are working with our landlord to change the pitch of our roof and add solar panels to both sides. Generally the bigger the pitch of the roof the shorter the exposure to the sun. With this new development we will hopefully achieve a full six or seven hours of sunlight per day – even during the winter months.

We’re also using batteries to store energy for later use, rather than merely returning it to the grid. While I have been driving our journey towards sustainable manufacturing, we would never have achieved so much so quickly without buy-in from our committed workforce.

The steel conundrum

Tata Steel’s recent announcement regarding the closure of blast furnaces at its Port Talbot plant has sent ripples through the steel industry, sparking discussions on job losses, technological transitions and the broader implications for sustainability and cost dynamics. The closure decision, coupled with global market challenges, notably the impact of geopolitical tensions on steel prices, underscores the complexity of balancing environmental responsibility with economic viability. Richard gives his view from the sector.

“The steel industry faces a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the imperative to embrace sustainable practices and transition to cleaner technologies is undeniable. However, the transition entails substantial investments and infrastructural adjustments, which may not always align with short-term economic interests. Tata Steel’s prolonged decision-making process reflects the industry’s struggle to navigate this delicate balance.

“One key aspect highlighted in discussions is the infrastructure gap. While there is a push towards electrification and renewable energy sources, the current infrastructure falls short of meeting the escalating demand for electricity. This presents a challenge as industries like steel production require substantial energy inputs, raising questions about the feasibility of fully transitioning to electric furnaces without adequate infrastructure.

“Moreover, the closure of blast furnaces in Wales may exacerbate the issue of cheap imports, posing a threat to domestic steel manufacturers, especially SMEs. The import surge, driven by cost differentials in production methods, impacts market competitiveness and raises concerns about product quality and supply chain resilience.

“The broader implications extend beyond the steel sector, highlighting systemic challenges in transitioning to a sustainable economy. While there is a collective aspiration towards sustainability, the realities of cost implications and infrastructural limitations underscore the need for a nuanced approach. Striking a balance between environmental objectives and economic realities requires proactive policy measures, including targeted investments in infrastructure and mechanisms to address import pressures.

“Tata Steel’s decision is a microcosm of the larger complexities surrounding sustainability transitions in industrial sectors. As stakeholders grapple with the implications, it becomes imperative to foster dialogue and collaboration to chart a path that ensures both environmental stewardship and economic resilience in the face of evolving global dynamics for the steel manufacturing industry in the UK.”

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