Sir David McMurtry CBE went home one weekend to make a measuring device to better measure bent pipes. Four decades on, his company is the leading metrology equipment brand in the world. Will Stirling gets the measure of a modest manufacturing leader.
Everyone is a fan of advanced manufacturing these days. But amid the clamour for nurturing more high technology companies and exports, remember what it takes to build a good company. Brains, an eye for a market, hard graft, thick skin, patience and a little luck all help. Sir David McMurtry’s story personifies what many people say UK manufacturing needs – large scale technology exploitation. In brief: a bright, young Irishman takes an apprenticeship with a small aircraft company in the 1960s. He climbs the ranks and becomes deputy chief designer at Rolls-Royce, working on the revolutionary Concorde engine. A spatial puzzle spurs him to invent a new method for precise measurement. Developing the product, he takes a leap of faith and leaves a very good job to commercialise it. Fast forward 35-years and the engineer has become a multi-millionaire and chairs a market-leading global company with 94% export sales.
But this freeze-frame oversimplifies brave decisions and the rigours of technology commercialisation in a cut-throat global market. Think about intellectual property protection alone. “In Renishaw’s history, at no time have we not been fighting a patent law suit,” says Sir David McMurtry, 71, in his office at the company’s New Mills headquarters in the Cotswolds.
While the Renishaw story is in itself a good tale, Sir David’s early career is also a window into the evolution of the UK aerospace industry.
The perfect platform
Born in Dublin in 1940, during his youth David Roberts McMurtry was a keen aeromodeller. He moved on to modelling and modifying engines and it was a natural step to pursue this interest into the aeronautical industry. “There wasn’t any knowledge, more enthusiasm!” he laughs. But his parents had other ideas and got him an interview with an insurance company. “I made a complete and utter mess of it. There was nowhere else to go.” He applied to Rolls-Royce, who turned him down, and the Bristol Aeroplane Company, who took him on, at 18, as a Craft Grade One Apprentice.
Sir David, chuckling throughout, says they didn’t understand the Irish Leaving Certificate – equivalent to English ‘A’ Levels. The apprenticeship was designed for 16-year old starters and was broadly equivalent to ‘A’ Levels in maths and physics, which he found easy and achieved the next level quickly. He shone academically at Grade Two, whereupon he was transferred to the full-time engineering course at the Bristol College of Advanced Technology, which went on to become the University of Bath the same year McMurtry left. In the 1960s, these colleges were set up by aerospace companies to train advanced engineers – the kind of vocational education not seen in the UK since the launch of the Technology and Innovation Centres this year. In 2008, Sir David was awarded a doctorate in engineering by Bath University.
Aged 30, McMurtry became deputy chief designer and assistant chief of engine design at the Bristol engine division at the world’s foremost aeroengine maker. He says this with modesty, almost apologetically: “For all the wrong reasons I managed to pop out at the top. And I found myself in charge of people, that was a challenge!” he jokes. He was in charge of the group who designed the “back-end” – nozzles and thrusters – of the 199, the Tornado engine. Firstly manufactured in Italy under a joint venture and then at MTU, all the conceptual design was done in Bristol. “It was the beginning of the collaborative programmes so common today,” he says. “Up to then, we did literally everything ourselves.”
The Eureka moment
McMurtry’s job, simply put, was to sort out complex problems. One problem was the measurement of the pipe systems in the 593 engine, the Rolls-Royce/ SNECMA Olympus 593 used by Concorde. “The engines are dressed in pipes – instrumentation pipes, fuel, oil and air systems,” he says. “It looks like spaghetti. On Concorde the engine was square and the pipes could only come from the bottom, so the density of the piping was intense.” With the tolerances they required, there was a problem with fretting between pipes. The team were about to use the first automatic pipe bending machines, and needed to calculate how to measure the pipes accurately to make them in these machines which produced multiple, subtle kinks.
Mocked-up pipes were placed on a simple coordinate measuring machine (CMM), to measure the flat lengths, in order to write a programme for the bending machine. “We brought one of the first manual air-bearing LK CMMs with a hard probe – a solid ball on the end of a stalk. You literally held the probe against the pipe you wanted to measure, pushed a button and took a reading,” says Sir David. But with the smaller pipes, the engineers had to literally push them out of the way, making it impractical to get a sensible reading.
The shop floor couldn’t make the pipes because they couldn’t measure them. “In those good old days, design and manufacture was separated by a wall – we’d say, don’t give me problems, just make what I told you to make! I went down there to take a look. It was obvious; they needed a touch probe,” he says, ironically, as at the time no omnidirectional sensing probe existed. These pipe configurations demanded an omnidirectional probe, as the single axis probes could not access the sections in such cramped confines.
Applying his considerable brain, the solution was to build a probe to take multiple readings at the point of touch. McMurtry went home and made a touchtrigger probe over the weekend. The principle has remained essentially the same ever since. “The first one was crude but worked well out-of-the-box,” he says. “Norman Key from LK saw it and asked me to make a dozen of them.” A colleague at Rolls-Royce, John Deer, was keen to set up a company making telephone answer machines. At the time, McMurtry was earning good money in a job you would be crazy to walk away from on a whim. His employer was aware of his work, and as soon as the invention worked, he patented it – with a Rolls-Royce patent.
“I said hang on, there’s a commercial opportunity here, so I told John to forget answer phones.” The colleagues started a company with a simple structure – McMurtry (2/3) supplied the design and Deer (1/3) would get everything made and sold. At first McMurtry worked three days a week for Rolls- Royce and two days on the company. How did he negotiate such terms? “I don’t think they wanted to lose me. Also, my boss was convinced it would flop and that I’d be back full-time within a few months.” In 1987 he bought the patents for the trigger probe from Rolls-Royce, and Renishaw was unleashed on the world market. For many, the rest is history.
Renishaw plc – Made in Britain
Renishaw blows apart the stereotypes about UK manufacturing – a market-leading British manufacturer of equipment for manufacturers, based in the Cotswolds. It designs, makes and sells touch probes, CMM sensors, motion control encoders and more, all over the world. Volumes produced relative to competitors vary but as the original inventor, Renishaw’s reputation is world class. It has 50 offices in 31 countries, but most of the R&D and manufacturing is done in Gloucestershire, with assembly facilities near Dublin and in Pune, India. Half year turnover in the 2010/2011 financial year put the company on course to post revenues of well over £200 million, which would be a record.
But it has not always been a smooth road to success. Sir David has worked through several downturns, but had experienced nothing like the 2008/2009 recession. “It was brutal. We returned from the Christmas break and in January 2009 orders fell off a cliff.” The company had to make 20% of its employees redundant, a process that was reported less sympathetically by some of the media than others.
Some local press seemed to mark out the company for particular vilification – senior Renishaw staff, already upset by the cuts, felt disappointed that little attention had been paid to the company throughout 35 years of growth until now. After building a company on values like strong community engagement, it seems fair to say the episode took its toll on Sir David.
But by early April 2011, the company had over 200 job vacancies. The problem is finding the right people.
“I support more STEM education in the UK, but we have to look abroad for engineers to fill vacancies while the appropriately skilled people here are in deficit,” Sir David says. The company has lobbied government, directly and indirectly, to relax the rules on immigration caps because its specialist skills needs are not always covered within the EU, let alone within the UK. Renishaw hosts university groups and schools all the time who visit to get an insight into a manufacturing company. Last year it launched its Applications Academy. “It’s not just the technology you have, it’s how you apply it,” says group marketing services manager, Chris Pockett. “Today we go direct to market more, so we do a lot of CMM and machine tool retrofits, and we’re selling the new Equator gauge – this needs a different skill set. The Academy is training staff to be more customer-facing.” Now in his sixth decade working in manufacturing, what does the future hold for Sir David McMurtry? “Its business as usual – I’ll be in the office tomorrow! Now, I leave the City to Allen and Ben [group finance director Allen Roberts and assistant chief executive Ben Taylor]. In the past I did my stint supporting industry, but Renishaw is involved lobbies government through the MTA [Manufacturing Technologies Association] and we support the skills agenda.” And for Renishaw? “Asia is the engine of growth. China represents an enormous opportunity, providing that you make things they don’t. The future of UK manufacturing is in advanced products like ours, selling to existing customers but increasingly emerging markets.” China is now Renishaw’s single biggest market, surpassing the US in sales in 2010.
Contrary to some views, Sir David says, the Chinese covert top brands. “There’s a rising middle class and they want to buy famous British brands like Bentley and Burberry. This extends into machine tools and Renishaw is a favoured name for metrology in China.” Does this modest and cheerful engineer who has captained such a famous British brand have any regrets? “I have no regrets, but I have made many mistakes. Fortunately I’ve been able to cover them up with the positives.”
Success in sotto voce
British industry is often chided for having a low public profile. Most people know of James Dyson, and Rolls-Royce’s ex-chief Sir John Rose and McLaren’s Ron Dennis are two of UK manufacturing’s other rare headline celebrities. Sir David McMurtry has never sought the limelight and is far less well-known – if you work outside aerospace, metrology and machine tools, you may never have heard of him. But his contribution, and that of Renishaw’s co-founder John Deer, to these industries are as important, and arguably greater, than Mr Dyson’s influence on the vacuum cleaner market. David McMurtry invented the touch-trigger probe, a ubiquitous part of precision manufacturing globally. “Every industry needs precise measurement – think about it, aerospace, automotive, medical devices, precision engineering,” he says. “That’s why I knew, with John, that we were really on to something.” Renishaw has done many great things but rarely makes the headlines, except in the recession – perhaps more an indictment of the British mainstream media than the state of manufacturing. While British industry needs a more powerful voice, Sir David McMurtry shows that, with the right product and people, UK manufacturers can achieve great things without needing to shout about it.
Biography Sir David McMurtry CBE
Sir David has patented (or co-patented) over 197 inventions; approximately 47 in his time with Roll-Royce and 150 with Renishaw.
Sir David is an honorary fellow of Cardiff University and holds honorary engineering degrees at the universities of Bath and Birmingham. He is also an active follow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Royal Academy of Engineering.