Developing and growing business in niche markets in some of the world’s most exciting engineering industries is the focus for Atlantic Inertial Systems. Business Improvement Director, David Somerville, and Production Director, Kevin Pindard, talk to Tim Brown about their highly specialised company and its market leading technologies.
Atlantic Inertial Systems (AIS) is a global supplier of inertial measurement and navigation systems. Its range of products are used in a wide range of industries including aerospace, defence and automotive. Operating within 28 different countries and with 250 different product ranges, examples of AIS’s product portfolio are at the heart of the effective functioning of many, many different platforms types – ships, aircraft and unmanned aircraft, guided weapons, land vehicles, camera platforms and sighting systems .
An Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) is the main component of the inertial guidance systems used to track a platform’s position. An Inertial Navigation System (INS) is a navigation aid that uses a computer and accelerometers to calculate the position, orientation and velocity of a moving object without the need for external references. Among the list of defence hardware fitted with AIS systems is the Seawolf Rocket, the shoulder-launched Javelin rocket and the Apache Longbow attack helicopter and, most recently, the Excalibur precision guided missile. The effective operation of the NASA Space Shuttle also depends on AIS equipment.
In fact, AIS could be considered the UK’s oldest start up company. Its heritage goes back to early in the 20th century and includes pioneering names such as Singer, Plessey and Marconi and yet AIS was formed only in 2007. It was bought by b BAE Systems in 1999 and subsequently purchased by its current owner John F.
Lehman and Company (JFL) in 2007. JFL has encouraged Atlantic Inertial System’s continued development in both the military and commercial markets and has brought increased connectivity and experience across European and US civil and military aerospace programmes.
“Under JFL, we have secured greater investment in product development which has improved our potential for growth. Despite the current climate there is an emphasis on continued technology investment and we continue to invest in the region of 10% of our turnover in research and development.” says Somerville “And key to our success also has been the significant investment we have been able to make in state of the art equipment to maintain our comprehensive product test facility. This has allowed us to comprehensively test product performance in any environment, however severe. Today, we have the only IMU on the market that will survive 20,000g and function perfectly and it is this proven performance that brought us our contract wins on the USA’s Excalibur programme.”
AIS’s Plymouth site offers a complete turnkey solution offering a full engineering and design centre, extensive test facility as well as a full manufacturing operation. The team undertakes every stage of the process from initial design and development, through performance and environmental testing into full production. There are very few operations in Aerospace and Defence industries where this is the case.
“We have a highly skilled workforce with an average of 16 years experience and the commitment of every individual is key to our success. Our process of continuous improvement encourages engagement with and contribution to our lean processes by everyone. We have clear displays of our key quality, cost/profit and delivery measures available for all our team.” Pindard explains.
A.I.S uses the range of lean tools and visual management systems to ensure maximum efficiency and productivity.
Tools such as, 5S, Kanban, Vendor- Managed Inventory, Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), standard operating procedures, throughput accounting and theory of constraint tools are in everyday use at AIS. The Company deploys DFM (Design For Manufacture) within its new production processes and Poke-Yoke in developing fail-safe processes within production programmes.
Using lean principles combined with the introduction of strategies to assist in the management of product performance such as Statistical Process Control and Six Sigma, AIS has made major improvements to its efficiency and productivity.
And to ensure the Company and its suppliers are working efficiently and in full support of customer’s needs in an effective supply chain, AIS is currently implementing the UK Government’s Supply Chain 21 initiative.
“For the aerospace and defence industry, the manufacturing techniques we have in place on this site are very much state of the art,” says Somerville. “We have very good control of inventory.
When we started looking at our product portfolio and at our five year target, we could see that the largest financial commitment was in materials rather than labour. By reducing our inventory, our cash flow within the business has improved by 40 per cent and we have seen a significant 20 per cent reduction in waste and yield loss. And the improvement programmes we have in place to streamline our business processes have had a critical benefit in significantly reducing our lead times to the customer.”
AIS has also cornered more mainstream markets including in the automotive sector. Through a joint venture with Sumitomo of Japan – one of the oldest and most successful joint ventures between a Japanese and British manufacturing company, about to have its 10th birthday – a MEMs-based silicon gyroscope was developed for use in automotive applications. This product now equips the electronic stability system of over 15 million cars on the road today. And this versatile solid state gyro is also found equipping a diverse range of products, such as model helicopters, agricultural equipment and ship tracking systems.
AIS has detailed plans in place to expand the business over the next five years. The Company has a healthy re-investment scheme and extensive market research programme in place investigating new revenue streams “We are looking at adjacent markets,” says Somerville. “We will maintain and grow our aerospace and defence and automotive businesses and believe our products have real applicability in a number of associated markets.” With its focus on targeted research and product development, its current technological lead and healthy order book and its strategic plan in place, AIS seems entirely likely to meet its bold business targets and to continue its success.