Precious commodity

Posted on 4 Aug 2011 by The Manufacturer

P&B Metal Components has just turned 50-years old. But perhaps the greater achievement is that more than 40% of its low cost contract assemblies are exported to Asia. Phil Penney and Colin Richardson tell TM how this manufacturer is futureproofing itself with a new plant refurbishment project driven by productivity needs, a 5S programme and the devotion to delivering prices that customers want.

P&B Metal Components has come a very long way since its one-man beginnings in north London 50-years ago. Relocating to Whitstable in 1968, the company supplied contacts for switchgear and telecommunication relay manufacturers.

Half a century later, the business is a global supplier of a vast range of contact assemblies. It operates three sites in Kent and Sheffield and employs 210 extremely loyal staff.

Today, with commodity inflation rife and new global business opportunities in a competitive market, the company’s key executives chose to invest heavily in plant to keep ahead of the game.

Investment – customised controls

The company is about halfway into a comprehensive 2.5 year machine refurbishment project, where investment to date tops £250,000. “Working with Able Controls, our investment involves stripping all the welding and multiforming machines down and replacing all the electrical systems with Siemens and Omron PLC-controlledinstrumentation, with cameras for quality checks and more,” says engineering director Phil Penney.

These new control systems will be plug-and-play, allowing the company to move them between machines should a fault arise. “The cameras and sensors will improve quality and output and increase our efficiency. That’s what customers want,” says operations manager Colin Richardson.

Precious and base metal prices have never been higher, with silver and copper peaking to historic highs this year. With such inflation, the pressure is on to manufacture efficiently. This investment was unavoidable, says Mr Richardson. “With rising metal costs, the margins are not there and everyone wants cost-down. There is an expectation for us to ‘engineer our way out’, and we invest a lot of time with large customers on cost-down exercises and developing best practices.” This encourages innovation, and P&B redesigns products to be manufactured differently. Value engineering exercises with customers are common.

Part of the productivity mission is to get lean. P&B is in the middle of a new 5S and lean manufacturing programme.

“What do our customers want from us?” asks Mr Penney. “On-time delivery, reduced lead time, reduced stock holding – the usual standards. Lean and 5S can help achieve these.” Colin Richardson adds: “There’s an expectation in the market when like-forlike manufacturers work with suppliers, many suppliers are very lean in their approach so they want to transact with like-minded companies, especially in the automotive sector.

We want to be in a place where any customer can talk and transact with us in the same language – this helps us to understand their business too, to be more responsive.” Working hard to reach price points that are mutually acceptable is important, but service and quality are equally so. Mr Richardson says the company has developed a competitive advantage in its knowledge of customers’ needs and their ordering patterns.

Employee loyalty, a zeal for making things

There’s something about Whitstable – it might be the bracing sea air, or maybe the Kentish hops – that makes people very loyal to their employers. The reception at P&B Metal Components is adorned with long service awards – two employees’ have been here for 41-years and it’s not uncommon for staff to serve for 20 or 25 years. “People enjoy the culture and philosophy,” says Mr Richardson.

“This is a fast-paced company, very responsive and progressive. We are all about manufacturing and the philosophy is about how the rest of the business supports that manufacturing.”

Diverse global markets

Mr Penney is proud of P&B’s export record. “Forty one per cent now goes to Asia Pacific countries and just 18 per cent to the UK. It was more like 80 per cent to the UK 20-years ago. We at P&B are proud of this change; particularly having achieved this during difficult economic times.

How can P&B Metals explain why the China region, as master of low cost manufacture, is such a big market? The answer: High automation, meaning 30:1 person ratio between Chinese competitors and P&B, as well as its consistent quality.

P&B now has full-time sales representatives across the region and is constantly developing new customers.

Growth can also be attributed to P&B’s responsiveness.

Customers, says Mr Richardson, don’t always get it right. “It is not uncommon for the customer to say that they’ve experienced a stock loss or, they’ve had a big increase in demand,” he says.

“P&B has developed a commitment to turnaround really quickly with new products. It’s common for us to work into the night and work weekend shifts, to put orders on a plane. That differentiates us in this market.” Productivity is, as ever, essential in this area of manufacturing. “Clearly we can’t compete on labour with China, but we far exceed their productivity rates and I believe we get better quality as well,” says Penney.

With the high cost of raw materials, customers don’t want to keep stock and there is pressure for P&B to be leaner and more responsive. That’s a science when operating in such geographically diverse markets. P&B operates locally managed stock policies in the region to overcome logistical concerns of its customers.

Your greatest asset

While inflation is the visible enemy, in the long term the bigger risk to P&B could be access to experienced workers in both UK sites. The company has two teenage tool-making apprentices in their Whitstable tool room and another two in the contact welding section who are being developed.

“It’s about getting people with the passion” says Richardson. “From agency workers who “get” our business values – customer service, responsiveness – we’ve got some really good new blood coming through.” P&B offers training possibilities to its entire staff. If they identify skills needs for an individual that they can’t provide in-house, P&B will source it. The company has offered a one-year placement to two or three local people struggling to find a job.

“By the time they get an NVQ, if they chose to, and have our training boxes ticked, hopefully we will be in a position to keep them,” says Richardson. “There are a few programmes locally that P&B are involved with to get people out of the ‘can’t find jobno experience trap’.

The company is now looking to develop a work-based NVQ and Train to Gain.

Local Colleges have been in to review its needs, whether enhancing Basic English and Maths or trade-based NVQs.

Happy birthday

Fifty years after its humble beginnings, P&B Metal Components is in a good place. With over a third of product exported to Asia, major new business projects, and a super-loyal workforce, confidence is high that this manufacturing company has a good future. “Our mantra is: total customer-focus, quality, high service levels and product knowledge,” says Richardson.

“If the business can maintain those priorities, we will keep growing.”


P&B Metal Components – at a glance

Manufacturing a wide range of contact assemblies, rivets, contact strip, pressed and turned parts.

210 employees

Stamping and pressing; contact welding machines; multi-forming machines; heading machines; cold-bonding mills; added value operations inc assembly and screw insertions; new turned parts manufacturing services.

41% to Asia Pacific countries, 33% to Europe, 18% to the UK, 8% to North America

Turnomatic, October 2010

Welding and multiforming machines – upgrading all control system technologies. Warehousing restructure to improve product flow, storage capacity and access.

Key people
Phil Penney, Engineering Director
Colin Richardson, Operations Manager