Steeled for the future

Posted on 8 Mar 2011 by The Manufacturer

A difficult recession and a future characterised by increasing resource security challenges may make the steel forming industry seem an inhospitable environment for business. The Hadley Group, however, is confident that ingenuity in innovation, service and strategy will ensure it is able to continue supplying key products to its customers for many decades to come.

The Hadley Group is the largest cold roll forming manufacturer in the UK, manufacturing diverse products ranging from pig pens to aircraft hangers to sky scrapers for customers around the globe. This breadth of market opportunity must have gone some way towards protecting Hadley from the impact of recession and the constant fluctuations of a turbulent market. But, as Ben Towe, operations director at Hadley explains, it is the fact that this is underpinned with a culture of innovation and strategic forward thinking that has allowed Hadley to consolidate its position as market leader and helps restore confidence in the steel industry as a whole.

Hadley’s approach to nurturing the cautiously recovering but still risk-averse steel market has been collaborative, customer driven and focused on the future: “The nature of the market in recent years, and the character of recovery have meant that we have seen a huge rise in opportunities for collaborative product development and joint ventures as companies seek to mitigate risk or share cost.

“Our international spread and scale of our manufacturing capacity, capability and technical competence has allowed us to tap into a larger, international and multi-continent customer base where consistency of global supply is considered essential.” Unsurprisingly, therefore, Towe asserts: “Securing consistency of material supply will be our major priority going forward into 2011. Our primary route to this will be through strategic partnerships with distributors and we are also engaging in some spot buying in the UK and with forward buying abroad. We are being careful how we balance the risk of getting involved too deeply in either one of those tactics.”

Showing metal

Towe believes that at some point every company must be responsible for its own fate and for building an internal resilience that responds to external conditions. For Towe, the key development at Hadley, which he believes sets the company apart, has been in connection with technical customer support: “We have an internal roll forming “academy” within our group of companies called Hadley Group Technology. As far as I am aware no one else has anything quite like this technical solutions development department.” Hadley Technology Group works across departments and other group businesses to ensure that every opportunity for the enterprise as a whole is captured and capitalised upon. Furthermore it ensures that the capabilities of the whole group are made easily accessible and usable for the customer. Towe explains: “It is a technical hub. A multi-disciplinary engineering team that means customers can bring a requirement, or a range of requirements, to a single point of contact.” Towe is convinced that dedication to the principle of prioritising delivery will continue to demarcate Hadley from other, perhaps equally technically, capable competitors. It is this conviction which is driving a key improvement initiative across the group, honing in on customer lead times, not just for manufacturing, but for the progression of new innovations from concept to market launch.

Being first to leap on opportunity while maintaining a service to existing customers which protects them from global volatility is central to Hadley’s plans and the company has invested time and money into making sure it can do this in the most effective way possible. Towe expands: “We have created a new off-line manufacturing cell which will fill our time to market gap that elapses while new tooling is in manufacture and help us tackle lead time challenges.” Hadley launches around two or three new products every week, a standard that has stayed steady even throughout the recession but the speed to market for these is generally about 12 weeks. Towe says that the new off-line cell is enabling customers to have test models and low volume supply of their bespoke product within days while the traditional tooling is still in mainstream manufacture.

Hadley Group – At a glance

Points of interest: In 2007 Hadley Group received a Queens Award for Innovation for their patented Ultrasteel® rolling process. The process brings together the need for high performing, resilient steel products at a competitive price with the need to consider the environmental impact of production and the pressing concern of resource scarcity.

Core products: Cold rolled and allied products

Established: 1969

Turnover: £92m

Employees: 450 worldwide

Key global locations: UK, France, Germany, Dubai, and Thailand.

Further customer and delivery focused investments at Hadley include the recent installation of new Finite Element Analysis software. Towe explains: “As an engineering business we want to offer our customers the very best solution to their particular requirement. This new software enables us to critically analyse a customer’s product which allows us to constructively advise them on ways to optimise use of the product in life or to see ways in which a small modification, for instance to where a hole is pierced, could have a significant impact on both the tooling price and the price per metre of the product since it can affect the manufacturing speed or complexity.” This focus on getting the best for customers, both in terms of performance and cost is ingrained in the Hadley Group through from its unique inline rolling process, Ultrasteel®, through to its choice of future investments.

The Ultrasteel® process, which won Hadley a Queens Award for Innovation in 2007, is at the heart of the Hadley Group’s operations and offerings. Ultrasteel® is a cold rolled pre-forming process that locally work hardens the base material improving its strength by up to 20%. The process is applied to the standard base metal in-line so it does not increase manufacturing cost and is ideal for high volumes.

The innovation, which took 20 years to develop, is now used in over 300 mills worldwide turning out more than one billion metres of product per year. The process is internationally patented and trademarked and the company has been very active in franchising the process to roll formers in India, North America, South Africa and Eastern Europe.

Hadley has also redesigned its own product range to incorporate the UltraSTEEL® process. This rapidly growing range includes roller shutter door sections, strut profiles, internal and external framing profiles, window reinforcement profiles and the recently launched steel post range for use in vineyards. The latter product was commended with the “Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Manufacturer of the Year 2010” Award. The company is currently following up leads to utilise weight-out/ strength in aspects of UltraSTEEL® within the automotive and aerospace sectors. Hadley is not, however, resting on its laurels as Towe makes plain: “We are also looking to expand through diversification and through areas aligned with our core business.” Indeed a significant proportion of the £1.5m Hadley has spent in the last 12 months has gone into buying the redundant assets of companies who have succumbed to this frustrating situation and refurbishing them, using in-house expertise, to meet new requirements in addition to major purchases of new plant, equipment and technical expertise.

Extending horizons

Another move for strategic market diversification is embodied in the doubling of Hadley’s presence in Dubai where, despite glum press reports about financial stability, Towe says there is a wealth of business to be had: “Whatever the press may be reporting, the fact is that Dubai will have to get finished, as does Abu Dhabi. We understand that Dubai itself may not be a place to look to for new sales but the fact is that there is around a decade’s worth of work to be done simply to deliver everything that has been sold so far and we are seeing emerging interest from neighbouring countries.

This pro-active approach to unearthing growth and value opportunities recently led Hadley to acquire the assets of a Wolverhampton based roll-forming company. The firm was identified for integration with Hadley due to the skills and capabilities it would bring to the groups growing interest in the steel framing market as well as other interests which will require flexible manufacturing lines together with a higher degree of automation to minimise cost and deliver sustainable efficiency improvement.

The future is shaping up well for the Hadley Group. The scale of the business allows it to compete on the world stage for major global customers on an increasingly competitive basis. Towe maintains, “Hadley has the technical competences to attract and support the most demanding customers combined with a fast track, collaborative approach to product development through to market launch. Furthermore its long term programme of investment in technology has borne fruit in the UltraSTEEL® process which further enhances its ability to offer sections and systems with a unique competitive advantage.” Any short term material supply turbulence – perceived as a major threat within this sector – can be offset by the Hadley Groups global sourcing policy, thus ensuring that the effect on the customer base is minimised.