Steeling an advantage

Posted on 1 Mar 2010 by The Manufacturer

Edward Machin meets The Hadley Group, a manufacturer of cold-rolled sections whose culture of success is built on innovation, innovation and innovation.

Established nearly 50 years ago by Phil Hadley Snr, 2010 finds The Hadley Group as one of Europe’s largest privately owned cold-roll forming manufacturers. With annual turnover of £100m and a staff headcount of 500 at sites in France, UAE, Thailand and Germany, Hadley’s UK operations consist of five manufacturing facilities located in and around the Black Country — totaling 450,000 sq ft of global capacity.

Its wide product portfolio including internal and external metal framing systems, security fencing, industrial doors and commercial vehicle sections, among others, the company’s reputation has historically been built on supplying cold rolled profiles to the broader construction industry. However, central to Hadley’s corporate strategy is the exploration of adjacent markets to supplement its thriving core business; “Industries that would perhaps not be traditionally identified for cold rolled forming,” says Operations Director, Ben Towe. “As such, we look to both consolidate and diversify into blue and red ocean markets alike, ensuring the broadest application of our industry-leading technology.”

One stop shop
The scale of such operations has enabled the company to develop its unique pre-production processes and a thriving in-house Academy — with the Group holding rights to more than 150 patents & trademarks as a result.

Housing world-class design specialists, engineers and affiliated technicians, as well as operating a robust apprenticeship scheme, the Academy enjoys close ties with a number of local universities. Such has lead Hadley to sponsor PhD students and engineering graduates, two of whom now lead research teams within the facility.

“As far as I’m aware,” says Towe, “we are the only globally-trading company within the cold rolled forming sector who can offer a technical development environment of this kind.

Indeed, that we have strategically built our in-house facilities to enable cradle to grave manufacturing within the Group itself has resulted in our operating with total self-sufficiency in all that we do.” The gamut of original manufacture aside, such capabilities range from the customer who requires production of an existing product to those — a uPVC windows manufacturer, for example — who work with Hadley’s research and product development team to identify a specific product’s performance characteristics; with the company providing design solutions so as to optimise its performance above and beyond the original brief.

Should the Group identify a new location or territory as being strategically important for its continued expansion, only the construction of the new production facility would not be undertaken directly by the Group. From there, all other considerations are dealt with by Hadley — including installation, commission, tooling design, production equipment design, manufacture and maintenance/modification.

“As much with the Hadley Group, the fact that we build our own kit represents a particularly attractive USP,” says Towe. “Being the only company within the UK market that manufactures cold rolled forming machines, we understandably seek to protect that advantage. That said, the company purchases independent machines on occasion, with our experience being that it can prove particularly difficult to locate equipment which operates at anything beyond a basic set of parameters. As a result, when acquiring a standard machine we retrofit it to the industry-leading ‘Hadley standard’ — losing the limitations inherent in one-size-fits-all equipment.”

Nerves of steel
While Towe accepts that virtually anything is achievable at a cost, “By offering a bespoke, in-house service Hadley can price and control the process very much in the customer’s favour.” Perhaps the most striking example of such client-driven manufacture is UltraSTEEL™, the company’s flagship product — designed in response to a list of customer requirements and winner of the Queen’s Award for Innovation in 2006.

With approximately one billion meters produced each year, both in house and under license, Hadley’s globally patented method of imparting a dimpled texture onto the surface of cold rolled products creates metal profiles with greater load-bearing capacity and up to 30% increase in yield strength. “Conversely, we can produce virtually any geometric profile to demonstrate the same performance characteristics as a standard product while using less raw material,” he says, “criteria considered crucial for the construction, aerospace and defence sectors, among others.” Equally, a decrease in raw material usage means that a customer’s environmental impact is simultaneously reduced. Indeed, Greener by Design, represents a central tenet of the company’s operations; “An ethos we strive to live by throughout the Hadley Group,” confirms Towe. Recent years have seen the company invest heavily in increasing its tooling design and manufacture efficiencies — minimising both initial build and lifecycle costs, evidenced ultimately in the customer’s cost per meter. “Again,” says Towe, “such innovation has been very much encouraged by our customer base, and achieved though in-house development of real-time performance, planning, feedback and reporting metrics.” With a remote machine monitor enabling the company to track its efficiencies and production line utilisation, the resulting live production performance data represents a critical aspect of Hadley’s continuous improvement processes. Similarly, the Group continues to develop a suite of roll design software applications, enabling clients to investigate specific elements of product performance within a stringently controlled testing regime. “Not simply through FEA, but the design of an optimised profile tailored to a customer’s specific requirements,” says Towe.

“That said, we recognise that innovative methods of cost reduction do not alone ensure a best in class organisation. With product quality imperative to successful manufacture, in November we launched a business-specific quality delivery system across our product range based on the most salient elements of the AS9100 and SC21 programme.” Having considered a raft of potential models, Hadley identified — and subsequently adopted —the core elements of a Lean manufacturing business model, with the company’s performance data being measured through its Continuous Sustainable Improvement Programme. Such advances are already demonstrating, says Towe, “Greatly positive effects within the Hadley Group but, perhaps more importantly, for our customers.” For example, the company is able to provide advanced production scheduling, performance and stock-holdings information in real time — available on touch screen systems so that operatives can service client requirements without the confusion that often arises with such inquiries.

Pick of the bunch
“While things largely remain business as usual, at Hadley we actively look to avoid treading water with regard to our operations. In spite of those predicting an overly rough ride for the sector, we believe that these are hugely exciting times for British manufacturing, in that only the very best will be able to survive and grow in the current economic climate.” “Coupled with the culture of innovation that has directed operations since its inception, the Hadley Group is continually seeking the next opportunity to diversify our portfolio offerings,” says Towe. “Nonetheless, given its standing as the premium product of its type we equally see UltraSTEEL™ as remaining central to our strategy going forward.” The company has historically undertaken big-ticket work in the Middle East region, such projects continuing with a large-scale contract in Dubai. New opportunities continue to present themselves, however, with Hadley recently becoming the first British company to supply steel vine pickets to the Champagne, Burgundy and Chablis regions of France. As with many of its advances, the project was conceived in close collaboration with potential customers, “Resulting in the development of a unique mechanical harvesting product which we are very much excited about,” says Towe.

“Ultimately, this diversification required our implementing a red ocean strategy for an environment that we hadn’t operated in before; a change of both culture and mindset,” he says.

While such contracts highlight that the company has undoubtedly benefited from the current sterling exchange rate, it has established a number of manufacturing facilities outside the UK in order to provide sustainable, competitive price advantage to customers if —and when — the rates become less favourable.

“It is all very well patting ourselves on the back for recent successes,” confirms Towe, “and we are delighted to continue the culture of innovation that has driven the company since its founding. However, because Hadley has the ability to be flexible on where we manufacture, our customers aren’t limited by the fact that they are dealing with a wholly UK-based business.

That said, and while our global facilities ensure a balanced spread of production capacity, we remain immensely proud of the fact that a British manufacturer is spearheading the continued advancement of our industry.”