The air apparent

Posted on 5 May 2010 by The Manufacturer

Edward Machin meets Torin Sifan, a manufacturer of air movement products for whom the introduction of ‘green’ energy legislation has proven anything but restrictive. The company’s commercial director, Paul Kilburn, explains how overseas expansion and technological breakthroughs have been possible during the recession.

Founded in the early 1900s as the Connecticut-based Torrington Fan Company, for the better part of nine decades Torin Sifan’s product offerings centered around the manufacture of light commercial/industrial centrifugal metal fans and AC technology motors. During the 1990s, however, “We witnessed the introduction of a significant body of legislation relating to carbon reduction, energy efficiency and similar environmental compliance measures; all designed to reduce the consumption of energy” says Kilburn.

For Torin Sifan, technology that it — and the wider industry — had been using for decades was suddenly deemed persona non grata, and highly inefficient to boot.

With regulations, both at European and national levels, directing manufacturers towards brushless DC/EC (electronically commutated) technology, “We had to develop a new generation of energy efficient variants of our various fan ranges,” he says.

Plastic now plays more of a part in conjunction with metal, for fan cases and, more predominantly, impellers. Similarly, whereas the latter has conventionally been forward curved, an increasing number of impellors are being produced with backward facing trajectories. While no doubt a game-changer, “By far the most significant area of expertise we have needed to develop for the business in this new climate was the skills — both technically and production-wise — to develop a range of electronics to drive the fan blades,” says Kilburn.

Very simply, customers no longer want a fan that operates at a single speed and nothing more, especially given the drive in industry to optimise energy efficiency wherever possible. Citing the example of devices that change speed and power depending on the number of occupants in a room, with a heat or CO2 sensor activating the fan, “It can be seen that our industry has undergone a huge transformation in the products that we need to provide and the skills required to deliver them,” he says.

A sterling job
“There are a limited number of companies with the skills needed to lead advancements in the evolution of these types of products, ourselves included. Indeed, while the wider building industry is suffering from the worst effects of the recession, and this has affected demand for our products significantly, the move from AC to Brushless DC/ EC technology has added increased value into the products we are producing. As the energy efficient models can be some 50% more expensive than their AC equivalents, this has helped offset some of the volume decline caused by the economic slowdown.”

That Torin is trading healthily above financial base camp in such otherwise dark times can be attributed twofold, says Kilburn. Because a significant portion of sales are export-based, sterling’s weakening against the euro means that the company’s ability to compete in Europe has increased significantly.

Furthermore, Torin’s embracing of Brushless DC/ EC technology — which has increased value associated with it due to its involved electronics — ensures that it has been able to offset some of the negatives that many businesses are experiencing in the current climate. Indeed, and putting things in perspective somewhat, Kilburn says that, “Were we not selling products outside the UK or only offering a portfolio of AC technology, our business would be under severe pressure.”

Passports at the ready
Given the pound’s weakness, Kilburn would be forgiven for putting geographical expansion plans at the top of his agenda alongside the development focus on new products.

“While in continental Europe you can get as far as Turkey quite easily, commercially speaking, we see it very much as a bridge to the Middle East,” he explains. “For that reason, Torin will continue to put a significant amount of time and effort into further developing our relationships in the area — one for the near future, if you like.” With a territory boasting sun, sand and Sheiks not the worst place to do business, granted, has Torin considered looking west: namely to an America obsessed with its air conditioning culture? “Absolutely,” confirms Kilburn.

“However, the considerable growth in energy efficiency we have seen in Europe has not, as yet, translated to the US.

That said, the Obama administration’s increased focus on a green agenda will, hopefully, play in to our hands when things are pushed through.” Constitutional deliberations aside, Kilburn highlights the American product approval system being specific to its territory as being a further point for consideration. “If a company is going to invest both time and money into getting its product range certified, you want to be as close to certain as possible that the market is at the right stage to ensure healthy ROIs across a sensible time period,” he explains. “We therefore have to consider any investment on infrastructure before taking the plunge, given that the company can service all of continental Europe from the UK.”

Plastic fantastic
With its genesis in a sleepy New England mill town, in Kilburn’s American plans there almost seems to exist a degree of reverse symmetry for the company. Indeed, as the Torrington Fan Company grew during the twentieth century it was decided to establish a number of global subsidiaries to capitalise on the industry’s rapid expansion — one of which was Torin UK, founded in 1964.

Formed on the site in Swindon that Torin Sifan operates from to this day, the company’s focus was largely on the production of light commercial and industrial centrifugal metal fans, and with no little success. As was not uncommon in the early 1980s, however, Torrington underwent various changes in ownership, during which its subsidiaries were broken down and sold off.

Torin changed hands a number of times during this period: initially through the BTR and Hawker Siddeley groups, ultimately finding itself sitting within the Smiths Industries Group in 1997.

“Smiths purchased Torin so as to dovetail with another company in its portfolio, Sifan Systems Ltd, the UK market leader in the supply of AC combustion fans to the gas boiler production sector,” says Kilburn.

“Sifan’s industry was going through significant changes, both in terms of product development and the types of fans that were going to be needed going forward, and it became clear that the expertise required was moving away from traditional AC and into what we call brushless DC technology.” While Sifan wasn’t utilising such capabilities in its product range at the time, Torin was heavily involved in the manufacture of brushless DC technology — supplying business machine manufacturers such as IBM and Rank Xerox, among others. “As a result, Smiths identified an opportunity to take Torin’s DC capabilities into the wider Sifan portfolio, thus strengthening its experience in the industry from a technological evolution point of view,” says Kilburn.

This remained the case until 2002, when a management buyout was conducted of a number of Air Movement businesses from within Smiths Industries. The resulting entity, Volution Holdings, remains Torin Sifan’s home today.

Lean on me
As the companies developed their respective businesses — Sifan as a leading UK brand, with Torin having a greater international presence — it became apparent that the former’s boiler production sector was gaining increasing global traction; a Torin specialty. By leveraging Sifan’s historic UK reputation, so the thinking went, the familiar Torin name would make smooth its sibling’s transition into worldwide markets.

Finally, given that the location of Sifan’s facility was little more than spitting distance from Swindon, it simply made sense to merge the businesses onto a single site, says Kilburn. “As a united organisation that shared a joined infrastructure, we also felt that a significant aspect of growing our business was in retaining the cultural values that existed within both entities — a commonality that has paid dividends in the long-term.” “As such, Lean is critical to us due to the fact that as a component manufacturer we operate on limited margins; we don’t have high trade prices with similarly large discounts, in other words,” he says. Trading from a standard cost structure, and a selling price based from it, once the structure is established there is little opportunity for price changes outside of known trends in raw material commodities.

From a purely fiscal point of view, for Torin Sifan to maximise its turnover, profitability and run a tight financial ship, it remains crucial that the company’s manufacturing processes are as efficient as possible — especially once a given contract is secured. Intriguingly, while it operates as a highly process-driven, ISO9001 accredited organisation, Torin chooses not to use the seemingly endless variations of Lean terminology in the company’s day-to-day workings.

“We look towards total simplicity,” says Kilburn. “For instance, if there is common sense way of saying ‘look at that flowchart and go from A to B’ then we use that every time; logical and straightforward is what we strive for.” With a permanent staff of 200, not to mention the 25-30 strong flexible workforce employed for seasonal shifts, Torin places particularly high value in its staff relating to any process or procedure undertaken on the shop floor — communicating in process-driven maps, for example.

Spoke when bespoken to
Similarly, the company has identified that their business naturally involves an increasing degree of client customisation around products, never more so than with the introduction of an EC portfolio. Separating customerspecific activities from general market norms thus becomes vital to maintaining flexibility of both offerings and production, says Kilburn.

“As a major advantage to customers, we want to retain such bespoke offerings. Sitting alongside it, however, the business looks to create products which are considerably more standardised: the only difference being the size of the impellor, for one.” As more of Torin’s time is used to establish high volume, productionoriented lines, not only do quality control, consistency and efficiency spike, but investment in the company’s manufacturing processes realises yet further cost savings.

With integrity of production understandably high on the company’s agenda, Kilburn confirms the installation of a new line on the Swindon facility’s shop floor. Accommodating the manufacture of a common product range for a significant European contract, installation of the line is close to completion. Rather than integrating the product into the company’s standard manufacturing platform, however, Torin has developed a series of automated production lines — with high concentration end-of-line testing and holding the capacity for a significant increase in the volumes the line can handle.

“When we get to capacity on the line, we will simply extend the production process by adding another replicate line,” says Kilburn. “In this way, the transformation of skills, techniques and supervisory knowledge remains consistent throughout our manufacturing.

We simply build it up as we go. Kind of like a Meccano set, you might say!”

Pick ‘n mix
“Indeed, for those projects which require EC-driven technology, the market is demanding more of its products as we go forward. Energy efficiencies and noise levels must be lower, to name two. That Torin has developed in our new generation platform products that are very competitive while retaining industryleading quality advances means that we can offer both a technological and commercial edge for our customers.” Not one to rest on its laurels, Torin Sifan — strapline: ‘The partner of choice’ — conducts an annual customer satisfaction questionnaire so as to ascertain value, sector or purchasing differentiators. Of particular interest to Kilburn and his management team was one trend in particular: that a number of those taking market share were the international conglomerates offering fairly standard product ranges from catalogues.

The approach Torin takes, on the other hand, is to sit down with customers and work to understand exactly their drivers and technological needs. The company then design and build the products around its client’s requirements, offering a cost basis for sensible, competitive pricing — and manufacturing the technologies to sit alongside their current set-up. “In that sense, people choose to engage with us” says Kilburn.

“This is particularly important for SME customers, who quite rightly expect the same level of personal service that a much larger customer may take for granted. We consider the smaller operators to be of great value, as they offer strong loyalty and help us reduce our financial risk of being over exposed due to the larger, more global organisations representing too high a share of our turnover.”

Going global
“Similarly, Torin is looking to expand our EC technology platform across a much wider range of products,” says Kilburn. So, although the company has been successful in supplying these products into the residential sector and light commercial applications, it is seeking to leverage its technological expertise into closely-related markets: commercial and industrial buildings, for example, with the necessary investment in machinery soon to follow, he confirms.

With regards to an overarching development strategy, “Expansion is similarly on the agenda; this time on a global scale.” In taking a large number of its existing products into as yet untapped markets, however, Kilburn and his cohorts will look to consider the impact of, and potential for, new distributor and agency agreements — as well as the alwayspopular partnership route. “The fact that opportunities for partnerships may present themselves with strongly positioned brands in those territories means that we have some fairly hefty decisions to make going forward,” he says.

Indeed, moving beyond the shores of continental Europe is relatively new ground for Torin Sifan. Traditionally the company has handled similar expansions directly or with minimal agent support, something that will become less practical the further its moves from Europe.

The fact that such endeavours may require a sizeable shift in thinking is not lost on Kilburn. “The business went through some pretty choppy waters going back twenty years or so, the upside of which means that we have undertaken a journey of completely re-understanding our marketplaces, business and customers, among others,” he says.

Consistent consistency
“There are still a number of sizeable challenges to overcome in achieving our long-term goal, and it would be pointless to pretend otherwise,” confirms Kilburn. “That said, we are confident that our vision is the right one.” Indeed, this is reflected in both the company’s healthy financial results and the ever-increased acceptance Torin Sifan is having in its marketplaces — both traditional and otherwise.

He continues, “We don’t see there being anything wrong in having tweaks to make here and there, given that we are unwavering as to our ultimate direction. Pleasingly, the business as a whole has bought into where we are going as, especially during a recession, people are affected by any signs of instability.” “For that reason, and when the wider markets take a turn for the better, our consistency in both people and strategy will mean that we can react positively to the surge in demand, further cementing Torin Sifan’s reputation as a leader in our respective markets.”