The big issue

Posted on 15 Jan 2008 by The Manufacturer

Andrew Churchill, managing director of JJ Churchill, highlights that it is not the threat of overseas competition that threatens manufacturers as much as neglect of the vital skill base on which they depend

JJ Churchill is a company whose heritage is inextricably bound-up with the evolution of the jet engine industry. Founded 70 years ago by the grandfather of its present managing director, the company began making parts for the Merlin engine that went into the Spitfire. “When the jet engine industry began in earnest in the 1940s, we made the first generation of compressor blades, and it is still a key part of the business,” explained Andrew Churchill. “For example, we made compressor blades for the Olympus engine that went on to Concorde and also for the RB199 engine that powers the Tornado and the Pegasus engine for Harrier Jump jets.”

British Airways’ Jumbo Jets and the Boeing Dreamliner have been among JJ Churchill’s compressor blade recipients and the company can lay claim to having worked on many Rolls-Royce engine platforms.
Today about half of JJ Churchill’s revenues are accounted for by the production of high-horsepower diesel engines delivered on a line-side sequence basis to the likes of Cummins and Caterpillar. The remainder of the business is accounted for by various ferrous and non-ferrous parts that are machined and built into assemblies, again for direct sequencing into line-side.

JJ Churchill is the market leader in most of the segments it serves and is also renowned as a world leader in lathe part-off tooling. The company is determined to retain this position by reinvesting a sum equivalent to 10 per cent of sales back into the business each year. This year that investment has been close to £1.8 million.

“We invest in top of the range aerospace equipment for diesel engine work. It is higher speed and gives greater productivity and repeatability. High levels of capital investment are a key part of our strategy to combat the risk of our customers’ migrating to suppliers in low cost economies.

“Applying sophisticated machining techniques to reduce cycle-time and the number of operations enables us to minimise the labour input. This is the only advantage that overseas suppliers can offer as raw materials and capital equipment cost much the same everywhere and there’s limited opportunity for us to reduce our overheads. Then, because we are in the UK, we are physically much closer to the build-line in terms of ‘pipeline fill’, and the flexibility this confers is another aspect of our business that adds value to our customers’ operations,” he explained.

However, his main focus is on what he describes as: “Our insurance policy for tomorrow, which is our investment in people.” Andrew Churchill is a man with a mission. And that mission consists of addressing a much bigger issue – the disenfranchisement of manufacturing industries by governmental policies and cultural norms which deny manufacturing and engineering the status they deserve as desirable, aspirational careers.

Since the company’s inception in 1937, it has conducted a highly acclaimed apprenticeship scheme, which has won many awards. Moreover, JJ Churchill has an excellent staff retention record. Historically, advertising was never needed to fill vacancies and many senior managers began their careers on its apprenticeship scheme.

“Then, about two years ago, we found we could no longer fill vacancies by word of mouth. Despite our growing expenditure and effort in recruitment, we are struggling to find the quality and commitment we need and the situation is steadily getting worse,” he explained.

He is an executive committee member of the East Midlands and Mid-Anglia EEF and is aware that many other manufactures are suffering the same plight. They are simply unable to recruit and retain the calibre of people needed to grow their businesses.

Earlier this year he re-visited several machine tool suppliers in Germany and Switzerland and returned inspired by what he found there. “Germanic culture has traditionally placed technical competence on a par with academic success and the impact of this was very apparent. Not only had the companies I visited succeeded in increasing their proportion of trainees to 13 per cent, but more importantly, annual audits showed that more than 50 per cent of the original apprentices were still with the business 10 years later.”

He came back to the UK determined to confront this crisis, both within his own business and the manufacturing sector at large. “We cannot just complain about lack of action on the part of the government, we have to start with what we can do for ourselves,” he said. JJ Churchill is currently in the process of updating and professionalising its in-house apprenticeship scheme. “We need to market our apprenticeship better in order to make it more appealing. We must also extend it to cope with greater numbers.”

Nothing would delight Andrew Churchill more than to be able to host regular open days for school children in the area. “We make exciting stuff here like jet blades for Rolls-Royce engines. Seeing our processes could inspire young people to choose an engineering career. We would love to be able to demonstrate that manufacturing is fun and provides a wonderful livelihood with a tangible, world-class product as the end result,” he said.

“We are on a Tornado flight path and it is a great feeling to know that our blades are behind that engine when we see the aircraft flying over at twice the speed of sound. It is absolutely imperative that we preserve and foster our skill base in the UK if we are going to be in a strong economy and at the cutting edge of aerospace technology tomorrow,” he stated.