The good, the big and the ugly

Posted on 7 Apr 2010 by The Manufacturer

Sheffield is home to one of the biggest engineering workshops in the Western hemisphere that dates back 180 years. It is where the world’s tunnel boring machine makers and mine operators come to have the heavy-duty components manufactured that few other workshops can handle. Will Stirling gets a taste of fire and steel at DavyMarkham.

Step in to the 175,000 sq ft main workshop at DavyMarkham and you step into another world. This is proper heavy engineering, the type of company that few people who live south of Birmingham are aware even exists in modern Britain. Here, giant 350-tonne-rated gantry cranes move high above your head, teams of skilled welders work on vast components like the cutterhead for a tunnel boring machine or a hoist assembly for a gold mine, complex machines cut and shape heavy metal in oil baths. Everything is big. “Our motto should be: if it’s big and ugly, we love it,” jokes managing director Kevin Parkin, the man who has led a sweeping culture change and performance improvement programme at the Sheffield-based company.

Mr Parkin is right – while ugly is a matter of opinion, this is where companies from across the world – China, India, Korea, Canada – come to have very big, specialist steel equipment fabricated, tested and reconditioned.

DavyMarkham is one of the biggest engineering workshops in Western Europe operating some machines on a near unique scale. “The tandem lift can lift 350 tonnes, very few companies in Europe can lift as much,” says Parkin. “We can fabricate components up to 1,100 tonnes, but we’re restricted by what we can take on the road – the bridges to Immingham, the nearest deep water port, are rated up to 400 tonnes.” While international competition for some contracts is intense, the number of companies which can match these facilities is small. DavyMarkham (DM) has one of the largest horizontal turning machines in the world, which takes components up to 20ft in diameter, and 39 cranes operate here daily.

Rolling up the sleeves
The company dates back 180 years, when Davy Engineering was founded in Sheffield in 1830. It merged with Markham of Chesterfield in 1997 and has been through several acquisitions including that by Norwegian group Kvaerner. In that time, it has built up a worldwide reputation for manufacturing components in sectors including mining, quarrying and tunnelling for parts like mine hoists and cutterheads; civil engineering, including moving components for structures like the Millennium Bridge and Thames Barrier; hydroelectric equipment like water controls; power generation components like the nuclear shield doors at Sellafield, as well as several, non-sector specific one-offs.

Big, however, was not always beautiful. The company is going through a change programme, devised by Parkin and finance director Duncan Hay when they joined nearly four years ago. They presided over a management buyout financed by private equity firm Endless when the company was in poor shape.

“The options for the business in 2006 were take the MBO or face closure,” says Parkin. “But we showed this is a sound business with a future. We broke even within a year. Endless wrote the cheque within four weeks of submitting our proposal,” referring to an investment that since has been repaid in spades.

At the time, DM’s industrial relations were poor, growth potential was being hamstrung by non-existent internal communications and poor dialogue with the main union, Unite, and there were many operational inefficiencies. Gradually the change management programme has brought sceptical staff around and delivered measured operational efficiency improvements. The first step in this corporate culture journey was engendering a strong sense of health and safety awareness. “Safety is the first priority in the business, there is nothing more important,” says Parkin. “Every person in the company is authorised to stop a job if they feel it’s unsafe or don’t understand what they’re doing. This way we’ve got people more involved in risk assessments, so they understand these and the precautions to take to minimise that risk.” Like many successful UK manufacturers, Parkin and his team realised customer performance was the primary pillar of improvement for the company. “Three years ago our delivery performance was running at 20 per cent,” he says “We thought it was important that everybody knew the customer requirement, so we now publish the delivery date required by the customer all over the shop floor. Last year we averaged 95 per cent on-time delivery. We’re targeting 100 per cent but we’re delighted with the improvement and the shop floor has supported us here.” Shop floor staff now understand regenerative business; that the company has to persuade customers that it can produce the next order, so that they automatically return to DM, and their most important metric was on time and the right quality.

Engineering change
On the factory tour, we pass a huge casting being machined, destined for an extremely large press. DM machines these vast components to very high tolerances.

“There is a 300-tonne casting, with circumferential squareness of 60 microns and cross-dimensional tolerance of 60 microns, on a piece of metal that’s as big as a bus,” says Parkin. It’s this juxtaposition between the scale of these products and the fine accuracies to which they are made that really strikes you.

Everyone seems busy and while there is always the need to find new business, Parkin is upbeat about the pipeline. In March, DM became the first tier two partner for the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at nearby Waverley Park. It means when contracts for Britain’s new nuclear industry start tendering in earnest, DM has a prominent place in the queue. We stop to admire a hoist housing for a goldmine in Canada – the hoist will lift and lower several tonnes of kit and people one mile in the ground.

“The client is IM Gold, this is the second one that will be shipped. It’s great work for us. Yesterday we received another order from a different organisation in Canada for £4.5m with more work to follow. There is no question that much of the North American work has come from our success with the LaRonde mine project. We’ve proved that we can deliver on time, and that we produce a safe product that will work for years,” says Parkin.

Four years ago, operational inefficiencies here were rife. The system today is that if the engineers are not working for 30 minutes they tell management why, so downtime is analysed. “At first we struggled to understand why we had bottlenecks and efficiency was so low,” says Parkin. “It was because the previous management had taken out indirect workers, the labourers and tool room workers. Skilled guys on the machines were spending time clearing up, sweeping up and finding tools. We reinstated the indirect workers and efficiency greatly improved.

Now we analyse downtime on a daily basis, and publish it to tell everyone.” DM has also invested in a 5S system which Parkin says is working. All the machine areas have clean tool boards now and they identified and removed a lot of surplus tools, such as redundant imperial gauge wrenches.

We look down into the assembly pit. It’s 17.4m deep from the top of the hook to the pit’s floor, a unique facility to assemble and test very large assemblies before they are shipped. “We can lift 250 tonnes in here. We bring in our own or a third party’s component in as assemblies, and trial assemble them here to ensure that everything goes together and is tested before it goes out to, e.g a nuclear power station or an oil rig so make sure everything works properly. The last thing you need is to have a component return to the workshop.” DM made the control tower for Heathrow Terminal 5 in canisters, which were assembled here to make sure it was perpendicular before despatch.

Aside from contracted fabrications, DM does a lot of reconditioning and remanufacturing work, as well as research on machine tools performance, testing for most of the leading tool manufacturers. “It’s all about removal of metal efficiently,” says Parkin, who is both a qualified engineer and accountant. “It’s a balance between cutting efficiency and changeover of tools that wear. The coating of the tool surface is so important. There are non-stick wear resistant surfaces, surfaces that won’t allow the cutting plasma to stick to the tool, and to take the heat away from the tool as fast as possible down the swarf. There are big challenges with this work, and our facilities help the tool makers.”

Your greatest asset
Parkin is particularly passionate about DM’s apprenticeship scheme and the work the company has done with local schools. It’s something he knows a lot about – since joining, 18 apprentices have joined DM, the company is involved in Sheffield’s Workwise scheme for getting schoolchildren into local companies and he advises Sheffield Council on skills. “We’ve delivered our own apprenticeship scheme with no government assistance — much of that funding is absorbed by quangos,” says Parkin. “Apprentices are a crucial part of your capital investment. Our age profile is certainly skewed towards the 50s age group. Four years ago the average was 49, but by bringing on apprentices we’ve brought that down to about 44. There is more to do because some of these guys in the next ten years are looking to retire — we’re keen to cover for that, but more importantly to pass those skills on as quickly as possible.” Six months ago DM’s apprenticeship scheme received approval from the Institute for Mechanical Engineers, which means time-served DM apprentices will have IMechE initials by their name. The next step, Parkin says, is to develop fasttrack qualifications, including a part-time 46-week HNC and a part-time three year mechanical engineering degree, both on college day release. This will consolidate the interest that DM is picking up from more school visits, as part of Sheffield’s Taskforce project. “With this initiative, with other local companies we’re showing parents of 16-year olds there is a real alternative to university, where traditionally young people have blindly followed a route that does simply does not guarantee a good job in today’s world,” Parkin says.

A pilot was launched in February and DM intends to put 100 local schoolchildren through company visits in 2010. A word of caution he has for schools is the compatibility of basic education to employers’ needs. “We support schools but I must say some of the apprenticeship intake we have need a lot of help from us with basic maths like geometry, and even English. It is time-consuming and an issue – schools need to raise the bar on basic maths for 16-year olds.” Tomorrow looks bright for one of the UK’s oldest and most versatile engineering companies. More North American companies are making enquiries for mining and quarrying equipment, and Parkin is hopeful that DM’s association with the Nuclear AMRC will reap dividends when the utility companies start placing contracts. “We are getting many enquiries and we have had several quality assessments from the players in UK new nuclear, so we are excited.” Meanwhile, DavyMarkham continues to build bridges – both literally and metaphorically, as it reaches out to teach schoolchildren the meaning of modern, but traditional, manufacturing and the skills they can learn for a sustainable future career.