The right connection

Posted on 3 Jun 2010 by The Manufacturer

The UK operation of Deutsch Group has a key role in the company’s world-wide operations, Dave Carman and Andy Meredith tells Ruari McCallion.

There ’s something that all of the leading players in the world’s greatest car chase have in common. The majority of the cars that line up on a Grand Prix starting grid use sophisticated electronics – that is widely known. What may be less well-known is that the leading supplier of connectors to the world of Formula One is a vibrant operation based in, of all places, the old seaside town of St Leonard’s-on-Sea, in Sussex.

“We’re probably the largest suppliers of connectors to autosport,” said Andy Meredith, manufacturing manager with Deutsch UK. Gearboxes in F1 cars are really very complex pieces of machinery, electrically actuated to change ratios in hundredths of a second – if that long.

Nice work if you can get it, of course, but just a question of making the connections solid, surely? Where’s the design and technological challenge? “The connectors have to stay reliable in very extreme conditions,” said Dave Carman, Meredith’s colleague.

“They have to put up with intense vibrations and loads.

We have recorded vibration levels in GP cars higher than we’ve ever seen anywhere else – even in military fighter jets.” Just as well, then, that Deutsch UK’s speciality is the design, development and manufacture of interconnection solutions – particularly electrical, emc filtering and fibre optic connections – for use in harsh environments.

“As well as autosport, harsh environments are anything linked to military and civil aerospace and industrial markets.

We also supply to sectors such as trucks and earth-moving equipment manufacturers,” said Meredith. “Our products will operate in environments typically ranging from -65°C to +175°C, although they can be exposed to 3-400°C.” They are designed to cope with high vibration and shock levels: up to levels as high as 2000G in extreme cases. Deutsch components are also designed to cope with the low pressures found at high altitudes; the vacuum of space; and through the rigours experienced in getting satellites launched and into orbit. Clearly, the company is used to working with special materials and coming up with clever solutions to outrageous questions.

“Our work also covers filtered connectors, including EMC and EMI – electromagnetic compatibility, electromagnetic interference. Military equipment needs to be cleaned of excessive noise which may affect critical systems such as engine controls,” Meredith said. “Another area of business is our environmental products: anything that isn’t filtered or fibre-optics.

This includes connectors for high-power and Ethernet links using the standard RJ45 Interface such as you see going into a router, enabling connection to a network. Our speciality is supplying the need for more rugged equipment.”

Size matters not a jot
The St Leonards facility was originally part of the Bowthorpe Group, and it operated in partnership with Deutsch Group for many years before it was bought completely in 1996. Deutsch, in turn, sold shares in the business to French company, Wendel, to create the global organisation as it exists now. Of the 3000 or so employees in the worldwide company, around 260 are based at Deutsch UK. That means it’s pretty small, in the global scale of things, but as the old saying goes: it isn’t the size, it’s what you do that counts.

“We are the company’s centre of excellence for filter and fibre optics. We don’t typically manufacture for the mass market, but we do make products in our niche very well,” said Carman. “For example, our French sister company in company in Evreux, Normandy, is roughly three times our size and has a bigger portfolio of products and customers. One of our remits is to incorporate our technology into theirs; we close the gap to our European sister companies and their competitors in supplying, for example, Airbus and other major defence and aerospace customers.” Deutsch UK is not just a design and development studio; it is definitely a manufacturing plant. It has a vertically-integrated structure, with all its capabilities inhouse, including a moulding shop, where it makes a variety of thermoset and thermoplastic components, a plating plant and a machine shop, equipped with advanced CNC milling machinery. Its assembly areas are divided into different product groups. The manufacturing capability is vital but its design and development capacity is probably its essential resource.

“None of the other areas within the Group has the technology we have here; in filtering design, for example,” said Meredith. “We are constantly developing new designs in fibre optics, extending bandwidth for military and civil applications.” The driver is the need to do more, to extend data capacity, in the same place and in the same space.

“We are globally responsible for these technologies. The team in France have their particular competencies, our colleagues in America have theirs; we don’t overlap. But I believe we are at the front edge in our specialities: filtering, fibre optic and specialist electrical connectors. We have a lot of pedigree.”

Maintaining the market leadership Deutsch has built up over many years is an ongoing challenge and the company’s design function is crucial; not just for developing new products but also for getting them to market quickly.

“We have a new product introduction group, which is responsible for finding out customer requirements and turning them into marketable products, fast,” Meredith continued. “We have a group project management system in place, which ensures that new product development and introduction doesn’t get stuck behind ongoing manufacturing. We run three shifts and we’ll work 24 hours a day, if necessary.” An illustration of the way Deutsch delivers to customer requirements is given by the example of its recently-introduced Spacecat range.

“Our customer had a drop-dead deadline for delivery for this equipment, which is going into a satellite. If it missed its launch date the whole project would be delayed. We were able to deliver on time, in full, by making the most of the group project management system,” said Carman.

“It was a great opportunity for us to secure an important new business contract. It involved all three companies America and France, as well as ourselves; we all pooled our resources and experience to make it happen.”

Lean, mean business machine
Customer service is a vital element of Deutsch’s work, and it introduced Lean principles five years ago in order to improve its OTIF (on time in full) performance and to improve productivity. It calls its Lean program the Deutsch Business System (DBS); it incorporates 5S in the workplace and Lean enterprise ideas and practices in administration and support services, as well.

“We value-stream mapped our entire business and set it into business streams for improved focus,” said Meredith. “Cutting out waste and improving focus on customer service helped us to raise our OTIF by 10- 15 per cent. Achieving 90 per centplus, in our type of business, is quite a challenge. We continue to focus on improving further, year by year.” Deutsch has also become part of SC21 – the 21st Century Supply Chains programme that is accredited and overseen by the Enterprise Excellence Board of SBAC (the Society of British Aerospace Companies, now known as ADS). The project builds upon and continues the work of the Aerospace Innovation and Growth Team. As a signatory, Deutsch has committed itself to fundamental business transformation, working openly, transparently and collaboratively with the intention of delivering benefits to the broader industry, both as an individual company and as a partner/supplier. Deutsch is seeking Bronze Award accreditation.

“We introduced DBS with the help of SA Partners, a consultancy firm, five years ago. We now have two fullytrained Lean champions and a further five partially trained people,” he said. “Everyone in the company will have taken part in our Lean awareness programme by the end of 2010, which is about understanding what DBS means to them, as individuals and in their places of work. There have been a lot of changes over the past four years and that can be difficult, especially for people who have been here a while.” Deutsch UK was the first company in the Group to implement DBS and it’s now helping to roll it out to the rest of the organisation.

“We have seen 10 per cent annual growth over the past few years, although that pace has eased off with the global downturn,” said Meredith. “DBS continues to help us to improve and our relationship with SC21 – which is on the back of DBS – opens doors, helps to improve OTIF and also aids in improving quality.” It’s a connection that has value to Deutsch UK.”