Winds of change

Posted on 10 Mar 2009 by The Manufacturer

After setting up a factory in China two-and-a-half years ago, Westwind Air Bearings is thriving. MD Steve Webb speaks with Mark Young and reveals a few of the secrets behind the company’s success…

It seems not a day goes by without a new report telling manufacturers that domestic orders are doomed and only exports will see them sail through the stormy economic seas. So, while it’s only natural that companies should be crying out for UK customers, from Westwind Air Bearings the call to arms comes at a slightly differently pitch. The company has barely any UK customers, yet they’re not struggling. In fact, they’re flourishing.

Having set up a factory in China to complement the UK base, the company does most of its trade out in the Far East. So whereas for some manufacturers expanding the domestic order book is becoming essential to survival, Westwind’s managing director Steve Webb finds himself in the comforting position of seeking UK customers simply because he wants to see his firm’s technology used on home soil.

That technology, as the firm’s name might suggest, is air bearings – ‘a non-contacting system where a gas film (typically air) acts as the lubricant that separates the two surfaces in relative motion’, to use the company’s own description. The spindles Westwind makes are employed in a mass range of electrical and machining processes, including paint spraying, compact disc turning, engraving, diamond turning, hard disk drive writing and verification, infra-red imaging, micro-machining and printed circuit board drilling and routing. Air products are the crèmede- la-crème of the bearing sector. They are to high-precision rotary machining what Michael Phelps is to swimming – the elite. The benefits of using them rather than their oil or ball-based cousins include faster (around 300 k rpm) and more accurate rotation, a longer lifespan, less vibrations, lower starting torque and higher resistance to dust ingress.

With the air bearings used mostly in the production of electronic products, forecasted demand looks bright – in the relatively close future at least. As the western world recently decided to go all out and grab the digital bull by its high definition horns, people no longer have one computer; one television; one DVD player in their homes – they have several. And they have them in their offices, cars and in their pockets too. As these are the types of device that utilise Westwind’s products, Steve Webb thinks the firm should do OK. “This sort of continual growth in the overall usage of electronics is set to last another five years at least, probably 10,” he estimates. “As long as we keep ourselves competitive, I see no reason why our business shouldn’t follow it.”

And though that’s something Westwind should have no problem with, in this company’s 50 year history, ‘following’ could be seen as chartering new ground. It’s certainly not something the firm is used to. Westwind, with a turnover of £25 million, is a market leader in its field of technology and that’s a status Webb intends to keep.

“People are always taking what we do and either replicating it or making something very similar. Through a strategic focus on innovation and the investment we make in research and development, we take the technology into places where it’s more difficult for people to copy,” he said. “From there, the pioneering technology we bring adds real value to the product and so we command that value from where their customers are concerned. It’s about keeping our place as the leader of this technology. The only way we will stay there is to keep moving the battle on to different territories.”

And there-in lays a secondary advantage to Westwind’s bi-continental production set-up. The firm has two main innovative production processes which combine to make the pioneering products that keep Westwind at the forefront in its field. The factory in China hosts one procedure while the UK base is home to the other. Thus, with around 5,000 miles between the two, the complete manufacturing process is harder to observe and hence the products are harder to copy. And it’s not just competitors that Westwind is shielding its complete working process from. “There are individuals who could leave the company and go and set up with our ideas so it’s about cutting the risk in terms of intelligent property protection.” Most of the labour intensive production is now based in China while automated processes and pilot production is handled in the UK.

Having revealed that slightly guarded approach toward insiders and outsiders alike it is worth noting that, while the company may not be completely ready to trust its 300-strong workforce with its latest recipe for success, it is more than prepared to lay down hearty stakes of time, money and effort in training them up. After all, says Webb, “investment in people is investment in the firm.” Westwind has set up links with colleges and universities to include its own technology in the syllabus of engineering and electronics courses. Webb takes the attitude that if you enrol staff onto courses without looking at what they’re going to learn then you can’t complain if they come back with skills that aren’t relevant to the firm. “You don’t get anything for nothing – you have to put in time and effort to get the results that you’re looking for. It doesn’t just arrive without planning and preparation.”

In China, the firm offers various business and graduate trainee courses, usually in technical mechanical engineering disciplines, as well as specific job training. In the UK, on the engineering side, it can offer employees the chance to study toward both MBA (Master of Business Administration) and MSc (Master of Science) degrees which provides opportunities for the managerially as well as the technologically minded. “We encourage people; we provide study support exercises that anyone who wishes to can undertake and we’re quite indiscriminate about that,” said Webb. “We’re not particularly fussy about what people choose to study. As long as they’re studying we will offer them some support, both in money and mentoring.” He added that the more relevant a course was to the business affects the level of mentoring and financial support offered, though it is a subjective process.

In a similar initiative aimed at tailored optimisation of the production process, the firm ensures it maintains effective communications and an interactive relationship with partners and suppliers to work on the development of products. By working closely and often adapting designs, the two firms can complement each other’s production processes by informing each other of updated methods and machinery which affects capability. This heightens the feasibility of increasing quality, reducing costs or both.

So now it has the right product, the right process and the right people, Westwind Air Bearings is in a good position. And though Steve Webb “would love a British customer”, the Far East client base will more than do as far as prospects are concerned.