Wycombe wonders: Foam Engineers

Posted on 27 Dec 2023 by Tom St John

Foam Engineers was named a winner at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2022 in the Leadership & Strategy (SME) category. We’ve looked back on many businesses that have stared the adversity of the previous few years square in the face, and this is another example where a manufacturer was able to make safe its finances, and most crucially, its people.

The markets that Foam Engineers serve are many and varied. Formed in 1965, the company prides itself on being truly independent and family owned. A technical, foam fabricator offering bespoke, innovative foam solutions in design and manufacturing, it has evolved over the years from furniture foam into highly technical markets within aerospace, military and medical devices. Indeed, these customers deemed Foam Engineers so important to their supply chains, that during the height of the COVID pandemic they wrote letters for staff in the event that they were stopped from going into work. They made up the key worker cohort that saw this country through some of the toughest times in living memory.

The company’s products can be found on the front line in military defence vehicles, in the air supporting commercial airliners, improving the safety and standard of drinking water in air and filtration applications, in our NHS hospitals as medical devices and even assisting submarine fibre optic cable connections. The company’s Managing Director, Steve MacWhirter, picks up the story.

You currently hold the Leadership & Strategy SME Award from The Manufacturer MX Awards. What do you feel led to this accolade?

SM: This was the result of a very long journey which probably began during the banking crisis in 2010, when our Chairman, James Wiles (who back then was fully running the business), was under considerable pressure from the banking institutions to demonstrate resilience, positive cashflow and a strong business strategy. Over the years, Foam Engineers invested time and money with third-party specialists to help us craft a management team.

When I joined three and a half years ago, I could see it was extremely cohesive; everyone was rowing in the same direction and weren’t just out to protect themselves. They were interested only in ensuring that Foam Engineers was meeting customers’ needs for new and existing business.

I think we were able to demonstrate a number of key things to The Manufacturer MX Awards judges:

  • A business culture of empowerment
  • Calculated risk taking
  • Understanding of possible threats to the business
  • A well thought out (and executed) business strategy showing how processes are improved, quality is maintained, risk assessments are built into our health and safety priorities and staff are incentivised
  • A deep understanding of our various stakeholders During the process, we shared the key pillars underpinning this strategy which included
  • Listening to the voice of the customer
  • Creating an atmosphere to allow innovation and design
  • Concentrating on best practice manufacturing, developing strong, cohesive systems and processes
  • Respecting our people
  • Strong financial performance (cashflow and balance sheets)
  • Preventing loss of knowledge from the business
  • Creating a robust business continuity approach
  • Engaging with our supply chain
  • Evaluating drivers for change
  • Training and development

Key to our success was about doing all of these things while creating and maintaining a competitive edge and continuously innovating. At the same time we also need to keep customers, as well as our people, at the forefront of everything we do, and make sure the financials surrounding us are strong enough to facilitate it all. What we’ve been trying to achieve is for Foam Engineers to be a flexible, nimble organisation; one which embraces talent and entrepreneurial flair, sufficiently empowered to enhance our business vision.

A blameless culture, but still retaining enough process and system structure to facilitate best practice business performance and customer satisfaction. I believe winning this award suggests we are a long way down this path.

The Foam Engineers factory in High Wycombe

A multitude of challenges have plagued UK manufacturing over the past few years. What has been the biggest for Foam Engineers?

Matt Wright, Commercial Director: One of the most significant challenges we have faced as a business, are the relentless price increases and supply chain issues such as foam shortages. This had a big impact on our margins and even put a strain on our relationships with customers. We adopted quite a robust approach to price increases in the initial stages to ensure the business was recovering its losses, but this has not been easy. This was compounded by material shortages and allocations meaning that in some cases we were not holding sufficient stock to service our regular customers.

SM: Covid definitely knocked us for six. We were lucky in a way though, because some of our customers in the medical and military sectors wrote us letters in the event we were stopped on our way to work saying that we were deemed critical workers to their supply chain.

So, we stayed open all the way through (apart from an extended Easter break) and with a skeleton crew, we were able to keep those customers that remained open, supplied with foam from the agreed/ underwritten stocks that we always keep. The supply chain issues that followed Brexit, when suppliers were slow to come back on stream, meant that we were left fighting for weekly allocations in some cases and extremely long lead-times in others.

Balancing the order book became quite tricky. As it happened, some customers also came back with slow ramp ups so we were able to avoid letting anyone down throughout the period. The accompanying price increases from the whole supply chain definitely gave us some headaches. There were some difficult conversations with customers; there is no way we could have hoped to absorb the 70% plus increases we were seeing! Coupled with the increases in energy costs, insurance and other administrative costs, it was quite a troubling time for us.

At one point very soon after the UK started back to work in earnest after COVID, we didn’t have the sales to justify full-time working. We had already moved to four-day weeks (retaining ability to communicate with customers and suppliers on the fifth day) and thank goodness we did in some ways because at least we managed to save energy costs on Fridays when the factory was shut.

But, even this wasn’t sufficient to protect our cashflow and our longer term business prospects. So, we put a plan in place for three-day working, with literally everyone on 80% pay and this lasted for about three months. The good news is that by the end of that financial year, we had paid everyone back 100% salaries and were even able to provision for small bonuses for everyone.

Quite a turnaround, but only possible because we had the trust of the workforce and because we remain independent, we were able to put a temporary fix in place like this. Thankfully, we didn’t make a single redundancy, and never have through the three and a half years I’ve been with the business.

Technology continues to play a big role in manufacturing facilities across the UK. Is this something that the company has invested in?

MW: We are continually reviewing our progress through our technology and innovation teams and regularly visit industry specific shows and events. As a result, we have identified a number of areas in which we would like to improve and increase investment such as automation and electronics, new advances in machines and equipment, faster, more automated and accurate machines. An example of this is our recent investment in a vacuum forming machine. In-house we are researching foam printing, laser cutting and foam flocking surface finishes. These are just a few examples of our approach to new technologies.

SM: We are at a point in our own trajectory where it’s clear that by investing in technology, we can take Foam Engineers to a different level of ability, accuracy and creativity. Some five or six years ago, we invested heavily in CNC 3-axis, twin head machinery and horizontal contour cutting technologies. In the last two years we’ve steadily been increasing our design software and hardware setup and we’re investing in the training and development of our innovation team. This team is now advising the business from its extensive research in emerging technologies from around the world, helping us prioritise a series of planned investments calculated to enhance our complex offering to customers.

How has Foam Engineers dealt with the skills and talent issue?

MW: We are proud of our staff retention. This is due to the way we look after and invest in our people, such as ILM courses, incentives and rewards, scope and responsibilities, a feeling of inclusion and good communication. We have researched and aim to fully utilise the apprenticeship scheme and are now collaborating with the local university. We’ve also found that networking at shows, events and exhibitions have provided good opportunities for recruitment.

For example, we’ve recently engaged with a local Oxford Brookes University lecturer, procurement professional and engineer who we met through an MX Awards networking event, and he has put us in contact with the knowledge transfer manager at Buckinghamshire New University. We are now exploring opportunities for collaboration on the Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme.

This CNC Router System, the AXYZ Series 8010 ATC, is one example of tech investment at Foam EngineersThis CNC Router System, the AXYZ Series 8010 ATC, is one example of tech investment at Foam Engineers

SM: There are some excellent organisations out there such as Make UK who can provide platforms and access to databases and networking groups, but the organisation we have been most involved with is Bucks Business First. They’ve corralled a number of Buckinghamshire based companies all struggling with the ongoing problem of skills in the workplace, particularly in the typically ‘non-sexy’ sector of manufacturing.

We joined its UK government funded LSIP (Local Skills Improvement Plans) Programme where we were able to meet with like-minded manufacturing companies, particularly from the engineering sector, to identify common skills that we’re struggling to find such as digital, CNC programming know-how and understanding net zero and related sustainability issues.

This programme, which included people representing bodies from the education sector, has helped forge direct links between education courses in schools, colleges and universities and companies in the manufacturing sector. This, along with the sister ‘Skills Up Bucks Project’ is helping streamline local apprenticeship programmes and is receiving further government funding as a result of the initial progress and results from collaborations and cooperation.

How hard is meeting the challenge of net zero?

MW: We are doing more than ever before on the topic of sustainability and have a developing sustainability programme. We have recently launched our sustainability brochure and are committed to reducing our carbon footprint. Critically, we are researching, evaluating and expanding our eco foam offering on a daily basis and are taking part in the eco conscious product at this year’s Foam Expo Europe.

SM: At Foam Engineers, we have a Green Team with two different levels – the passionate Eco Wombles and the more active Eco Warriors (including myself and Matt) who are leading us in a continuing journey with regards to sustainability. We recycle just about everything, from crisp packets and face masks through to every piece of foam we use in the factory.

Only foam contaminated with glues or self-adhesive paper cannot be recycled. Programmes to improve our compressor efficiencies, and the switch to LED lighting and electric vehicles are all ongoing. We are also exploring solar panels, sub-metering and energy buying consortia. One of the challenges we face is finding additional outlets for non-foam materials such as plastic-based press boards. Another is that we’re very reliant on manufacturers of foams to develop eco-friendly alternatives. Of course, some of the oil-based foams we work with are critical to life saving products in the medical, military and healthcare industries.

Products can be found in a variety of different sectors, including military and medical.

Products can be found in a variety of different sectors, including military and medical

However, others are not so critical and where eco alternatives exist, we sometimes feel that we are the ‘tail wagging the dog’ i.e., rather than our customers demanding eco-friendly solutions from us, we go above and beyond to make them aware that in some instances, there are very viable sustainable alternatives. These are either fully recyclable or bio-degradable and we do stock a very exciting range. As it happens, we have started seeing genuine interest and sales from some very prestigious companies around Europe.

For a small company like ours, it’s not possible to drive sustainability without assistance from third-parties and we have engaged with others to help us with CO2 equivalent measurements, our carbon footprint and carbon reduction programmes. All of this is funded by Buckinghamshire Council and the UK government’s Shared Prosperity Fund. We are also engaging with third-parties regarding integrating ISO 14001 into our existing ISO 9001 standard, an investment which will help us better demonstrate our sustainability credentials. Another future challenge is working with customers to help them recycle foam products where possible.

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