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Covid-19 has dramatically changed the business landscape – quite possibly forever. But for some manufacturers it has also created unexpected opportunities, Carl Jones reports.
There isn’t a single business across the Birmingham area which has escaped the silent, ruthless and deadly clutches of Covid-19.
For some it’s been a glancing blow, while others have been completely broadsided.
But as we begin tentatively lifting the lid on life after the worst of the coronavirus, it’s the companies which adapt to the new-look landscape which will be best placed to survive and thrive.
Alloy Wire International (AWI) had big and exciting plans for this year, including investment in new machinery and an expected staff increase of more than 10%. It was approaching its 75th birthday in great shape, recording annual sales of £11 million at the end of 2019, split across 20 different sectors and 55 countries.
And with a Brexit roadmap finally starting to emerge after years of uncertainty, the Brierley Hill-based manufacturer was looking forward, like most businesses, to a period of relative economic stability.
But that was back in the year 2020 BC – Before Covid. Right now, that feels a very, very long time ago.
Nevertheless, Mark Venables reckons he is still one of the lucky ones. The managing director of AWI has been able to keep the company trading throughout the pandemic, allowing it to play a part in the huge support network which mobilised to help the NHS.
The company, which also has a base in Yorkshire, is one of the UK’s leading manufacturers of round, flat and profile wire; its 60-strong range features medically-compatible materials including Phynox, MP35N, Stainless 316LVM, Nickel 200&201 and Inconels.
Over the past few months, staff have been working around the clock to meet the requirements of existing and new customers – with material available from 0.025mm to 21mm, in small batches or medium/large volumes.
“We are usually a tier three or tier four supplier, which means we can sometimes be several steps removed from finding out about the specific end uses for our alloys,” Venables says.
“But the circumstances of the past few months have raised my awareness of just how much we supply for use in the medical equipment sector.”
For example, the company was commissioned to produce more than five kilometres of material to help build life-saving ventilator systems for the groundbreaking Nightingale Hospital in London.
It put its emergency manufacturing service into action, supplying custom-made Inconel spring wire to Wisconsin, USA, 316LVM stainless steel to a spring maker in the South Korean capital Seoul, and also shipped products for use by the government in Australia.
During April, far from seeing a Covid-19 inspired slowdown, it actually ended up beating its original monthly budget targets.
Venables says: “In a way, it is almost slightly embarrassing to be able to talk about the work which this situation has generated for us, but on the other hand we are proud to have been able to help.
“Ever since Brexit, I’ve been keen for us to invest in raw materials, so we have been sitting on quite a lot of stock.
“And since the virus arrived I have taken the view of ordering even more, because of a concern about what this is going to do to lead times.
“It means we are in the fortunate position of having more than 200 tonnes of stock which we can supply very quickly all around the world.
“We work with more than 5,000 customers every year, and we knew a lot of them supplied into critical sectors that deliver essential services.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has brought this sharply into view, and we have manufactured a range of wire for companies that are playing a crucial role in supporting the front line, often meeting extremely demanding timelines in the process.
“This has included supplying a customer that had to remake springs destined for ventilator production due to an untimely power cut, whilst another client made a 280-mile round trip to collect an order from us. In both cases we did our bit by making the wire in just two days.”
In addition to the projects it has been completing for ventilator production, the company has also provided wire that goes into electric heating elements used for medical plastic forming and for the critical sterilisation of vital equipment.
Other customers still placing orders are involved in the detection of gases for hospital incubators, dental products and power generation.
As a result of this, AWI has begun working towards ISO 13485 accreditation – the internationally recognised standard for producers of medical devices, products and services.
“We expect the virus to have a knock-on effect for our business in the oil and gas or aerospace sectors, but at the same time it could work to our benefit in areas such as medical equipment and food,” Venables says.
AWI is one of very few employee-owned manufacturing firms in the UK, with more than two thirds of its staff also being shareholders.
Venables believes this is a key factor in what he describes as the “fantastic teamwork” across all levels of the business.
“I really can’t speak highly enough of them. They have been undeterred, committed and respectful of the working arrangements which we have had to introduce. Fortunately, we have a large enough site here to allow manufacturing to continue while observing social distancing rules.
“We encourage our people to take on more responsibility and come up with suggestions – and they are loving it.
“We also have sales agents that represent us in more than 40 countries and maintain good communication links with them.
“We were able to keep closely in touch with the way the virus was spreading.
“Towards the end of January, our Chinese agents said they were running out of masks and asked us if we could get any for them, so we sent some over.
“That’s when we really started to get the vibes about how serious this was going to be for us all. It gave us time to prepare, and we were able to invest in laptops to help many of our people to work from home.
“Very quickly, spring makers in our 15 key industries started contacting us to ask if we had materials, and it was clear that they didn’t need them in the standard three weeks, but sometimes in just a couple of days.”
The company has certainly come a long way since being formed in an old ambulance station at Old Hill in 1946, moving to Cradley Heath in 1963.
It has been at its current Brierley Hill site since 1999, which is when its employee ownership and profit-sharing scheme was first introduced.
Mark Venables joined the company in 2010 and was part of a successful management buyout three years later, immediately building the company’s export success.
With more than 5,000 customers now on its database, the past year has seen the introduction of two new drawing machines, a new 1,100 sq ft mezzanine floor and a trebling in size of its offices.
Alloy Wire International doesn’t profess to be a designer . . . nor does it have any desire to be. But increasingly, its technical team is getting involved in research and development discussions at the earliest stages of the manufacturing process, as end users realise the importance of selecting the right material.
Technical executive Andrew Du Plessis says: “We are increasingly advising our customers on the technical specifications of our wire, and this can play a telling role in the design process that delivers a final product that has the desired performance.
“We often find ourselves involved at the very start of a project, whether that is helping to develop wire for springs used in aerospace or fasteners to support nuclear power generation.
“Regardless of the sector, we have to be in a position where we can provide support and advice to our customers. This starts with understanding what the end application will be, and what will be expected of the wire.
“Does it need to withstand high temperatures? Will it need to resist corrosion from a specific gas or liquid, and are there any particular safety-critical measures it needs to adhere to? These are all questions we need to ask before suggesting material from our range.
“For instance, Monel 400, K-500 and Inconel 625 are good choices for parts in sea water, whilst Hastelloys, Cobalt and Titanium alloys have all been developed with superior corrosion resistance in mind, making them versatile alloys in a range of environments.”
Alloy Wire International has invested heavily in testing and can produce wire to achieve the mechanical properties required by a customer, even after it has been processed and heat-treated by the spring maker or fastener manufacturer.
This is done by modifying the wire drawing process, and then age-hardening a sample piece of the wire, which is then tested in the laboratory to confirm the exact properties the finished parts will ultimately achieve.
The company says its strength is in the ability to custom-make small order quantities in a wide range of wire, then step up production if and when needed.
It’s because of this that it picks up a great deal of work in the universities sector, working with campuses all over the world, including right here in Birmingham.
“The West Midlands is such a good base for us,” says Venables. “There are suppliers, testing houses and heat treatment works right on our doorstep, and the area has a fantastic spirit.
“We have a fabulous relationship with our suppliers and customers in the region – they understand our culture and what it takes to make manufacturing successful.”
And so, in spite of the twists and turns which 2020 has brought – and which few had anticipated – Alloy Wire International believes it can see a clear path to a prosperous future.
“We are not looking to grow into one of the biggest businesses in the world – we simply want to remain the best at what we do,” says Venables.
“We have got to be nimble and flexible, and capable of reacting very quickly to changing situations. We should have been attending at least five big exhibitions this year, which is clearly not going to happen, so we must find new ways to connect with our customers.
“Our website, for example, has now been translated into 15 different languages; it’s all about finding new ways to connect.
“The West Midlands is very good at reinventing itself – and I have no doubt it will do so once again – to put us all in the strongest possible position for whatever challenge comes next.”