Casting and Forging Solutions to Engineering challenges
Name: Brendan Kendrick
Position in the company: Strategy and Business Development Director
Years with the company: Two
Yearly revenue: £66.3m turnover (2018)
The origins of Sheffield Forgemasters dates back to the 1750s – what were the major milestones to take the company where it is today?
The company owes much of its inherent skills-base to its heritage, as one of the oldest casting and forgings companies in existence, but the real milestones for the business have been brought about by its ability to adapt and innovate.
Sheffield Forgemasters has created many firsts in its time, including the invention and development of cast nodes for offshore oil and gas exploration, the adoption of computer modelling to deliver a 'right first time' approach to making highly complex components, and its drive to find new routes to manufacture to create the strongest, most cost efficient products that it can.
Continuous investment in plant, skills and technologies have placed the company at the pinnacle of engineering excellence and allowed it to become a key supplier to the UK defence programme, responsible for many unique components, which simply cannot be produced elsewhere in the UK.
How can the company stay abreast competition? What are the challenges that Sheffield Forgemasters faces as you grow and what are your plans to limit threat exposure?
Our business strategy is one of continual advancement on a technological and knowledge basis and this is the only way that the company will maintain market leverage over its competitors.
This means that we undertake the most innovative research and development programmes in partnership with universities and industry leaders, in order to find new solutions to existing engineering challenges, but also to look at projects which may form groundwork future developments, such as those in the civil nuclear power generation market. Our commitment to the exacting quality standards required in the defence sector stand us apart from the competition. We manufacture products that are critical to the safety of our armed forces so 100 per cent quality is required, every time.
What is your appetite for business risk?
Mitigating business risk is a significant challenge in the markets that Sheffield Forgemasters operates in, but we actively seek out markets, which by their nature are not heavily competed because of their engineering complexity and the skills required to deliver.
We need to maintain a competitive edge in order to challenge our competitors, but the components that we produce often fall into the high-risk category because there is no room for error or compromise within their manufacture or application. For example, civil nuclear components have to be manufactured to extremely detailed specification, as do components for the defence industry and the large structural components for offshore markets. Everything we make has to be of the highest possible integrity and setting that premium standard is where we excel. We seek out the most complex engineering challenges and we work with customers to optimise manufacturing processes.
Would the recent drastic drop of the oil price play a big part in your business activities and why?
The oil and gas market used to make up around 30 per cent of our output, but that market fell away during the recession and never really recovered. To combat this fall, we increased our output into other markets such as defence and these have sustained the business and continue to do so, We maintain a close watch on the recovery in the sector but our focus shifts towards the opportunities in the renewables sector. Offshore wind presents us with new opportunities for ultra large, high integrity components that fit well with the Sheffield portfolio.
Which R&D project are you working on and how will it impact your business?
Our RD & T division is a world leader in delivering a diverse range of research projects which combine to build our portfolio of expertise which is unmatched by our competitors. These include the creation of a world first prototype Small Modular Reactor (SMR) head for the SMR development programme, in partnership with Nuscale Power. SMRs are likely to be the next wave of deliverables for the burgeoning civil nuclear power market and we are already working at an advanced stage of manufacture for these projects.
We have also pioneered the development of integral nozzle forgings for large scale nuclear projects and near net-shaped forging techniques to create the most effective forgings processes in the world.
Our skills in this area have been instrumental in evaluating safety constraints within operational nuclear power plants.
We were contracted by plant operator, AXPO, to investigate the origin of ultrasonic indications which were detected in the Reactor Pressure Vessel (RPV) of Unit 1 of the Beznau nuclear power plant (KKB) in Switzerland, which was taken offline for two years until confirmed to be safe by the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate (ENSI).
Sheffield Forgemasters manufactured a large cylindrical forging, identical to the body of the RPV, using techniques employed in the original 1960s manufacture and also acted as engineering and metallurgical consultants, establishing a root cause analysis and delivering detailed reports to support the safety case which permitted the reactor to restart.
All of our research projects are delivered on a case by case basis to enable us to improve on the manufacturing process for each component, meaning that customers can rely on getting the best result each time and allowing us to become the go-to company for premium manufacturing.
What aspects of the business do you outsource and why?
We offer our key customers a complete solution not just forgings or castings, this means significant project management work and supply chain excellence when we include technologies such as weld cladding or when we supply assemblies. Therefore we outsource numerous sub-manufacturing processes but these are still controlled by our own production delivery and quality control teams to meet with output schedules and exacting standards.
What is the most significant production strategy you have incorporated and how did it affect the business?
The company has made huge strides into Industry 4.0 operations, with heavy investment into software control systems and machinery.
A new ERP business system, Epicor10 (E10), enables close to 'real time' shop-floor monitoring and progress which is updated via an interface to-and-from a shop-floor Manufacturing Execution System (Mestec), allowing shop floor data to be quickly fed back to E10 for planning control.
More than £16 million has been invested in state-of-the-art machining centres, which are of a capacity and scale that does not exist anywhere in the UK. These machines are intuitive, self calibrating and reduce manufacturing times down vastly. They also offer the highest degree of accuracy available for large scale engineering and seamlessly mesh with the aforementioned software systems for accurate data capture.
The most significant production strategy we have undertaken is to take a much more top down view of the individual processes across our site. We are quite a unique steel company in that we have a melt shop, forge, foundry, machine shops and a host of other services and functions that make these areas work. Instead of focussing on individual areas of the business we have taken the approach to look at the business as a whole. By doing this we are able to sit back from individual problems and look at the bigger picture and the effect on the business and the flow through our manufacturing routes.
Your 2017 to 2018 revenue dropped by slightly over 8%, nonetheless you managed a drastic improvement on the profit margin. What important actions did you take to achieve this result and how does it relate to the 2019 results?
Over recent years the company has undergone a number of improvement strategies. These have been designed to improve efficiencies throughout the business. This has included a new leadership team, focusing our efforts on long term sustainable markets, targeted large investments in equipment and a long programme of operational improvements in our manufacturing processes. These improvements are part of a long term plan and we will continue to make improvements to areas where it will have an effect on the bottom line for the business.
Sheffield Forgemasters is to lead a consortium of partners in its largest ever research and development project, with an overall project value of £10.5 million. Could you please provide further details on this civil nuclear project?
The company will explore industrialisation of Electron Beam Welding (EBW) in civil nuclear SMR assemblies, with the potential to integrate welding into the manufacturing process, offering material improvements and vast reductions in manufacturing time and cost.
Sheffield Forgemasters has been awarded £8 million of funding to lead strategic partners in the project, from the Government's Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the largest single grant given under its £20 million Nuclear Innovation Programme.
It is a landmark project for the UK, building on three years of work we completed in partnership with Innovate UK (the UK's innovation agency), to refine the basic science of electron beam welding in nuclear applications.
It is our largest research project to date, which launched in 2019, running until March 2021, and the implications of accelerating this technology for civil nuclear power in the UK are significant, but could also benefit other sectors including defence, offshore and petrochemical industries.
We will collaborate with partners from CVE, TWI, Arc Energy, NAMRC, The University of Manchester and Cambridge University. It will also work with an invited steering committee of Rolls Royce Civil Nuclear, Rolls Royce (Submarines) Cavendish Nuclear, the MOD and the UK Atomic Energy Authority.
We will install an electron beam welder capable of welding 3.0m diameter cylinders under localised vacuum and without traditional welding preparation, offering narrower welds than traditional methods plus the ability to weld as part of the manufacturing process, prior to quality heat treatment.
This will allow us to manufacture a civil nuclear component to demonstrate a full-sized (4.3m high x by 3.0m diameter) small modular reactor pressure vessel. We will also produce several grades of steel alloys suitable for civil fission and fusion nuclear applications within the project's research element.
This is a highly advanced manufacturing process which has not yet been brought to industrialisation in this sector. Although EBW exists elsewhere, it is used on a smaller scale than the 200mm welds that we will conduct.
How do you see the company changing in three years and how do you see yourself creating that change?
Sheffield Forgemasters will always continue to seek out projects that are at the forefront of manufacturing capabilities and sometimes those beyond current capabilities. We have always been a leader in providing solutions to the most complex engineering challenges and that will always continue. We have some of the most advanced machinery in the World and a dedicated Research and Development department that is geared very much towards solving the problems that most other companies cannot. What will continue to change is our ability to solve these problems more easily. Our site will continue to receive investment and our equipment, experience and skill set will undoubtedly grow.