Mollart Engineering, Resolven, Wales, was close to closure in 2005. Today, it is a thriving business, with ambitious plans for growth. Andrew Allcock visited the Principality to hear more
The press cuttings on the upstairs boardroom wall of Mollart Engineering's Resolven HQ show the smiling faces of Mollart's owner and managing director, Guy Mollart; the top man of its then customer, plus local dignitaries in various handshaking poses, while, in other photos, local MP Peter Hain is another seen shaking Mr Mollart's hand.
It was 1998 and the Mollart group had set up shop, as Mollart Automotive, next to automotive power steering unit maker; it was, in fact, the first company to be established on a new supplier park in Resolven. Just-in-time delivery of racks requiring deep hole drilling, the Mollart group's core competence (see box item), and other operations were to be the facility's focus. It started well. Volumes ramped up from 3,000 parts/month to a high of 15,000/month in 2003, with the company reaching a turnover of some £3.5 million. But, due to a combination of circumstances, it fell back to 3,000/month in 2005. The £1 million investment plant now employing 30 people came near to closure. Wayne Thomas, plant manager and one of the original staff, takes up the story.
"It was either close or diversify – the directors, thankfully, took the diversify approach. So, in 2006, we took on overspill work from Mollart's Chessington site – oil and gas, as well as subsea telecoms parts manufacture. We moved to a multi-skilled workforce, employing people with an aerospace background – our previous operations didn't require such skills. A Mazak Integrex mill-turn machine was moved from Chessington, along with an engineer to program it and who also had relevant product knowledge, while a Wenzel CMM was installed to support inspection of the highly complex work the machine would now be producing." And, as one indication of the type of work, he highlights that some of the parts have 40 hours' machining, with no second chances, if mistakes are made.
The company name was changed to Mollart Engineering and to get all this up and running took about 12 months, reports Mr Thomas, who, incidentally, started at the company as a setter/programmer, but became plant manager in 2006, although he had been the main driver since 2002, says Guy Mollart. Turnover in 2007 was around £350,000 – 10% of where it had been just two years earlier. Even so, a second Mazak Integrex mill-turn was added to its machining capacity during the year.
But, as he explains, this reliance on Chessington as sole customer was not a long-term bet for the company. Where to look for more work, though?
Having no customer network, the plant manager, with Mr Mollart's backing, used what networks he did have – cutting tool and raw materials suppliers. A cutting tool supplier pointed him at an opportunity in the architectural steelwork arena – high quality lighting fascia panels, with a high surface finish requirement. Strike one. Next, he turned to a local raw material supplier, offering added value work to help it better support its customers in the aerospace field. Strike two. Advertising was an additional activity undertaken.
With this expansion, the company gained experience with aerospace parts, and their related control and inspection requirements, as well as with titanium machining – another challenging material to add to its Inconel processing strength that other work had already brought. And having scored success so close to home, Mr Thomas decided, in 2008, to try something else. "I created an industry map to see what areas of opportunity there might be; to see who else we might be able to offer our capabilities to."
First on the list was an orthopaedic parts firm; not a production site, but a development one – another customer added to the list, and a big one. To underline the invisibility of subcontractors, even to their large near neighbours, although the two were geographically very close, 20 mins apart, in fact – neither was previously aware of the other's existence. Mr Thomas again: "Once we'd made contact, the company said to us 'Where have you been? We've been looking for a supplier like yourself'."
Following that, a local semiconductor machinery maker was approached, and, here, timing was on Mollart Engineering's side. The company was in a cyclic dip – a time every fourth year during which new models are developed and when volumes are low. This period saw some of the semiconductor machinery firm's existing supplies taken out by the drop-off in business. In the event, this proved to be a massive win for the subcontractor – from nothing in 2008, over two years this business grew to become its most significant contract, with Mollart Engineering emerging as a key supplier in return. And both its medical and semiconductor customers have subsequently generated a requirement for electro-mechanical assembly work, too, starting in late 2010.
A further win in 2008 was with another materials company, but this time powder metallurgy processing, with Mollart making Inconel parts for powder metal process machinery.
In 2009, an X-ray metrology company with which the Chessington site had a tooling relationship (it supplies Botek deep hole drills) was looking for a subcontractor, as it was having quality issues with its existing suppliers. High precision and high cosmetic quality were key features. This relationship has seen it start to work with this customer's sister company on other metrology machine parts, while the original customer is outsourcing all its machining, with Resolven picking up yet more work.
Today, Mollart Engineering's turnover stands at around £4 million and boasts 13 active customers. The aim is to have no more than 15% with any one company – the sole-supplier lesson remains strong.
It now has a workforce of 28 and has installed more machine tools, such as two additional Mazak Integrex machines, two Weiler E70 manual/lathes (Kyal Machine Tools), a Haas Tool Room Mill, a Haas Mini Mill 2, as well as a turret mill and an XYZ Machine Tools' manual centre lathe. Maximum turning capacity is 1 by 4.5 m, with maximum mill-turn machining capacity being 650 mm diameter by 1.5 m length. The largest machining centre, Mori Seiki MV-45, has X, Y and Z axes of 760, 450 and 480 mm, respectively.
A larger Wenzel (2.5 by 1.5 by 1 m) has also been installed, while there's also grit and bead blasting (Vixen Surface Treatments), leak testing, ultrasonic aqueous degreasing, MIG/TIG/MMA welding facilities, and bronze and silver soldering facilities that have been acquired to support its most recent customers' work.
A new £110,000 two-storey, two-floor area has just been built – the lower room housing the inspection department, with the upper area housing degreasing, kitting, assembly and packing.
In addition to expanding its own capacity, Mollart Engineering's growth has drawn support from local subcontractors that have themselves invested and expanded. "Subcontractors have, probably, supported a quarter of our growth. They have been, and continue to be, important to the business," offers Mr Thomas. But, as with its own customers, Mollart Engineering always has more than one source of supply – heeding the lesson in reverse.
But today's successful situation is far from the end of the story. "The business plan for Resolven is for us to double our turnover in five years," the plant manager highlights. And there's space to allow this. "Currently, we are using about 60% of this site's 14,000 ft2 capacity. We have 3,000 ft2 adjacent with planning permission, while on the other side there's 14,000 ft2 – not ours, but available."
Part of this further expansion will come from offering the more unusual processes and capabilities it has acquired along the way – inspection, surface finishing, mass spectrometry/leak testing, welding, soldering, electro-mechanical assembly, including strip-down and refurbishment of the assemblies it and others make new, and vacuum-packing. In fact, Mr Thomas is actively seeking out other uncommon individual processes that can be offered on a subcontract basis and which may not be required internally – orbital welding is one cited, as is high pressure testing, the latter Chessington has to subcontract currently.
These processes and capabilities will not only be offered 'upwards' to its customer base, but also 'sideways' to other subcontractors that are not its suppliers, and 'downwards' to bought-in equipment suppliers and subcontractors that are in its supply chain. In fact, the now successful Resolven facility's plant manager seems to see opportunity almost at every turn. But on one central element he is clear: "We like to take on work that isn't straightforward; if it is easy, anybody can do it."
With medical, semiconductor, oil & gas, telecoms, metrology and materials suppliers within its scope, an increase in its aerospace work is now targeted – the company is a member of the Aerospace Wales Forum. This work, says the plant manager, requires more indirect staff to support it and the company has, up until now, been lean in that area. And on the subject of lean, a major lean initiative has recently been kicked off, with large benefits anticipated over the next 12 months.
Parent company Mollart Engineering, Chessington, is also now actively seeking acquisition opportunities to support its expansion plans and to help broaden the customer base in subcontract machining and assembly.
To say that Mollart Engineering has seen a change of fortune is an understatement. The company has been transformed out of all recognition to the one that set up in 1998, save for the actual building itself. And for a company that has demonstrated such resolve, its location seems to pay it an appropriately ironic compliment.
Perhaps it's time that the various dignitaries keen to visit in 1998 paid a return call to acknowledge the company's extraordinary efforts and success.