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SMEs - the backbone of UK manufacturing

01 November 2011

With recession snapping at our heels once more, it is all too easy to fall into a despond about the future of the UK’s manufacturing sector. But despite the depressing economic reports of late, manufacturing appears to be holding up – and it’s not just the big companies that are keeping the wolf from the door, as Les Hunt discovered during a recent chat with SME proprietor, Gordon Day

Often in these pages – and usually when prompted by government announcements of financial or other incentives for the sector – I have paid little more than lip service to that great stalwart of our manufacturing infrastructure: the small to medium sized enterprise (SME). So, I was delighted to accept proprietor Gordon Day’s invitation to come down to Farnborough in Hampshire to see one in action - his forty eight year old company, Cove Industrial Enterprises.

Now, I’m not exactly a stranger to SMEs; I’ve visited many over the years and have, almost without exception, come away with the sense that here is yet another small company with great products and tremendous flair, and a determination to weather any financial storm that our economy is likely to throw at them. Gordon’s company is no exception in this regard, but the reason for this visit was triggered more by a recent article I wrote about the value of apprenticeships – a subject very close to his heart.

Gordon Day set up Cove with a £4,000 loan back in 1963 and technician apprenticeships were established almost from the word go; indeed several apprentices from later years are still with the company and are now in senior positions, making decisions that will determine its future course and fortunes.

Managing director Phil Gower, for one, began his career with Cove as an apprentice and now runs the company on Gordon’s behalf. Former Cove Plastics divisional manager, David Clark – another apprentice starter with the company, now retired – designed the company’s present website. Other former apprentices now take charge of the company’s order processing, production control and quality management systems, run the production cells or programme the machines that the new intake of apprentices will learn to operate.

Branching out into electronics
Like those other SMEs I have visited over the years, Cove has the flexibility and drive to adapt its processes to the needs of its markets, not to mention a flair for innovation and problem solving, and always a willingness to try something new. While the core business of the Farnborough site is high-precision sheet metalwork and, in particular, the production of special metal enclosures for high-end industrial and military applications, some ten years or so ago Gordon decided to add electronics design to Cove’s portfolio – confident that he could solve a particular problem that the outside broadcast industry was experiencing at the time.

Although a rookie in this industry, thanks to Gordon’s determination, Cove nevertheless became the first company to deliver a digital optical link for video, audio and camera control, replacing traditional cumbersome add-on boxes and bulky interconnecting cables. With the help of some electronics qualified friends, he brought the innovative Z-Link to market, a system that uses fibre optics to handle broadcast quality video, return video, programme audio, talk-back and auxiliary data over distances of up to 10km. He effectively beat some of the big boys at their own game!

A few years on and Cove’s Swiss based agents Z&B began to exploit the Z-Link system's ability to accept a multitude of different connector types. Z&B’s client, TSI, for example, specified Fischer Connectors’ 1053 series fibre-optic HDTV broadcast camera connectors as an option on its Z-Link camera link system. The 1053 connector provided a high-definition connection to the camera adapter and added bandwidth to the link for transmission of HD-SDI data to the base station.

In this instance, Cove used a hybrid 1053 connector carrying two fibre-optic and two directional audio, video and communications between an outside broadcast mobile unit and the camera, as well as 200W to power the camera and ancillaries, thus removing their reliance on batteries.

Cove’s electronic activities are now conducted through is specialist division, Jemtech Designs Limited, which operates out of the Farnborough site. Jemtech allows the company to apply its in-depth knowledge of enclosure fabrication to the manufacture of special products such as bespoke automated test equipment stands and small production run assemblies, applying both mechanical and electronic design capabilities to provide a value added service to customers.

Investing in equipment and procedures
A walk around Cove’s sheet metalworking facility is enough to confirm its commitment to quality and precision. It might be a small company with just forty employees, but there has been no stinting when it comes to investment in systems and production equipment. AutoCAD and Radan CAD/CAM complement the latest CNC punching and forming machines, and in the finishing areas – arguably Cove’s ‘jewel in the crown’ in terms of its manufacturing capabilities – the processes are among the best to be found in the industry.

Indeed, Cove is one of just a handful of companies in the South of England that is capable of offering metal pre-treatment to Defence Standard 03-11, thanks in part to an investment in a Vixen Phoswash machine. This unit is joined by a fully enclosed filtered wet paint spraying room and individual spray booths, plus powder coating and curing facilities. And while finishing is an important component of the company’s own enclosure manufacturing operation, the processes are also offered independently to customers seeking a top rate finishing service for small to medium size production runs.

Full traceability from raw material intake through to despatch of finished product is an absolute requirement of the industry standards with which Cove complies. A MIETrak barcode production control system is used throughout. Every job has its own unique and fully traceable identity, each member of staff has his or her own individual barcode and all materials and parts are uniquely barcoded, allowing the progress of every job to be followed and any divergences from the planned production path to be immediately identified.

The aerospace connection
The company’s proximity to Farnborough’s centre of aerospace development is not coincidental. The aerospace sector has provided work for the company almost from its inception and in order to consolidate this long term relationship, Cove was early to sign up to the new SC21 (Supply Chains for the 21st Century) standards programme, which was launched at the 2008 Farnborough Air Show.

Cove has aligned its operations to SC21 Aerospace, Defence and Security Industries, and the benefits of compliance are expected to be gained through the adoption of leaner manufacturing processes and the raising of the company’s profile within the supply chains serving these demanding industries.

The company is already well on the way to achieving these aims, thanks to its investment in the MIETrak system as well as in other rigorous production and quality control procedures. But, above all, its investment in staff is key, which brings us back to the subject of apprenticeships. Machines, procedures and standards are all essential elements of a successful manufacturing operation but be prepared to invest in your staff training as well, as Cove has demonstrated over the years.


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