Monday 13 November 2017

An HBN 'Out and About' to Webtec, St Ives

HBN does a series of interesting visits to local companies in Huntingdonshire (our 'Out and About'), so it was with some curiosity that I took a lift with Nick Smith of EAM Consulting to this month's visit, mulling over the company name. I knew it was likely to be manufacturing, but obviously, judging by the name, internet related.

I couldn't have been more wrong! As Managing Director Martin Cuthbert soon explained after welcoming the select group of visitors, Webtec's name came from pre-web days, Web was an abbreviated version of Webster. The tec was, and still is, technology, specifically monitoring equipment for hydraulic systems.

Oversimplified, hydraulics is the use of liquids in pipes. Because liquids are by and large very difficult to compress, if you push plunger in at one end of a pipe, the pressure and movement will be transferred to the other end. As Martin wryly commented, whenever he travels down the building site that is the A14, he cannot help but notice the hydraulics in use in diggers, lifters, drilling rigs and a myriad of other machinery. Hydraulics also allow you to transfer energy at very high pressures, which can be used to drive specialised turbines or exert great force.

Working with hydraulic systems means that things can occasionally leak or systems go wrong. Webtec helps in providing measuring equipment that can help detect either the optimum performance of a machine or the first signs that a service might be in order. The company uses state of the art computerised machinery to make components from blocks of aerospace grade aluminium and steel. We could see how a component gradually developed from a simple block of metal to a high precision milled unit.

We learnt a very useful tip when checking for leaks in hydraulic systems, don't try to find the leaks with your hand. The liquid can be ejected at such high pressure from a pin-prick hole, that it is injected under your skin. This has to be treated quickly as it can cause you further damage and poisoning.

Webtec's products are exported globally, mirroring the UK in that 50 percent of exports go to the EU. Which naturally raised the question of Brexit. As with many other companies international exporters, the key frustration was the current uncertainty. This was coupled with pragmatically putting contingencies in place, to allow border free trading, a rapid response and the good customer relationships that clients will still be expecting within the EU.

The other fascinating story was the transition from an autocratic family-head led firm to a modern business. Martin is one of the two brothers who took over the company from their father, who had bought it from the American firm he was originally working for. Together, the brothers instigated a program of change, with devolved and shared responsibilities amongst the workforce.

One of the biggest problems for engineering firms is getting youngsters to join the business. Webtec has proactively built up a relationship with the regional colleges. Staff are challenged by going out to get involved in STEM activities.  They often get insights from the way the students bring new and unexpected solutions to the challenges they are given. The company in turn offers apprenticeships which look to find the best and maintain the continuing growth and development of the business.

I particularly liked the fact that Webtecc viewed the unusual requests or problems in hydraulics as challenges - ones that opened up new and unforeseen opportunities. When asked how Webtec survived in a competitive world, where big players had hoovered up a lot of the smaller companies, Martin's response was: flexibility, a genuine interest in your customer's issues and helping them find the best solution.

A good HBN 'Out and About'.