So fast has technology advanced, that using robots in manufacturing is no longer anything remarkable, according to Chris Gartside, the former sales engineer who trained as a metallurgist and is a director of Ultrasonic Sciences (USL), the UK's only manufacturer of automated and semi-automated ultrasonic inspection systems for industrial and research applications.
What’s novel is customising the robots to do things exactly how you want them done, he says. "You will have seen films of robots spraying paint in car plants," he says. "They’re fine for that kind of thing but not when they’re required to move from one position to another, from here to there.”
So USL took the route of developing a control system that would not only address that issue but ensure that the mechanisms which drive the robots wouldn’t generate noise which could interfere with the integrity of the ultrasonic signals.
Other innovative moves over the years have included making larger and more complex than usual ultrasonic scanning systems for industrial use (a move encouraged by companies such as Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace), as well as producing a sophisticated machine for testing parts for the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft. The machines were designed to inspect complex-shaped parts without physical contact, using water jets to transmit the ultrasonic signals – so called "squirter" systems. Machines had been manufactured previously for very simple applications by competitors, but never for complex-shaped parts.
"Ideas for product development come from customers. Quite often they will say, 'We're going to have to do this' and we discuss it and help them develop something. Ideas also come from the realisation we can do something which is better or cheaper. They are relatively small steps, rather than creating a new product that's going to change the world."
It helps, Gartside says, that Ultrasonic Sciences are small enough to be nimble, in a niche market with lots of multinational competitors, such as Olympus, Siemens and General Electric. “Global corporates are very ponderous organisations and they cannot react as quickly,” says Gartside. “What we can offer customers is precisely what they ask for, a tailored project, a system to do a job in the way they want to do it.”
Ideas for product development, he says, come from customers. "Quite often they will say ‘we're going to have to do this’ and we discuss it and help them develop something. Ideas also come from the realisation we can do something which is better or cheaper. They are relatively small steps, rather than creating a new product that's going to change the world."
And the nature of R&D, he adds, is that not all ideas work. "I will always say give it a go," Gartside says. “If it works, we will incorporate it and if it doesn't at least we tried and we’ve learned something. If you look at someone like Sir James Dyson, I'm sure he had a lot of failures."
The range of systems produced by Ultrasonic Sciences has a variety of uses, including engineering, rail, aerospace, metals and laboratories. There is a wide customer base, from semiconductor plants to steel works, the railway industry to system integrators (on an OEM basis), aerospace to laboratories. The business was set up in 1987 as a spin-off from venture capital-funded research and development in biotechnology and engineering. Gartside came on board as one of several directors. Capability was built up “bit by bit” as the company designed larger and more complex machines as more customers recognised the potential of what they could do. "We never had a grand plan, or a rigid idea of what we were going to do in the next two years,” Garside admits.
With good reason. "It can take four years from quoting to getting an order and then a machine could take a year to build and we have to fund that because only a few established customers will make stage payments. We have to get bank guarantees and that costs money, so they’re no use at all from a cash flow point of view; it just gives confidence that the money will be there at the end of the day.”
The company should move into profit during 2017, he predicts, thanks to some big orders currently in the pipeline and other ongoing projects that will even out the peaks and troughs.
"If it works, we will incorporate it and if it doesn't, at least we tried and we've learned something."
Gartside is grateful that he doesn’t work for a business where it’s imperative to hit turnover and profit targets. “Five years ago I had too many orders,” he says wistfully. “But turnover predictions can be a finger-in-the-air job. I can’t predict when and where the next order is coming from.”
He explains: “Until a couple of months ago, I was the sales department for the world. Even when I retire it will be one person selling over the world. It's so specialist I can’t employ people to go knocking on doors, so I rely on word of mouth and repeat business, though I still have to work hard to get the business."
Interestingly for a high-tech business made up of designers, assembly engineers and technicians, software developers and service engineers, only a handful out of the twenty-five staff have the kind of university degrees you would expect. “The others have developed their talents themselves,” says Gartside. “Employees tend to come in at a relatively low level and then gain capability. What's important is what they have got in their heads and their experience.”
And there is very little staff churn because the company’s modus operandi tends to attract enthusiasts.“What they get here is something they would seldom get somewhere else,” he explains. “They are involved in everything from start to finish. The environment at USL is very rare in that our staff see the development of a complete testing machine from its inception and design, through fabrication, assembly, commissioning, delivery and installation, to long term support. Bare metal and basic parts come in to the receiving bay and a complete machine exits the factory for delivery to the end user. We expect and encourage staff to be adaptable and multi-disciplinary, to the best of their ability.”
The company has won a Queen’s Award for export achievement, with users in five continents (with a lot of business in China). Garside’s biggest fear about Brexit is the likely increase in paperwork for businesses selling into the EU.
Interestingly, the owners tried to take advantage of the higher profile that resulted from having a Queen’s Award by putting the business up for sale – a long-standing ambition. “We were stymied by various factors I won’t go into, but a potential buyer in the future could be a competitor or a customer. Possibly we could add value by being part of a portfolio of a big company, says Gartside. "We had interest from a Chinese company but I think they just wanted to have access to our designs for nothing.”