16 January 1998

MAKERS STAY AHEAD OF GAME

Although exhibitors

at the 1998 LAMMA

show are more diverse

than ever, the emphasis

on manufacturers

located in the arable

heartlands of the eastern

counties remains strong.

Peter Hill profiles three

businesses representing

equipment sectors in which

UK manufacturers

remain strong.

THE push by supermarkets for ever-higher standards of produce quality and presentation has brought changes for growers and equipment manufacturers alike.

Growers have had to become more professional and to grow crops to stringent specifications. Manufacturers of grading and packing equipment have had to come up with ways of handling produce more gently and presenting it more imaginatively.

"The pace of change is very rapid and I have to admit it is very much customer-led," says Charles Tong of Tong Engineering. "We dont have a development team beavering away thinking up new ideas; customers tell us what they have to achieve and its up to us to find a solution."

Its something that Tong Engineering, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in business last year, has proved very good at during a period of diversification from 100% farmer customers not so many years ago to a near 50:50 split between growers and pack houses.

"With the number of growers falling, we felt it necessary to move into other areas of business but related to what we already know about," explains managing director Charles Tong. "However, we remain committed to meeting the particular needs of UK potato growers."

That now gives the company two principal product ranges – farm grading lines, comprising graders, conveyors, box fillers and the like; and pack-house lines comprising washers, grading/ weighing equipment and packing systems.

The business was started by Charles Tongs grandfather as an ironmongery concern which turned to repair work and then manufacturing. It produced cattle crushes, weighers and other livestock hardware, in addition to potato machinery, until around 30 years ago when the potato crop looked to hold the most promise for future expansion.

Despite the ups and downs of the potato trade, it proved the right decision. Today, Tong Engineering is a £6m turnover operation, still based at Spilsby, Lincs, employing just short of 100 people and with an export programme that grew some 25% last year (1997) to account for around 30% of turnover.

"It has been a deliberate policy to look for more export business to reduce our reliance on the home market," says Mr Tong. "But the UK potato industrys leading reputation and the incidence by our retail multiples that overseas suppliers use UK-standard grading and handling equipment, certainly helps."

The Middle East is the companys main overseas market (it claims to be the leading supplier in Egypt, for example) with France a strong destination in Continental Europe.

Regular investment rather than major radical changes sees the companys resources at Spilsby developing to meet demand and maintain manufacturing efficiency. Recent developments include a new stores building and an extension to the fabrication bay.

"We try to find a level that keeps the workforce busy year-round and then cope with demand peaks by using local firms for some of the fabrication work," explains Mr Tong.

TRAILERS IN FRONT

KEN Wootton has the satisfaction of seeing the business he created after early days as a blacksmith shoeing horses, grow into what is now one of the UKs leading trailer makers. And its still growing.

"Things are a bit unsettled at the moment as farmers react to the fall in commodity prices and the continuing beef situation but Im reasonably confident about prospects in the long-term," he says. "Before Christmas, we were still manufacturing to meet orders rather than for stock which is often the case at that time of year, and we processed a lot of enquiries and quotations; now all we need is for those to turn into firm orders."

The business has been based at its present location, The Forge, Ancaster, Lincs, since Mr Wootton first decided to become a manufacturer in his own right having gained first-hand experience of machinery production at two other Lincs companies.

Today, Ken Wootton the company, employs 65 producing 600 to 700 trailers a year, as well as a range of related products, to generate a near-£5m turnover.

Growth has come not only from expanding the core product line to cover just about every trailer size and permutation possible but by extending distribution outlets with the acquisition of selected brands.

The Wootton portfolio includes Foster Load-Master trailers aimed principally at the livestock sector, and the Gull arable range. A marketing agreement with French company Rolland has added distinctive Continental-build trailers as well as big capacity manure spreaders.

More recently, diversification plans has taken the company into the commercial sector, producing specialist road trailers, and also into the environment arena making tankers and slurry application systems for water companies and their contractors.

"We reckon to be able to build anything that has wheels and needs to be towed," says Ken Wootton.

"As far as the farm trailers are concerned, the aim is to make a trailer that is technically sound, incorporates the features users want, and is well finished," he says. "As a result, I believe we have a reputation for strong, well-built products that will last."

Finish quality is being further enhanced, as well as manufacturing efficiency improved, with a £650,000 investment over two years in a preparation, painting and finishing line that will shot-blast, paint and dry trailers in a continuous process.

"It may not seem the right moment to be spending that sort of money," agrees Mr Wootton. "But Im sure it will prove the right decision in time to maintain our reputation and competitiveness."

FOR crop sprayer specialist Knight Farm Machinery, the reward for last years £1m investment in all-new production facilities at South Luffenham near Oakham, Rutland is the opportunity to meet demand that outstripped capacity at the old Great Casterton works.

"In our first year, we produced about one sprayer a month and before we moved that was up to more than one a day," notes Brian Knight. "Now, we have more than double the space with everything concentrated on one site with better facilities all round and the capacity to produce more sprayers."

And if the business continues to grow, there is room for further expansion; outline planning permission is already in place to add another 15,000sq ft to the 25,000sq ft office and production complex.

It is all a far cry from the time some 16 years ago when Brians father Ron began making sprayers modelled on the machines built for the family farming and contract spraying operations. Facilities were rudimentary at first but the move did renew an involvement in agricultural engineering that goes back five generations to the time Edward Knight opened a blacksmiths shop in Great Casterton in the early part of the Century.

Repairing machinery and making horse-drawn ploughs were the main activities in those days. Today, Knight is one of Britains leading sprayer manufacturers with a reputation for tough build and innovative designs to meet the needs of modern farming.

"A strong element of our success is the fact that we have listened to customers, introduced novel solutions to improve the spraying operation, and built machines that withstand the rigours of fast operating speeds and heavy workloads," says Brian Knight.

Products on offer span every type of farm sprayer, albeit aimed at customers wanting a full-specification rather than an economy package. Tractor-mounted, demount and trailed sprayers are at the core of the range, complemented by the self-propelled Crusader and Challenger based on Clayton and Househam chassis respectively.

Knight was among the pioneers of active tracking drawbars which have made big capacity trailed sprayers with wide booms a more practical proposition; it has also produced high-speed spring suspension running gear to cope with fast tractors; and a novel spray liquid circulation system that, says Mr Knight, can make a significant difference to the environmental impact of pesticide use.

"The Laser system also saves money and generally improves the accuracy of the spraying operation," he comments. "We are so convinced of its advantages that it is protected by world-wide patents."

Just as well, given Knights increasing exposure in world farm machinery markets as export trade picks-up on the back of Britains growing reputation for spraying technology.

Exports still account for a modest proportion of the companys 1997 £4m turnover but Knight sprayers are already working in Denmark, Ivory Coast, the USA and New Zealand, and sales of booms and other key components to a US-based multi-national for its North American sprayer range will boost the export earnings over the coming months. &#42

Ken Wootton: still at its original Ancaster site – but now much larger.

A move to larger premises near Oakham, Rutland means Knights production is now concentrated on one site.