Charles Maltby, Technical and Commercial Director for Shearline
Charles Maltby is the Technical and Commercial Director for Shearline, a university spin-out that works closely with the high technology, printing and scientific instrument community. Over recent years it has also attracted contracts from the medical and aerospace and defence sectors.
As Far East manufacturers look for large volume production runs, companies with niche products and a need for close interaction with their manufacturing partners are looking closer to home and companies such as Shearline are seeing the benefit.
1. What is the current state of the manufacturing sector in the UK?The manufacturing sector has a very multi-faceted character. While we have seen the decline of non-specialist manufacturers of mass-market products, companies like Shearline – which offer value-add services and produce high-quality, high-value items in small to medium batches – have attracted renewed interest from product developers.
For many industries quality and response time are important considerations and where time to market is critical we have found a competitive edge. There has been a shake-down, but I think the sector has emerged leaner, cleaner and more confident, and I’m pleased that Shearline is a part of it.2. How have you coped with competition from low-cost regions such as the Far East?We don’t see Far Eastern manufacturers as being our competition. They excel at high volume production of standard items, which is fine if you are making something that is well developed and has a large market. However, we offer a service for clients looking to produce small volumes of specialist items, and we have the in-house expertise to work from incomplete drawings or even no drawings, to refine a prototype and work through the design-for-manufacture process. This is something than the majority of overseas low-cost manufacturers cannot offer.
I think our UK location actually works in our favour in many cases. I have spoken to numerous UK-based clients who have moved work back from overseas, because they had initially failed to factor in the travel involved, time-differences, language problems, cultural barriers, not to mention fluctuating currency prices and the inevitable increase in stock, work in progress and lead time. We can see projects through from conception to assembly, test, packing and shipping. I don’t believe we have anything to fear from foreign rivals in our specialist area.3. How did Shearline begin?The company has grown organically in the typical Cambridge way. It was established by David Littlechild who was studying dynamics of machinery at the University of Cambridge, Department of Engineering. David started to do his own consultancy projects and then set up the company in 1973 from his shed. Many of Shearline’s early customers are still with us today.
Our location has played a huge part in the development of the company. Although the customer base has increased across the UK and overseas, we work for a great many companies that have also had links with the university. We still work closely with entrepreneurs and academics to help them turn their concepts into products that can be manufactured cost-effectively. 4. How important is innovation in your business?Very important. We have a rolling programme of investment in innovative equipment that enables us to offer new and improved services to our clients. For instance, we recently installed two new high precision CMMs (coordinate measuring machines). These enable us to ensure stringent accuracy both at the intermediate stages of manufacture, and in finished products.
Our clients know that we are always prepared to consider new ways of doing things, and that we will expand our capabilities and even install bespoke client specific ‘cells’ for particular projects where necessary. 5. Can you give an example of this application of technology?Our Hybrid Laser Tech division is a good example; it offers precision cutting and scribing of ceramics and other exotic materials, has helped us to enhance our offering to the regional high-tech cluster, research organisations and university departments. This is an exciting area to be involved in. 6. Describe a typical client for Shearline?There is no ‘typical’ client – we work with companies of all sizes, from one man bands to major multinationals, and across a range of sectors taking in medical devices, automotive, defence and aerospace, consumer goods, scientific instruments…
The one thing all our clients have in common is a need for a flexible manufacturing service that can see a project through from the design stages to the final product. As well as our extensive in-house capabilities, we will also manage complex supply chains where necessary, which can relieve a great deal of pressure for a client, particularly for smaller companies.7. Are you seeing growth in demand?We are actively recruiting at the moment to increase the capacity of our Prototype and Rapid Manufacture department. Companies often want to user test a number of options before agreeing the final design. There is a temptation to produce these prototypes very quickly and not capture all the specifications and technical data until later in the process. We have been developing new methods of capturing the design parameters as the prototypes are created which shaves time off the later volume manufacturing process.8. How important is the company’s apprentice scheme?It is vital. More than a quarter of our current employees have come through the apprenticeship scheme. We have been running the scheme for over 15 years, providing keen young people with on-the-job training in various departments complemented by college-based teaching. The scheme offers considerable scope for personal development as well as career development, and recent apprentices act as mentors to our new joiners, giving them the chance to develop their interpersonal and managerial skills alongside their engineering skills. 9. How have you been addressing the environmental concerns associated with the manufacturing industry?Since its inception, Shearline has placed a strong emphasis on responsible resource use and management of environmental impact. Our facility in Ely uses a combined heat and power plant (CHP) and recycled rainwater. We collect all our shop-floor off-cuts and sort waste for recycling, and our delivery and fleet vehicles have been converted to run on LPG to minimise transport-based emissions.
That said, we are not complacent, and are constantly looking for ways to improve our environmental performance further, for instance in the reduction or replacement of certain industrial solvents.10. Does Shearline ever invest in its clients’ technology?Yes, we worked with several University spin-outs including with one to make manufacturing prototypes of an exciting high brightness screen technology, and we provided a 6 figure investment. The near 200” diagonal (8.5m2) modular ITrans display was warmly greeted by the display industry.
Shearline took the project to production, designing the tools, assembly and test systems needed to mount the moulded optical light guides, which are then used to build an ITrans tile. This required significant investment in specialist equipment. To test the technology we also built a small number of monolithic fixed shape displays with sizes going up to approx 100” and we are now making these screens available on a hire basis directly under the ’Shearvision’ name.