05 Jul 2012
On-going investment at Chirton
Sub-contract machinist increases its workforce from five people to 47 in less than nine years
North Shields-based Chirton Engineering Ltd has invested more than £2 million in new machine tools. Not bad going for a sub-contract business started nine years ago on a shoestring by a former machinist and works manager made redundant when his employer sold his engineering business to fund his retirement.
Paul Stewart, Chirton’s owner and managing director, was 40 at the time; he had a mortgage and three school-age children, and found himself contemplating what he was going to do with the rest of his life. However, he re-mortgaged his house, borrowed what he could from friends and family (all of whom were repaid in full within 18 months), and persuaded the four best machinists from the previous company to join him in his new venture. Chirton opened its doors in September 2003.
For Mr Stewart, at least, it was a case of 18hr days, no salary for the first six months, and a very fast learning curve. “I had a small office with a computer in it and a second-hand XYZ ProTURN lathe just outside the door. When the machine stopped I stopped whatever I was doing, loaded a new bar of material, and then set it running again. The first month’s survival target was £11,000 but we actually invoiced £15,000.”
Impressed with the reliability of ProtoTRAK-equipped CNC/manual lathes and mills from Burlescombe-based XYZ Machine Tools Ltd (www.xyzmachinetools.com), as well as with the equally easy-to-use Siemens ShopMill and ShopTurn conversational controls fitted as standard to XYZ machining centres and turning centres, Chirton now has 15 XYZ machines. Its latest order is for a 20hp 8,000rev/min XYZ 1510 VMC vertical machining centre with the option of a geared head; prior to this, the sub-contractor took delivery of a 45hp 3,300rev/min XYZ TC 320 LTY turning centre. Equipped with a VDI turret holding up to 12 driven tools, this machine has a 450mm maximum swing and a turning capacity of 320mm diameter (78mm bar capacity) x 550mm.
The full C axis is complemented by a Y axis that can travel 50mm above and below the centreline, making easy work of components that would otherwise require separate milling and turning operations. Canned cycles cater for common machining functions, and the simple conversational programming of the Siemens 828D ShopTurn control means that the entire sequence from drawing to finished part takes the minimum of operator keystrokes.
Oil and gas applications
Much of Chirton’s work is destined for offshore oil and gas applications, which means working to tight tolerances (4µm for one customer) and machining anything from oil-field grade carbon steels to duplex and super-duplex stainless steels and super-alloys such as Inconel; and with customers in Norway, France, Germany and China — and customer product on trial in the USA — the company is now a global supplier rather than a purely UK-focused supplier of precision machined parts. Over £100,000-worth of load cell pins with a total weight of over eight tonnes has just been shipped to a customer in Norway, and a customer in France last year received a repeat order of 60,000 components with zero defects. It’s not all production work, however; Chirton is also involved in prototype and R&D work, sitting in on customers’ design meetings and actively involved in customer projects.
The company’s 17,500ft2
facility on the West Chirton South Industrial Estate is now home to a workforce of 47, five of whom are apprentices. Moreover, turnover has grown from £250,000 in the first year to £4.5 million; and on the cards is a move within the next two years to a factory twice the size of the current premises — and the creation of 20 or more jobs.
“The people here know Chirton Engineering is my life and if they buy into that passion and what is clearly a growing business they, too, will have a job for life. Of the four original employees, one has retired, one has emigrated to New Zealand and two are still here. It is very rare to lose anyone as we treat people fairly and pay very well; and if there’s anything that needs to be said, it is said openly and honestly.”
The difficulty faced by many companies in the area is that engineering skills are in short supply in the North East, and this situation is impacting on growth. When interviewed recently for Channel Four News, Mr Stewart said: “We have expanded our premises; we can also purchase new machines for new clients and contracts, but we do need skilled people to operate them.” With external recruitment unlikely to satisfy the BS EN ISO 2001:2008-accredited sub-contractor’s requirements, the emphasis is on more in-house engineering apprenticeships and, on a broader basis, training to help and encourage every employee to reach his or her full potential.
“There is a career path here for anyone who shows ambition and the desire to learn,” says Mr Stewart. “Our production manager and our production supervisor are both 31 and began here as machinists, and we have other people who are also working their way up. One of our apprentices, for example, is now operating the biggest piece of kit we have on our shop-floor.
“Our fast-track training programme has given him the skills and the confidence to do this, and he is working in a machining cell with 100 years-plus of machining experience on hand to help him succeed. Within 18 months he has become a real asset to this business, and this is why he has had six pay rises in that time.”
Despite the current skills shortage in the region, Chirton is continuing to beat month-on-month target figures, and was recently declared winner of the Small Business of the Year category at the 2012 North East Business Awards.
This will see the company representing the North at the National Awards in London in November. Prior to this success, Chirton received the North Tyneside Apprentice Employer of the Year 2012 Award (under 50 employees), and is working with North Tyneside Council to highlight the diversity and career potential of engineering to students in local schools and colleges.