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How automation can improve UK manufacturing, with Devanet

Devanet is a British designer and manufacturer of metal and leather components of all types, from buckles and pet collars to bespoke jewellery. In this interview they give some very valuable advice for businesses thinking of employing automation and technology to improve production.

Could you tell me about Devanet and the products you manufacture?

Devanet products are designed and made at our Congleton factory in Cheshire.
The products we make fall into three categories, namely metal hardware, web and leathergoods.

Metal hardware incorporates custom designed components for items such as bags, belts, shoes and jewellery. For example we have just designed an incense burner for an export customer.  Our products are manufactured from a range of raw materials including carbon fibre, aluminium, solid brass, bronze, sterling silver and gold.

We also finish bespoke products in electroplated silver, gold, gunmetal and polished brass to a high quality and last year added ceramic coatings which can protect  products from scratching and tarnishing.  Plus the coating made the items hypo allergenic too.

Our leather and webbing goods are predominantly belts, straps, cut components and ready made items such as keyrings, bag straps and wallets.

Webbing and leather can be embossed or printed in full colour, and we offer a Pantone dye matching service in our Vegtan range.

Because all our products are designed and made in the UK, we can respond quickly and most importantly are able make much smaller quantities. Our minimum order is 25 units, compared to offshore that is an enormous benefit for the smaller concern.

Because all our products are designed and made in the UK, we can respond quickly and most importantly are able make much smaller quantities

One final product is the prototype. We have one of the fastest prototyping services in the UK. Customers can submit a brief and have a rapid 3D printed prototype made in 48 hours – you are unlikely to get this service offshore. We’re developing with this new technology to speed up the timeline from inception to finished goods.

How did you get into this business?

We started in 1999 in clothing, but as imports began to introduce far cheaper products we diversified into branding solutions with all mix of corporate clothing, eventually into branding metal, glass and wood products.

In 2008 we acquired additional laser engraving equipment.  In 2009 we were asked by a large company if we would consider supplying the buckles and belts with their logo, we imported the components, assembled them and branded the company logo on the buckle. For several years we imported ready made components, purchased machinery to convert the raw materials  and assembled everything locally.

We continually assessed the demand for a variety of products, this had a significant impact on stocking, tying up cash flow, plus the impact in stock turnover.  With our suppliers complaining about small orders, we investigated if we could produce many of the items ourselves. After  12 months research and visits to equipment suppliers we make the decision make the investment to commence manufacturing certain products.

This decision initially proved to be one of the most difficult and frustrating times, due to the fact on many aspects we had to go offshore for the machinery as no one made anything we needed in the UK.

In 2014 we changed from a partnership to a limited company. Since then we have invested over £100,000 in development and machinery to enhance our capability. Every year we have re-invested our profits in new plant to help us become more productive.

The real turning point has come in the last 3 years. In 2016  we invested in a high speed MOPA laser to be able to produce complex and fine detailed designs and engraving on metals. In 2017 we invested in new electroplating facilities.

It became apparent customers were demanding faster turnaround and lower cost on prototypes so we invested in 2 special 3D printers and state of the art modelling software,  to enable us to make designs and rapid 3D printed prototypes for customers at a 50% cost saving over our previous methods.

Customers were demanding faster turnaround and lower cost on prototypes so we invested in 2 special 3D printers and state of the art modelling software to enable us to make designs and rapid 3D printed prototypes for customers at a 50% cost saving .

The business we are in has changed so dramatically over the past 20 years and is changing again. This year we will make our biggest single investment in casting technology to offer more alternative products than buying off shore and faster turnaround times. This will strategically open up opportunities for anyone who requires British-made without the big ticket volumes required offshore.

When asked how we got into manufacturing, to be honest we didn’t want to, but our only way of strategically improving our potential was to either invest heavily in more stocks, with the high risk of obsolescence becoming a major factor, or produce products required on demand. This has given us greater flexibility, reduced inventory and cash flow.

What do you consider are the main challenges facing UK manufacturing businesses today?

If our story is anything to go by, the biggest challenges for anyone contemplating manufacturing are “expertise”, “technology” and “automation”, assuming you have some capital to start.

From the time we started manufacture, we have had to find our own way to solve manufacturing processes that we thought would be relatively easy to source locally. Simple things like sourcing brass for our machines that would enable us to machine quickly yet with precision, this was far from the truth.

The first recommendation we had was a complete disaster and these were so called experts who advised us to use the materials they sold us. The tooling and metal didn’t work on our machine effectively. After extensive research and countless hours of testing all sorts of raw material we finally got two raw brass materials that gave us the finish, quality and efficiency in production time we wanted.

This did not stop there, we had similar issues on other production processes, that took far too long to do manually.

We spent considerable sums of money developing and testing to get the results we and our customers wanted, where we could, we tried to find solutions that were automated and cost effective.

From a machine perspective if it is possible, look for a way to take out the manual component and seek out the most efficient way to produce your product.

Look for a way to take out the manual component and seek out the most efficient way to produce your product

There are undoubtedly areas where automation and cost of technology is not easy to justify or viable. But, we have saved thousands of pounds a year by automating various manufacturing processes. Using technology helps us to not only improve time but add repeatability of the process.

Here are three small examples of processes we used to improve by use of automation and technology combined:

  • We used to cut and punch leather belts by hand, now we can cut a hide in 6 minutes that’s at least 30 belts depending upon the width which is a belt every 20 seconds, you cannot do that continuously by hand.
  • Automating stitching of components – what would take several minutes to stitch manually we can do in under 30 seconds on our programmable machine
  • Marking a logo or location holes onto our metal hardware that was made on the CNC machine as part of the cutting process, now we can do this with our laser in less than half the time.

If it is practical and possible, and your payback on investment is within a given acceptable period, then it will pay dividends.  You can save labour costs, and become more productive when using automation or technology to complete tasks more efficiently.

If it is practical and possible, and your payback on investment is within a given acceptable period, then it will pay dividends, save labour costs, and make you more productive when using automation or technology

If you cannot justify the cost or are not able to cash flow the expense, see if anyone is willing to contract the work for you.

leatherwork, automation, Devanet

A hide can be cut in minutes with the use of technology

Skilled labour is the other component in the manufacturing chain of supply . If you want to hire machine operator or want to train new ones, we have found not many will turn up for an interview. We have found the very few young people want to work in a factory these days.

For those who are attempting their own manufacture in any field, we found the challenge is not creating the idea, it is turning it into reality.

The challenge is not creating the idea, it is turning it into reality.

Some years ago when the UK had a good and diverse manufacturing base, we could find skilled staff to work in many areas of industry. Today it has become increasingly difficult to find skilled labour or labour that is willing to work in a factory environment.

Minimum wages increase every year and price increases on product are not always easy to achieve in such a competitive environment. There comes a point when technology and automation can help keep costs down and deskill the labour, making it more attractive to potential employees.

For this reason, wherever we can,  we will consider automation and technology. This can broaden our scope for employment by removing the long learning curve, skill and training required for sometimes tedious and demanding manual work. And it enables us to train one person to do several tasks.

You can find out more about Devanet at www.devanetbelts.co.uk or by clicking here.


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