A forward-thinking business

5 mins read

Whether it’s innovation, embracing automation, investing in employee training or rethinking their manufacturing model, Harwin is a great example of what UK manufacturing should be.

Based just outside of Portsmouth, Harwin has been operating in electronics engineering for over 70 years, and today is a large-scale manufacturer with operations in Europe, North America and Asia.

“It’s been an eventful journey but we’ve always focused on being innovative and on introducing new technologies. That, I believe, sets us apart from many of our competitors,” said Ben Green, the company’s Head of Marketing. “The business has grown rapidly and we now serve multiple sectors from avionics to e-mobility and industrial automation.”

To better meet demand from customers and to address changing business requirements, Harwin recently redefined and strengthened its product portfolio.

“We conducted a strategic reorganisation of the business,” said Green, ”and we are now arranged into three focused categories. The first is HRi which features high-reliability (Hi-Rel) interconnector solutions; the second is BBi, in which the board-to-board connectors Harwin produces for industrial usage are found. These tend to have high contact densities and are widely used in areas like factory automation equipment. The third category is EZi and this features the company’s board-level hardware and accessories.”

Harwin’s decision to conduct this reorganisation highlights its proactive approach to business. Too few businesses in the UK really innovate or invest in product development, let alone spend money on employee training, or look to rethink their manufacturing model.

Harwin continuously looks to address all these challenges and as a consequence is still able to carry out over 90% of its total manufacturing activities from its site in Portsmouth.

“I think much of our success can be attributed to our ongoing investment in high-efficiency automation and in well trained staff,” explained Green.

UK-based manufacturing

On a visit to their manufacturing facility, I was able to see that investment first hand and their operation certainly showed that there is a place for UK-based manufacturing that is still relevant.

A product of that focus on developing and investing in staff is Brandon Clifford. An apprentice he is now the company’s Machine Team Design Lead and is responsible for driving its production automation and robotics efforts.

“Just eight years ago we employed no robots at all, we were using very mechanical driven machinery. But the decision to invest in robotics has certainly paid off,” said Clifford.

“We spent a lot of time talking to different vendors discussing what we’d need and from a small development cell we are now seeing large-scale investments in new equipment and a series of engineering innovations which have helped the company to meet extremely ambitious productivity objectives. For us the issue is not so much the accuracy that robots can provide but the repeatability that they enable.”

Harwin has not only invested in automation but is also developing its own connected robotic systems.

“Our aim is to take automation to the next level and to deploy more versatile machines that will be able to do much more,” added Clifford.

To that end, Harwin is now focused on developing a more sophisticated software infrastructure, reorganising its workflows, and is upgrading its warehousing facility.

“We work closely with our key supplier – in this case Mitsubishi, which supplies us with the controls and robotics – but we are developing our own processes here at Harwin. That enables us to do things we’ve never done before and it’s helping us to hit our productivity goals,” Clifford explained.

“At the heart of the company’s manufacturing strategy is a mentality of change,” commented Sam Bennett, its head of product development. “We’ve inculcated a culture at the company which encourages our employees to constantly look at how processes and procedures can be improved, whether that’s shortening the time it takes to manufacture something, increasing product yields or minimising wastage.”

Ongoing investment in state-of-the art machinery, which accounts for around 10 per cent of the company’s annual turnover, means that new benchmarks in production throughput are constantly being adjusted.

“We’ve gained a lot of experience and knowledge about the automation process,” said Clifford. “We’ve got an extensive roadmap at the heart of which is continuous improvement. Each new machine has been planned so as we increase our automation levels, so they will be linked together. For example, our automated production lines will ultimately be controlled from the warehouse so they will need to be able to adapt to changing levels of demand – we want a fully connected operation within the next five years.”

While the company has invested considerable sums in robotic technology it still spends significant amounts on production machinery which it looks to replace periodically every five years – no sweating of ageing assets here.

Over the past two years supply chain issues have bedevilled many companies operating in the electronics space and while lead times for components and materials may now be falling, in order to avoid supply chain issues and becoming vulnerable to shortages, Harwin has worked hard on maximising its autonomy.

“Instead of outsourcing the constituent elements needed for our products, we try to do as much of the supporting work as possible directly,” said Bennett.

The use of automation, which extends from production through to its warehousing facility where twenty space-saving automated vertical carousel units have been deployed to source products quickly and easily, means that the company’s Portsmouth facility is able to run 24/7, benefiting from ‘lights out’ manufacturing.

“All of this has made us more competitive. We haven’t needed to move manufacturing offshore. It has also allowed staff to take on more fulfilling roles within the organisation,” explained Green.

In the past two years output capacity at the facility has jumped by over 40 percent while output per employee has doubled.

Recruitment and training

With automation and the growing role of robotics a reduction in staff numbers could be expected. Again, Harwin has bucked that trend and has continued to grow its workforce, recruiting and training new engineering talent, as well as upskilling existing staff.

Harwin is deeply committed to investing in widening access to careers in engineering and training the next generation, according to Green. It has established its own academy which provides the company with an on-site training resource that feeds directly into its apprenticeship scheme.

“The academy offers school leavers an engineering-focused alternative to A levels or HNC qualification,” explained Gayle Taylor, the company’s head of HR. “We combine classroom tuition with hands-on training on the factory floor.”

Around 20 people gain places on the scheme annually and each apprentice spends time working in all the main engineering-related departments.

“We want them to get an insight into all facets of the business and we’ve been running an apprenticeship programme for 20 years. In fact, a fair number of our management team have risen through the ranks and we don’t tend to lose many once they enrol.”

Many of the staff working at Harwin have been with the business for a long time so are well placed to transfer knowledge and encourage trainees.

“We’re lucky that there’s a real commitment to the programme here,” added Taylor. “Both in terms of money and the time people are willing to commit. It’s hard work to deliver but the benefits are immense especially at a time when the way the company is growing is impacting its culture and recruitment. We need more software engineers, for example. And with exponential growth we’ve had to recruit heavily. Traditionally staff churn has been limited but we now expect and need to plan for more staff turnover as the business expands – and that will change the dynamic of the business whether that’s shift patterns, the way people work or their expectations of the business.”

From its investment in new facilities and processes to its embracing of automation and its attitude towards training and recruitment, Harwin certainly has a forward-thinking approach to business.