Innovation as a core value
Houghton International was built on and is driven by innovation, starting with the company’s founder, Ron Mitten, who came up with an innovative technique of insulating coils in a way that allowed them to be flexible. It was also important to him to be able to share that knowledge with people, which is something the innovators of the company still do today.
Houghton International works with clients to solve problems and come up with new solutions. Every order they receive and manufacture is bespoke, so they always need to be flexible and inventive in order to provide the best solution and product for them.
The latest project Houghton International is involved with is with Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Siemens, who are creating a hybrid aircraft – new ground-breaking technology – for which Houghton is going to produce the winding and insulation system (for Rolls-Royce’s power generation equipment). They have already created some successful prototypes and designs for the project and are now providing the full prototype, which will be used on an aircraft and fly by 2020.
Adapting to the 4IR
Communication technology has become so advanced that it’s now possible to shift big data between the point of collection and the point of analysis and that analysis can now be automated.
“As a business we have to adapt to these developments and changes”, said Houghton International CEO Michael Mitten. “Ultimately companies don’t want their assets to fail in service; they want uptime and they want their motors and equipment to run smoothly and be as effective as possible, so we have to shift our business model to be able to help them with opportunities to optimise their assets with new technology, processes and services.”
There are five main solutions companies like Houghton International can provide customers in order to help them to maintain their assets. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will push more organisations towards the more advanced stages (see below), which use sensors and complex data analysis to allow for ongoing, live assessment of these assets (like motors and power generators) in order to reduce disruption to an absolute minimum.
Michael and his team are already seeing a shift towards the more advanced options in the journey and they have people who go out with temperature checkers, vibration analysers and other measuring equipment to build a picture of the condition of the motor at the client’s location. In some cases they also add sensors to assets, which enable them to monitor their performance and raise any issues ahead of time.
Choosing which option to adopt depends on the type and size of asset, how critical it is to the customer, its condition and how easily it can be replaced or fixed. These are all factors taken into consideration when Houghton International provide the customer with the best solution for them.
Not every organisation is culturally or managerially driven to reach the level of automated asset optimisation, which is at one end of the scale. On the other end of the scale are organisations that operate by simply running their assets to failure and replacing them when that happens, no matter what the consequences or costs are. Other organisations are somewhere in the middle between these two methods of operation.
Houghton International currently offer their customers solutions in the form of stages 1-3 and are entering stage 4, by using data from sensors to optimise their customers’ assets. Industry 4.0 will enable them and their customers to be able to progress eventually to stage 5.
What role does automation or robotics play in Houghton International?
Houghton International are always seeking ways to automate their processes and their capacity is limited purely by the amount of skilled hands they have and that is something challenging and time-consuming to scale. There are machines out there that can do work on some of Houghton’s products, but that is still not enough.
“That would be very limited in shape, size and other parameters”, said Michael, “and since virtually all of our products are bespoke - our customers need an infinite range of possibilities and that, at least for now, cannot be accomplished using automation or robotics. But we have automated what can be automated, while maintaining that balance between efficiency and flexibility.”
Because of the need to be so flexible and the wide range of services that they offer their varied customers and assets, Houghton International employees are always comprehensively trained. They run a competence management framework to make sure the workforce has the skills that feed into core competence. They combine third party technical college courses, industry specific training, as well as on the job training.
Houghton International trains all their apprentices in-house in a 5-year training program that is more in-depth and comprehensive than most other companies. The program won several awards, including the 2017 AEMT ‘Contribution to Skills & Training’ award and the 2013 CIPD ‘SME Excellence in HR&D’ award.
Brexit and the skills gap
Michael believes that Brexit will cause a skills gap. Houghton International are in the service industry, albeit a highly skilled one, so he anticipates a rise in the cost of the workforce and a higher competition for labour because of the shortage that will be created in the workforce in other service industries due to immigration. What they plan on doing is to continue to strive to be the best at what they do, have the finest employees and offer the most attractive benefits and career prospects in order to be able to attract the best possible people.
Operations Director Craig Hutton talks about Houghton International's expertise and their new division