AES illustrates the core of manufacturing: taking basic raw materials, in this case steel blanks, and creating highly specialised products vital to customers all over the worldPhoto by Tom James
Design and service play a big part in the company’s mentalityPhoto by Tom James
The company makes 40,000 different types of seal – requiring a large number of cutting tools to suit different manufacturing processesPhoto by Tom James
The plant in Rotherham has absorbed the bulk of AESSEAL’s £60m global investment in recent yearsPhoto by Tom James
AESEALS’s products are used in processing industries from chemicals to chocolatePhoto by Tom James
Shopfloor safety, as in many manufacturing companies, is taken seriouslyPhoto by Tom James
Computer skills are a vital part of the process – from programming machine tools to scheduling work and liaison with customersPhoto by Tom James
Innovation, production and selling are all important, says Chris Rea, AESSEAL’s founder – “you’ve got to be equally good at all three”Photo by Tom James
Ninety per cent of the company’s manufacturing is done in the UKPhoto by Tom James
Engineering seals are made from a mix of parts, mainly metal and plasticPhoto by Tom James
A new area of activity for Chris Rea’s company – and one that fits in well with its service culture – centres on generating income from monitoring customers’ equipment using handheld instruments that measure vibration.
The process relies on machines and sensors transmitting information between each other in a way expected to become increasingly common as part of the so-called internet of things.
Industrial applications of the internet of things will become important both for big and small manufacturers, as well as a large group of companies selling key elements such as software and electronic components required to make the concept work.
Collecting the data thrown generated all these connected objects should make it possible to monitor them more closely, optimise their performance and anticipate problems before they occur. It could also support new business ideas such as charging a subscription for hardware based on the amount it is used.
In the new business, AESSEAL’s plant in Warrington, near Manchester, is making small instruments incorporating digital processing hardware plus sensors for measuring vibration.
Operators equipped with these devices will visit industrial plants to check on vibration – a ubiquitous by-product of rotating machinery. Working out the amount of vibration and how it varies indicates how well the machines are operating –and what sort of maintenance they need – but requires a lot of very precise data and sophisticated processing techniques.
The company aims to start using its monitors – which it calls machine sentry devices – to begin a service to UK customers before extending it to other countries. The project will mean the UK business comes up against strong competitors such as the US’s Emerson and Prüftechnik of Germany that already offer services based on monitoring vibration.
Chris Rea was drawn into manufacturing by accident. Working as a distributor of engineering seals in Northern Ireland during the late 1970s, he found that the US company supplying them had suddenly pulled out, leaving him to find a new source for these products if he wanted to stay in a job.
He decided to try to make the items himself – and he succeeded, after a struggle. “After I got dumped I invested two years of my life moving into manufacturing, mainly driven by a desire to get my own back”.
In the early days he was greatly helped by the decision of Rotherham council in South Yorkshire to let him start up a factory on some land it owned “for virtually nothing”. The local authority’s move was part of an effort to attract new businesses to a region ravaged by the decline of the steel and coal industries.
As well as retaining Rotherham as its headquarters, Rea’s interest in the town is underlined by the sponsorship deal with the local football club which has meant Rotherham United’s stadium carries his company’s name.
While Chris Rea owns just over half of AESSEAL, most of the remaining shares are held by 3i, the investment group. He sees being privately owned – as opposed to seeking a stockmarket listing – as an advantage.
It has greatly reduced the need to sound out shareholders about areas such as investment plans and dividend payments.
This form of ownership gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to “forego short-term profit generation and generate over a long period a large and sustainable business”, Rea says.