Collaborative composites

As we look to post-Covid recovery, could a more collaborative approach save the composites industry? Liz Nickels spoke to a UK consultancy that might have the solution for SMEs.

Develop and Supply In-Sync (DASIS) is a new supply chain management consultancy based in Chichester, UK, formed by three individuals with a wealth of experience in the business.  

DASIS aims is to support companies within the automotive, aerospace and defence sectors with a range of manufacturing capabilities from a consortium of supply partners. According to the company, it can manage all aspects of the product manufacturing process from concept to completion through design, project management and manufacturing services.

‘The UK economy has faced many challenges in recent years, including the current health pandemic,’ a company press release said. ‘It has tested the ingenuity and resilience of UK SMEs and their supply chain leaders have sought to maintain essential operations in a difficult climate. As economies evolve and restart, robust systems will be critical to supplying goods and services quickly, safely and securely.’

The DASIS co-founders, Ian Wilson, Alex Beim and Ricky South, have over 50 years of combined direct experience managing programs with OEM and Tier 1 manufacturers and have led projects for Mercedes F1, Ferrari, Jaguar Land Rover, Gordon Murray Design and General Dynamics Land Systems – Force Protection Europe (GDLS-FPE). The company works with partners across multiple sectors ranging from CNC machining, composites, additive manufacturing, technical products, engineering services and consumable products.

The founders of DASIS have a clear idea of the ethos of the company and how it should focus on collaboration and equity amongst its partners, and this has become especially crucial in a post-Covid industry, according to Ian Wilson, CEO and co-founder, who spoke to Reinforced Plastics.

‘Our company’s aim is to bring together a number of small and medium businesses (SMEs) with varied talent so we can be a full-service provider to customers,’ Ian explains. ‘We also work to get the same suppliers collaborating together to make what we call a “family of partners”.

‘Using this structure, where a partner would normally sub-contract work to a supplier outside the consortium, they can now sub-contract within the partnership,’ he added. ‘Both new and traditional technologies all feed into our supply chain so the whole manufacturing chain can support itself. We would like to help every SME in the UK, but I am currently working with 20. We’re hoping to attract 25 to 30 companies in total, within a six-month period, all being in a position of direct support to each other and to our clients.’

Ian began his career as an apprentice toolmaker for a company in Croydon, where he learnt tool making as an apprentice, design, CNC machining and CNC programming. ‘After my apprenticeship I ended up running the company, for about 10 years,’ he told the magazine. ‘I then moved to a new company in Portsmouth as a CNC programmer and helped build the business and develop their machining capabilities. I also worked as a sales manager for a while before starting my own company called Formaplex in 2001 with another partner. I left the company in December 2019 with a £60 million turnover and over 500 employees. After resigning I was going to retire but instead decided to start a business where I could give something back to manufacturing offering help and guidance to SME’s. That’s when I came up with DASIS.’

I asked Ian about the current state of supply in the UK composites industry and where he sees the industry going next.

RP: What do you think are the biggest problems affecting the current supply chain with regards to composites in the UK?

IW: Obviously, the restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and basic uncertainty with regards to the future has slowed everything down immensely. I talk to a lot of businesses on a daily basis and – apart from a select few – they are facing difficult times. A lot of them are having to make challenging decisions around their own future and existence. It is definitely hard out there at the moment. I have also been astonished by the number of industry contacts I personally know that have either taken early retirement or are currently looking for new roles because they have been made redundant. I don’t think the reality of what is happening has really hit home yet. It will all become apparent at some stage but at present it’s hard to get a real understanding of how this pandemic has affected businesses. Fundamentally there will be a lot we can learn from this particularly around how companies should operate in the future, but hopefully better news for the industry is to come shortly.

RP: I suppose that since there are a lot of experienced people out there looking for professional roles, that’s a positive thing for companies hoping to increase their employee talent?

IW: Yes, some close contacts  I know who have either been made redundant or have taken early retirement are at very high and executive level – directors, MDs and so on – especially in the aerospace industry.

RP: Is there anything else that’s affecting the composites supply chain in the UK at the moment?

IW: It is difficult to say - the problem is the pandemic is the immediate and underlying issue at the moment and clouding everything else. Everybody is so focused on Covid that it is preventing growth and stopping companies from making strategic decisions and bringing out new products. Businesses are sitting tight now and waiting to see what is going to happen post-Covid. I don’t think we are going to see a great deal of movement in most of the industries until this has sorted itself out – companies just do not know what to do for the best. In my opinion, until this pandemic has resolved itself and we are functioning at reasonable pre-Covid levels, I don’t think there are going to be any big decisions made in any industry. For example, automotive companies are cancelling programs, or delaying programs for up to a year or two years.

RP: Some countries in Australasia or the Far East could, arguably, get back to ‘normal’ before the UK or the US. Will this cause issues in the supply chain?

IW:  I don’t believe so, post-Covid most countries will want to get back to ‘normality’ as soon as possible, but we are still going to see a lot of businesses fail and others restructuring or thinning themselves out in readiness. Once the pandemic is over, there could be a smaller supply chain for some companies to use. In my opinion, until we get some hard facts and see this health crisis disappear it will be difficult to make plans strategically, financially or with regards to labour. The regeneration of correctly skilled labour in businesses in particular could take longer to recover.

RP: Do you agree that aerospace has been affected very badly by the pandemic?

IW: Yes, definitely. Nobody’s flying at the moment, people aren’t traveling internationally for holiday or work-related reasons due to restrictions. Other sectors have not been so badly hit. The defence sector remains strong, especially with regards to autonomous vehicles such as drones and UAV’s. Automotive, at least at the high end, will bounce back fairly quickly because generally people with money are still going to spend it – mainstream automotive may take a little longer. Electric vehicle battery technology is developing at a rapid pace and a lot of people, myself included, are waiting for the market to settle down and the required infrastructure to be put in place before committing to EV. The defence industry is also focusing on electrification and composites will play a big part in helping reduce the weight of military vehicles to extend range – also certain fibers and resins still play an important role in ballistics. While some of the materials and processing them isn’t cheap compared to an injection moulded or a formed metal part, companies are working hard to find ways to reduce the costs. It’s getting there, it’s just going to take more time to fully develop.

RP: There seems to be more of a focus these days on collaboration between businesses and open-source design, for example. Do you think that’s where industry is heading?

IW: I would say so, yes. I think a lot is being driven by our customers too. In the past, I have seen companies compete against each other and on occasion drive down prices to an unsustainable level which is not good for the industry in the long term. We want to reduce this issue by pricing competitively and sharing the work and profits more equitably. For example – if we win a program of work, even it requires only one skill set such as machining, we can still share the work between multiple partners. This helps our partners sustain a decent pricing level, make a reasonable profit to further invest, ultimately benefiting our clients. As well as this, the customer only deals with one point of contact for the various processes or parts required within a project.

RP: What about Brexit?

IW: You don’t hear much about Brexit anymore! It’s going to be a difficult one to measure but there is uncertainty around the taxation, data protection and recognition of technical safety standards. Import and export is not going to be easy either. It may be of benefit to DASIS however, since our company could be a good option for a non-UK company to access a UK SME supply chain through one point of contact.

RP: Do you think that UK composites are holding their own against the composites industry in mainland Europe and in the US?

IW: What we have found in the past is that while European SMEs where cheaper than their UK equivalents, they were not supporting their customers very well. So cheapest is not always the best option and sometimes it will cost you even more, as a lot of our customers have discovered. I think in terms of price we are getting closer to European levels, but since some of these businesses pay cheaper labour rates, it’s always going to be difficult to fully compete with them. Leaving the EU may mean that UK companies will prefer to stay within the UK due to the increased import/export tax and just the hassle factor of shipping goods. We are already experiencing clients reshoring to the UK. The cost of importing goods is spiralling too due to shipment price increases, especially with shipment containers and the like.

RP: What do you wish that the companies you work with knew more about with regards to composites?

IW: We do sometimes receive designs for composite parts that don’t function well or cannot be effectively made in composite. It’s as if the designers have just used the same parameters in their calculations for a machined metal part rather than a composite part, not considering the latter’s structural capabilities or process criteria. We can help them with our design for manufacture capabilities, remodelling the component with composites and its technical performance in mind, ultimately saving the customer time and money.