Tennison Engineering: Making their mark in the sliding head market
Tennison Engineering was launched in October 2020 by John Tennison in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic to tap into opportunities in the sliding head market. His daughter Paige works as operations director and also runs a spin-off company Petite Engineering. Justin Burns from Machinery magazine found out more on a visit to the firm’s Harlow facility.
Q. Tell me about why you started Tennison Engineering?
I have been in manufacturing all my life and had 40 years in the aerospace industry working for a large premier manufacturer (Smiths Harlow Ltd) as a first tier supplier into the blue chip aerospace network. I left there five years ago to become a consultant to assist others wishing to get into the aerospace and defence industries, which was basically borne about people making requests and asking me if I could help them.
However, I absolutely missed having the tangible touch of making and putting my energy into my own facility and putting true value into products, so I decided to venture into another a small facility, which is basically a mini version of what I was working in previously.
The arena that I saw a large market opening; very dynamic and cutting across many industries so not just dependent on aerospace, automotive or defence, was the sliding head market.
They are machines that I had never been involved in before but I saw an opportunity that existed and wasn’t being satisfied with by the people that I touched throughout the industry over many years. I saw it as a niche market for me to jump into with opportunities and if I was going to invest again, it would be in that arena.
Ultimately, it was a desire to make stuff and to make sure that I wasn’t going to get into a Fred-in-the-shed type scenario while also offering something a bit different:- quality components on-time at the market.
Q. Your daughter runs a spin-off company Petite Engineering – please tell me more?
Paige is the operations director of Tennison Engineering so programmes, runs the slider machines and makes the component parts, but also has her own company Petite Engineering, run from here too. When there is not a load for sliders, Paige manufactures parts for Petite, which she has been developing for three years. Paige has been doing bits for classic aeroplanes and classic cars and other sectors. She enjoys helping local companies who need little parts manufactured, as many are chasing the big money and there is a niche for it.
On the consultancy side we focus on opening the doors, getting the opportunities along with developing and making the business grow.
My brother, Matthew, works as a sales director for Tennison Engineering Ltd and he works on sales for this facility and also my consultancy business. My other customers have a specific needs in many industries and he has the expertise and contacts. It works really well for us.
My wife Lynne also runs the accounts and admin and manages ISO 9001, which is a big step for a tiny little company like this, which we are getting so we don’t get the questions about how you manage this raw material or treatment. We have controls in place, and you can be assured we are making the product out of the right material and it will be treated in the right fashion with all the quality controls and equipment necessary.
Q. You set up in the middle of the pandemic – how has business been?
After I bought the machines, I went out to find some business and reached out to all the contacts I had. There were loads of opportunities out there. There were opportunities making parts in equestrian manufacturing and the canning industry making cans for beer and fizzy pop. I never even knew it was out there. Also, fittings, taps, plugs and aerials for telecommunications and robotics. We have just finished a robotics job for a well-known company. There is a wide range and you are not dependent on one marketplace whether it be automotive, aerospace, or medical. There has been a varied range.
The start was quite rapid and we got a large project on the go very quickly just before Christmas that carried us over Christmas and the New Year. We have been steadily winning new business and making new products every week. In this last two weeks, we have tendered for £200,000 worth of work, which for a two-slider shop would fill us up forever. But we are not going to win all that business, just some of it and we will go again.
Q. What kind of parts is your focus to make?
The type of parts I am making and because I have knowledge of very hard materials, is nasty to make parts with challenging materials. I am not fazed by taking on something else that nobody really wants and that is what we have been doing in our machining shop.
We have been getting lots of 316 stainless steel, as new products that other people don’t tend to like on the sliders, as they prefer to run them lights-out and unmanned and want the brass and aluminium that allows them to do that.
Also, the market that I am touching that others are not, especially aerospace and defence, which have got some demanding quality parts made from various materials which I am used to.
Q. What machinery have you invested in at Tennison Engineering and why?
We invested in two new machines from Star that were delivered to us in September 2020. A Star SB-20R Type G and a SR-32JII Type B. It came about after I was working with another client looking for sliders to do specific work and I spent a lot of time introducing them to the slider machine companies I knew – and one was Star – as they are well-known in the market.
I introduced the company I was working with and for me business is all about people and relationships. The choice made on the machines was all about the service, people and approach that I received. I personally have never been in the sliding market before, so it was all new to me. If I was buying a complex 5-axis machine tool, everybody knows me in the industry, but it was interesting to see how I was received first off.
Since I bought the Star machines, the support I have received from everyone has been first-class.
The knowledge the people there have, introducing me to new markets and the help we have had since purchasing the machines is second to none. They have been superb, helping us programme the machines and with all kinds of things.
I have bought hundreds of machines in the past but never had support as good as this. We needed more support, as we didn’t know the machines well or what they could and couldn’t do, but we now know what they are capable of.
Q. How have the two Star machines performed?
When the machines are running you just want to touch them. They are beautiful things. We were doing some pivot pins for an aerospace application and we had to hold a couple of microns concentricity, and diameter, just a few microns, and it held both diameters and concentricity in those few microns throughout the batch of the job. I have never seen anything like it, as we didn’t have to touch it. We are just so pleased with both the machines. We had another long running job that made the machine work really hard as it was a nozzle job on 316 and it didn’t miss a beat. They have both been superb.
Q. Looking ahead, do you plan on expanding the business?
The plan is, we have two sliders in the workshop at the moment, but we definitely have space for six, so another going alongside the two and interface three behind. How quick that happens is dependent on business and how many opportunities we can capture and how quickly these two fill up.
On some days both the machines are running, on other days just one is running, so until they are pretty full up and when there is a need for another machine, I will go back to Star and say ‘let’s go again’ and as to what machine, it changes week to week. One week we get a lot of enquiries for the 32 and the next week we get lots for the smaller 20.
Q. What are your thoughts on the reshoring of manufacturing?
You have gone from reshoring coming back and people saying ‘I want the Chinese pricing’, but the products are not being made as no one is going to make it for that kind of money, to now they are waking up and saying – ‘I really need those parts’. For example, where it would cost £1.50, they are now having to pay £2.50, which is the right price for a part. I have seen that in the last 3-4 months.
I see reshoring continuing as the service and lead times are far better and everyone is running their stocks down and what you are hearing everywhere is – ‘I have thousands of parts and I am running them down before I order more’. Companies used to order them from China, which takes 4-6 weeks on a boat, but you can get parts from us in a handful of days. Why have millions of pounds of stock when you can have a reactive network in the UK?!
Q. What are your thoughts on the impact of Brexit?
In my network across a handful of chosen companies that I am working with today, I see record-breaking levels of request for quotes (RFQs) coming in and they have not seen this in business before. I have seen across the networks aggressive price reductions and needs, but that was a month or two back, now they are winning orders and not having to screw it down to the ground.
The opportunities from a wider marketplace that we have not touched before outside of Europe and are now able to access will bring all sorts of manufacturing business. I also think there is network of first-class designers and entrepreneurs in the UK. Someone has got to make the components and then they turn into production components.
Hopefully, we can keep production in the UK and it will not go to Malaysia, China or India. It is really down to us to make the parts, as efficiently as we can and how we do that is to buy bits of kit like the sliders, where you can run them unmanned and lights out with confidence. Paige can run the two of them quite happily, but on other CNC machines you may have one operator standing there and pay them £20 an hour, which soon goes up to £50 as you need to pay for the machine, tooling, electrics, and other costs.
Q. After more than four decades in engineering, what do you think is today’s biggest challenge?
Skill levels coming out of the schools and colleges is a big challenge. I helped fund and support the Harlow Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Centre (HAMEC) many years ago and was instrumental in getting that going, as the need for my large aerospace business was two or three apprentices every year who were work-ready. It is the same across the country and the entire industry says it. There is a need for work-ready young people coming in who have a broad knowledge of engineering and how things work, how to drill a hole, be safe in the workplace – the basics. You need them to come in, get on the machine and develop their skills with this foundation behind them.
I started life as an apprentice aged 16 in 1979 at a local engineering company (Smiths Harlow Ltd) and ended up being the owner and MD. I am a great advocate of apprentices as always took on a few. As we grow this little division, hopefully we can do the same.
Tennison Engineering Limited