2012 is set to be a groundbreaking year for the Scarborough-based builder of tube bending machines, Unison. In the first quarter alone, the company has tripled the size of its order book and the rate it is building machines compared with the same period last year.
More than ten of the machines currently on order are also destined for export, with some going to manufacturers in the company’s traditional international markets of the USA, Western Europe and Scandinavia, and the rest to manufacturers in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
2011 was already a record year for Unison, with the company building the highest quantity of machines it has ever made, increasing its headcount by almost 20 per cent, and leasing 8000ft2 of additional space next to its Scarborough factory – which has been converted into a second machine building and testing area. The latest order surge is prompting Unison to expand again, and the company is recruiting new staff, and looking to invest in a new factory during 2013. By the end of 2012 Unison expects its headcount to be some 20 per cent higher than today.
Alan Pickering, CEO of Unison, says: “The tube bending industry has made an irrevocable decision to switch to all-electric machines, and our track record in this technology sector – which is unequalled as we pioneered all-electric benders back in 1990s – has given us the richest tube bending capability on offer today. We are now building machines at a rate that is some three times higher than we were a year ago.”
Unison attributes its success to several factors. Chief among these is the company’s focus on all-electric tube bending with digital, computer-controlled control of motion. These machines offer major productivity and accuracy advantages compared with traditional hydraulically powered benders.
Pickering also attributes the surge in sales to the current pick-up of industrial activity in the North American market – where Unison has a well-established sales capability – and to the company’s continued investment in R&D throughout the recent downturn. Over the last two years Unison has taken several major steps forward in technology, including upgrading the electrical architecture of its tube-bending machines to a sophisticated real-time Ethernet network, and integrating a major new tooling facility that allows machines to both bend and cut tubes in one continuous process.
Investment in pure R&D
Pickering adds: “Like a lot of machine manufacturers we often develop new technology to satisfy customer requests, but unusually, we also invest in pure R&D. We have just committed to spending three quarters of a million pounds on one new generic project, for example. In all, we’re investing some 10 per cent of our turnover on R&D, which is probably two or three times what many of our competitors spend.”
One of Unison’s recent generic R&D efforts – an iPhone app that enables users to quickly determine the tooling needed for a particular bending task – is already paying dividends, as over 3000 users worldwide have downloaded it in less than nine months.
Another important factor in Unison’s success is investment in training and people. Over the last 12 months, the company has doubled the size of its technician training programme, and it now has eight apprentices engaged in mechanical and electrical trades.
Unison welcomes the current surge in its overseas business, which already accounts for over half of the company’s output. Increased international marketing effort is also helping Unison, and the company is attending three overseas exhibitions this year in Canada, Germany and the USA. These shows are in addition to a busy UK schedule which includes another series of Unison’s own ‘tube-bending technology tours’, a new annual convention and conference for Unison machine users, and the annual Scarborough Engineering Week event which it hosts. This latter event is part of Unison’s corporate social responsibility programme and is aimed at stimulating teenagers to become interested in careers in engineering. Over 1000 schoolchildren attended the 2011 event.
More information about Unison’s tube bending machines, and about the company in general, can be found at www.unisonltd.com.