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Waterford – Super Plastic Forming

20/02/2019 | General

Autolaunch is a company based outside Waterford that makes body panels for high end car manufacturers using an advanced moulding process. The company was founded by Ed and Mick Hickey in 2002 when they returned from working for automotive supplier, Magna in Canada. “We were primarily a tool shop so we made dies for customers in the car industry and even some aeroplane parts,” says Maintenance Manager at the company’s Carlow plant, Conor McCarney.

“We’d bid for a project, win a contract and make a die. The customer would come over and we’d try out parts. They’d be happy with it and the die would be shipped to their company – our guys would go with it and set it up in the customer’s press and repeat the process.” Ed Hickey wanted to get into production and the company chose a process called SPF – Super Plastic Forming, where aluminium panels are heated to a point where they behave like plastic.

While the process has been around for a number of years, Autolaunch are world leaders in it. “We are the ones that have the furthest development in it,” says Conor. “There are others trying to get into it but we have perfected it.

“We had five years of developing the process and now we know where we are, we know what we need to make and we know how to make it,” says Conor. “SPF allows us to do a lot more than conventional processes would do,” he continues.

“It is similar to hot forming but we can make far sharper angles and far bigger curves. It avoids or reduces splitting, tinning or deformation. This makes the parts stronger while using aluminium makes the car lighter. The customers like that, so much so that some manufacturers have sent over their entire design teams to see what we can do so they can incorporate that into future designs.

“It’s a very expensive process and therefore it’s only the high-end vehicle manufacturers that we work with,” Conor says. “We do SPF forming for Aston Martin, McLaren, Mercedes, BMW and Porsche. There are numerous other customers that are very interested but we’re at full capacity at the moment so we’re actually turning customers away.”

“There’s only been one year in the company’s history that there hasn’t been building taking place,” Conor says. “They’ve just finished one extension, they’re about to start another for office space and then they’re looking for funding for two further projects after that.

“We’re always trying to improve,” he says. “We started making one-off parts and got our times as fast as we could to increase productivity. We went to two-out parts out of the one die and we’re now looking at our first four-out part, which would be four panels out of one die.” The process has also changed, he says. “Back then we would have had two-part dies and now we have three part dies, which gives us different movement to make and form the panels.”

Working together

Conor McCarney has worked directly for the Autolaunch for six years, having been a contractor installing the machinery before that. He brought Pirtek on board around five years ago, he says. “We were having some hose issues,” says Conor, “and being a good salesman, John Laffan walked in on the right day. “So we changed over to their hoses, which were of a far higher quality, meaning we had less failure. We’ve been using them ever since.

The quality is good and the service is too. Other hydraulic companies I deal with couldn’t provide 24 hour service and we are a 24 hours, seven days a week plant. This 24/7 service is one of Pirtek’s key selling points.

At Autolaunch, Pirtek hoses up the circuits on the presses and on the dies. Conor says, “We keep spare hoses in stock and Pirtek’s MSST, Mark, calls in on a regular basis and makes sure our stock is full. “There haven’t been many issues with the hoses. They are inspected for wear on a regular basis and we change them as required.

“We hold the specific stock of hoses just for here in the depot in Waterford,” says John Laffan, Sales Manager at Pirtek Waterford, “and they’re held in Mark’s van as well because of the 24 hour service he provides.

‘Above and beyond’ service and excellent interpersonal relationships characterise Pirtek’s relationship with Autolaunch, explains John. “Mark lives in Carlow, which is not too far, so even if it is two or three in the morning he will always come over with the hose, even when he’s not on call.” Pirtek is supporting Autolaunch in supporting the local economy. “We employ about 430 people but that’s continually on the up,” says Conor. “It’s a very skilled local workforce but very specific to what they do.”

Moving places

Just a few months ago, Pirtek Waterford was in small and quite confined premises that were difficult to find and had little parking space. So the franchise planned to move into somewhere bigger, easier to find and with better access. The new centre was eight or nine months in the offing, from initial consideration to making the decision to move, acquiring the property and fitting it out from the ground up.

The idea of moving developed during 2017 and the decision was made by franchisees Greg Cummins and Mike Cairney in the middle of that year, with input from the centre managers. “The biggest factor was access to the location and then the size of the building,” says Centre Manager, Peter Macer.

“Once the decision had been made and the property acquired, planning and laying out the building took about two months,” he says. “It was an empty shell so we got to make everything to our own specification. The layout is our own and it is working very well. We have room to expand here, which was also a very important consideration.”

For a dirty business, the new Waterford centre is a very clean environment. “Our aim is to keep it that way,” says Peter. “The floor is all painted and the offices are carpeted, which is a bit of a difference from some other places.” The investment was worthwhile, it seems. “It put everybody on a high,” says Peter. “The centre has a light and airy feel, giving us a much better working environment. When customers come in, they like the premises and know we mean business.”

Location location location

Location is important. “Everybody knows the industrial estate we’re on,” he says. “Although we’re at the back of the estate it’s very easy to direct people to our unit and of course Google will find us. “At the old premises you could see us on Google but you could have been right on top of us and not found us.

We have three times as much frontage here, with allocated parking spaces.” The new centre is bigger, cleaner and tidier than the old one, promoting a professional image and better working environment. “The stores are a lot easier to access and we’ve got more storage capacity,” says Peter. “This means we’ve got more in stock and it’s laid out more clearly.

“The lads out in the vans have more confidence about what we have in stock and it gives us the opportunity to expand our core products and bring in new lines. The old centre had just one room with the stores and trade counter all muddled in together, he explains. “Now we’ve got the centre manager’s office and the sales manager’s office, which can double as a meeting room for customers or staff.”

If anyone is in any doubt as to whether they should take the plunge and invest in an improved centre, Peter is clear. “Do it. The image it portrays to customers is excellent. Rather than going into a grubby, dingy place they come into a bright and breezy centre.

The shop is bright, the offices are bright and even the stores area is bright.” The shop is expanding, with more Pirtek branded products; word is getting round and footfall has increased due to improved access. “We’re hoping to increase this further over coming years,” says Peter.

“Our first service expansion will be pressure testing of hoses. We’re also servicing a good few factories dotted around the counties. Our area is quite big, covering Wexford, Carlow, Kilkenny, a lot of Tipperary and Waterford city itself.”

The centre has four vans with very good MSSTs, Peter says. “One of them has been with Pirtek for almost 16 years, making him one of the most experienced MSSTs in the country.” The franchise has a number of ongoing maintenance contracts, including with Autolaunch; Glanbia, a global nutrition group based in Kilkenny and hose repair for Shay Power at Carrick on Suir.

Total Hose Management is another revenue stream the franchise is keen to exploit. “We have one customer in the offing and if the opportunity arises, we’ll certainly get more,” says Peter.

 

 

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