Work In Progress

20 March 2008

The Vigo centre manufactures both UpRight powered access equipment and the zero emission Smith Elect

The Vigo centre manufactures both UpRight powered access equipment and the zero emission Smith Electric Vehicles.

The Tanfield Group seems to have a knack of buying companies at the right time.

It entered the zero emission vehicle sector by acquiring SEV in 2004 – a move that now seems inspired given the focus being given to curbing CO2 emissions – and its takeover of ailing UpRight Powered Access in April last year appears to have been perfect timing given the current appetite for machines in Europe and the long lead times for machines from the major US suppliers.

Even if the timing was right, it was still a risk, with many of UpRight's customers worldwide having become disenchanted with the company over the unreliable supply of parts and the dramatic reduction in the product line, particularly the decision to stop production of the bigger booms.

UpRight's business development director, Richard Tindale – one of the several ex–UpRight managers and engineers who have returned to the resurgent business – acknowledges the difficulties; “There was skepticism, but we've been surprised by the loyalty of the UpRight dealers – they've been through a lot.”

The company now has around 152 dealers worldwide, of which roughly 70% are old–UpRight dealers, the others being newly appointed or Aerial Access dealers who were active when Tanfield acquired SEV in 2004, which included the Aerial Access business.

The key to getting these dealers onboard, says Mr Tindale, was the speed with which the company moved manufacturing from Dublin to its new manufacturing plant in the North East of England. The leased facility – the 23000 m2 Vigo Centre, near Washington in Tyne &Wear – was opened in October 2006 and production capacity was already running at around 120 units a week when AI visited in April, with that programmed to reach 150 units by June. Recent investments have included £2 million on a painting line.

Vigo is mainly an assembly plant, with fabrications supplied from UpRight's nearby sister company, Tanfield Engineering Systems, or from suppliers in eastern Europe and China.

While getting production up and running has been important, supporting these machines with parts has been equally so, particularly given the past experience of customers.

There is a “multi–million pound” centralised parts inventory at Vigo. “We've had to throw resources at it”, says Mr Tindale, who describes the old parts distribution set–up, with seven warehouses worldwide not always communicating with each other, as “absolute chaos… We're not at the target we'd like to be, but it's significantly better than it was.”

Dealer strategy

The fact that so many of the old dealers have stuck with the business reveals an important part of UpRight's strategy. “We think the only way for us to provide support is to have local people on the ground”, says Mr Tindale, “Can we resource a level of people in every country? No, so we will work hand in hand with distributors. We appoint dealers who are spares and service specialists, and who can sell. IPS is a fantastic case in point.” IPS is Rick Mustillo's independent parts and service specialist that was recently appointed sales distributor for the UK.

The dealership network continues to grow, with recent appointments including CIEL Rental in South Korea, Apa Makina in Turkey, Kanoo in Saudi Arabia, PSE in the Benelux area, and a new independent dealer for France, UpRight Powered Access France.

The hurdle of creating a distribution network may be ahead of schedule, but the company has two other big challenges on its hands; to re–establish itself in North America and to continue to grow the product line. Product–wise, the Vigo centre is currently making TM12s, MX19s the X26 and X32 scissors and the SL26 and 30 Speed Level machines, as well as the AB38 articulated booms, the MB20/26 mast booms, both UpRight and Aerial trailer mounts, the dumper mounted AB48HSRT, and – just started – the AB46E/46RT articulated booms (the first Vigo–produced AB46RT was shown at Bauma, and full production is scheduled for November.) In UpRight's Fresno, California, facility, meanwhile, the small UL25/32/40 vertical mast machines are being assembled as well as TM12s and MX19s.

New designer

Expansion of the line is now planned, particularly since Gary Crook, an ex–UpRight designer who had recently been working for JLG, has re–joined the company to establish an UpRight engineering design centre to be based in California.

Mr Tindale says the aim is to have a full range of big booms and larger scissors in place within 12 months. That will mean the AB46 models, 60–62 ft knuckle booms and a family of straight telescopic booms in 40/45 ft, 60/65 ft and 80/85 ft sizes. A 120 ft stick boom is likely, as is a big articulated model.

The larger LX scissor range will be updated, with 40/50 ft models, and mid–range off–slab scissors in 26 and 30 ft sizes are also on the ‘to do’ list, although Mr Tindale recognises that “will be a challenge for us.”

Manufacturing these machines begs the question about what will be changed in the new models? Mr Tindale says Gary Crook's mantra is ‘keep things simple'. He says many of the older designs, such as the X series scissors, the MX scissors and TM12s, “are very, very reliable and good machines”. He acknowledges that in some cases technology has moved on – citing the electric drives on JLG's ES scissors – but says customers are happy enough with tried–and–tested, successful products.

The AB46 is a good example. It is very similar to the old model, but with a Stage III Kubota engine, the use of low–profile tyres, a more conventional drop bar gate design on the cage, a redesigned exhaust system to reduce noise, and the use of “simple to maintain” hardwired controls. “It's not hugely changed”, he tells AI, “It was a good machine.”

The company also retains the use of the Aerial Access brand, and some trailers are still sold to Aerial dealers in the yellow colours. “The brand is being kept up our sleeves”, says Richard Tindale.

Getting a firm foothold in North America is another big task. Tanfield believes there is a demand for an alternative to the big two US suppliers, particularly from small to medium sized rental companies. The company's energetic chief executive, Darren Kell, said in February that it would have a new manufacturing plant in the US within 6 months. That deadline has now slipped a little – “We set ourselves a difficult target”, says Dan Jenkins, the company's media relations manager – but the aim is still to have a facility up and running by the end of 2007. (The aim is for the larger machines – 80 ft and above – to be built at just one location, either at Vigo or the US.)

US manufacture

Richard Tindale says it will be “US manufacturing for the US market” and could well be combined with manufacture of Tanfield's zero emission trucks that are now being marketed in the US. The location of the facility has still to be finalised.

So there is a lot still to do at UpRight, even if progress has been remarkable. “It has been stunning” is how Richard Tindale describes the last 12 months, “But it's a work in progress.”

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