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Clear route ahead

Something like a thousand new passenger trains have been ordered for Britain’s railways over the last couple of years. Cities like Glasgow and Liverpool will both soon be operating new metro fleets and there are very few regional and long-distance routes that won’t benefit from new or refurbished trains at some point in the near future.

Passengers aren’t the only ones who will benefit. The investment has been significant for the supply chain, creating stability and opportunity. These companies play a pivotal role in their local economies and represent another compelling argument for continued investment in rail. But the bodies that represent rail industry suppliers are all too aware that things can change and they are keen for the UK’s rail supply chain to expand its horizons.

For some of these companies, exports actually represent the largest part of their business. One of the biggest suppliers of train windscreen wipers and wash systems in the world is based on the outskirts of Redditch in Worcestershire. From its unassuming factory in the West Midlands, Hepworth supplies wipers to 55 countries around the world. The design office is adorned with photos of Australian trams and Chinese high-speed trains – all of which use British-built wiper systems.

PLAN FOR GROWTH

Hepworth was founded in 1868. For most of this time, the company’s focus has been on manufacturing wiper systems for luxury yachts and naval ships. But in the early 1990s, the company began supplying train manufacturers in the Midlands and has since cultivated a much wider client base. Hepworth’s finance director, Craig Bagnall, said the rail division is at the centre of the company’s growth strategy.

He explains that the rail business currently has a turnover of around £5 million a year. ‘In the context of the wider world market, that should be significantly higher,’ said Craig, who expects the figure to be closer to £10 million within the next few years.

As well as a constant flow of orders for new systems, the business is seeing an increase in retrofit projects and is becoming increasingly busy refurbishing systems for existing customers. Although best known for wipers, the company, through its fabrication business, also manufactures things like lineside cabinets and seating enclosures.

Says Craig, ‘We have a great opportunity to grow the rail segment within the business because we have some really good people who have been here a long time and are really experienced in the rail business.’

Over the last two years, the company has invested £1.5 million in new machinery, both in order to keep pace with demand and to add to its capabilities. In part this is driven by a need to innovate. The demand for automated wiper and washer systems is increasing as more metro operators opt for driverless vehicles. There is also a shift within the industry towards predictive maintenance. Operators want smart systems that, for example, can tell the driver when the water tank needs refilling.

This investment can be seen throughout the factory’s multiple sites. In the workshop opposite Hepworth’s main office building is a brand new laser cutting machine. New machines are being delivered all the time, says account manager Alastair Timmis, one of the members of the rail team.

Hepworth’s North Moons Moat site, which employs around 200 people, produces a range of pendulum and pantograph wiper systems. Almost every part of the finished systems that are bubble-wrapped and shipped from the site every day are manufactured on site.

Dotted around the factory there are technicians building the motors and linkage systems, machinists fabricating metal components and programmers inputting data into the automated machining tools. There are also numerous welding stations and a powder coating plant – black is the most popular colour, not surprisingly.

In another corner of the site, new systems are put through a rigorous testing procedure. The wipers run continuously for several months until they’ve successfully completed three million cycles, which is equivalent to six to seven years in commercial service.

RAIL TEAM

Led by Bert Thijssen, the rail team includes Alastair; Ian Lockett, technical sales manager; Christine Hewitt, technical project manager; and Adam Lockett, after sales technician. Between them, they’re responsible for selling and designing new wiper systems and providing technical support to clients.

Alastair and Ian know the business better than most, having joined the company fresh from collecting their A-level results. ‘Ian and I pretty much have gone through the same process,’ said Alastair. ‘We started on the shop floor, so we started learning how to build products.’

But it was when they moved into the returns department that they started to understand how the business worked. The pair now spend a lot of their time travelling around the world meeting clients and promoting the business. Says Alastair, ‘With a combined 30 years of employment, we have a great knowledge of the product and have built a client base and a great working relationship with our customers.’

Christine joined the team six months ago. She had previously spent three years in the company’s design office and was moved across to meet a recognised need for technical contract and design support.

FROM REDDITCH TO RIYADH

Hepworth is currently supplying wiper systems to flagship rolling stock programmes in the US, Asia, the Middle East and across Europe.

Although Hepworth is a global business, it is also an important local employer. ‘I would probably say at least 80 per cent of our workforce are based within probably five miles of the factory, so we’re a true Redditch and Worcestershire-based employer,’ said Craig.

Hepworth moved to its current site in 2008 after outgrowing its previous factory. The new site was much larger; Alastair says at first he was unsure they’d ever fill it. Just nine years later, space is already at a premium. Notwithstanding this, the business has ambitions to expand further, grow its workforce and increase its share of the market.

Redditch is probably most famous for manufacturing motorcycles and needles – it even has a needle museum. It may be time to add Hepworth wipers to that list.

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