LPRS keeps supply chain British
John Sharples left the business world three years ago August 2009 to take it easy, and quickly got bored.
At the same time, Low Power Radio Solutions, the Oxfordshire-based maker of easyRadio wireless modules, was feeling the weight of the world on its shoulders.
“I had known the company for a considerable time: my wife had worked there for 15 years and it was owned by my sister-in-law and husband,” said Sharples. “I was aware of its issues, and I kept saying what they had to do to grow it,” he said. And they replied: “Put your money where your mouth is.” So he did.
Now Sharples is managing director of LPRS, and putting his ideas into practice.
The firm manufactures wireless modules, comprising 30-36 components on a small PCB, covered by an RFI shielding can.
According to Sharples, when he took over the reins the company had operated on the same manufacturing strategy for a decade: buy components direct; get the microprocessors flashed by Lewmax in Leicester; ship the components to a sub-contractor in Huddersfield for assembly; then move the PCBs to LPRS’s own facility in Warrington for test, adding the metal cans, and final test.
“Eighteen months ago I initiated a project to consider how we sourced and manufactured the product we call easyRadio,” said Sharples.
Among the issues that emerged were that LPRS only had the buying power of LPRS, and that the Huddersfield sub-contractor was not investing in its capabilities.
“Initially I thought we would send it out to the Far East for 5,000 or 10,000 units to be manufactured, and they would be sent back,” said Sharples. But, “having investigated that, it didn’t look appropriate for a number of reasons”.
Intellectual property security was one reason.
“You can rest assured, within days or weeks there will be a copy on the market,” said Sharples. And there is not much flexibility. “When people say a slow boat from China, they mean it, there’s five weeks, so no chance to react to changing demand.”
Prices were not low enough to justify the risks.
He also took a look at Eastern Europe.
“Eastern Europe has some benefits: it is closer to our time-zone and easier to get to than China,” he said. However, each Eastern European country had its own disadvantages – although Sharples singles out Lithuania for praise: “It is cost-base competitive and has the right attitude – very professional. It is a country to watch in the next couple of years.”
So for good business reasons, he decided to continue making easyRadio in the UK.
Also, he said, “I had a niggling desire to manufacture in the UK. As a country, maybe for good reasons in the past, we have off-shored too much.”
After visiting manufacturing exhibitions, Sharples split his search into finding an organisation to source all the components, and finding a separate manufacturer.
As a result, Transonics in Wembley, owner of device programmer Lewmax, now buys components and puts them onto tape-and-reel for production.
Danlers of Chippenham manufactures the easyRadio modules.
“Transonics has the right mix of buying power and flexibility, Danlers has state-of-the-art equipment, good people, is flexible, and is able to do business in the way Transonics works,” said Sharples. For flexibility, Transonics holds buffer stocks and kits in batches for sending to Danlers.
For example, a batch size of 2,500 modules has been determined for one product, with enough for 2,500, 5,000 or 7,500 modules shipped for manufacture each month, depending on demand.
“Danlers is able to turn things on and off very quickly,” said Sharples. “We have been tracking Danlers’ quality and waste is well under 20% of what we were getting with the previous manufacturer.”
The quality hike means LPRS now trusts Danlers to test the board and attach its metal RFI can. Final test remains in LPRS’ Warrington facility.
Manufacturing is not the only way LPRS is changing. The firm is now looking beyond the UK and Europe for customers, to the US and the Far East; and its marketing team is experimenting with new media: it now has a YouTube channel, is on Facebook, and sparingly, it Twitters.