Simon Lott speaks to sales director Andrew Dugmore about how it is making the most of the composite boom.
A year is a long time in the manufacturing marketplace, and just as the misery of 2009 turned to cautious optimism in 2010, this year companies are beginning to see serious growth fuelled by the aspirations of designers and the ever present need to use energy more intelligently. This growth is particularly marked in what is a relatively immature sector, where SMEs can be rapidly propelled into the limelight if they have the right products at the right time, and the name of Amber Composites is one that is frequently appearing as it expands its product range and enters into new technical partnerships. Amber now produces woven and unidirectional prepreg including low -and mid-temperature, out of autoclave, tooling and fire retardant products; it also processes core for sale throughout Europe providing aluminium, Nomex and Flex-Core honeycomb, syntactic core and the recently added ROHACELL range of closed-cell foams for high grade, lightweight sandwich construction. It also sells a range of reinforcement fabrics, adhesive films, gelcoats and laminating resins, tooling and patternmaking products, release agents, structural panels, vacuum bagging materials and adhesives. The company has been in existence since 1988 when three engineers originally working for the Advanced Composites Group decided to split off and begin their own enterprise, entering into distribution partnerships and manufacturing some of its own materials while the composites market grew up around it. With the scale and complexity of that industry now entering a new phase, Amber too is looking towards an expanded presence, and to do so it has seen well over £1 million investment in an expansion programme that will more than double the size of its current facilities, including a brand new 13,000ft2 production area. The new space is phase one of a three phase expansion that will also add an additional warehouse and offices and will be dedicated to the production of its own prepreg, surface films, adhesive films and syntactic cores. In addition, replacing its old freezers with a single, purpose-built freezer has seen the company cut energy bills considerably. The investment has also enabled the expansion of its R&D area and seen new equipment including Instron mechanical testing machinery, bringing this kind of development in-house and allowing for more comprehensive data collection. Examples of products the team is currently working on are a low temperature cyanate ester, variable temperature structural prepregs and additions to its out of autoclave range as well as a low temperature flame retardant material for aerospace applications. Repositioning for growth The company’s remit is to: ‘sell the intelligence, the advice, encouragement and the right materials to help engineers, designers and architects create things that were unimaginable in the past’. Since the company changed ownership in 2007 there have been several crucial changes, including the strategy of reinvesting all profits back into the company. Rapid response times and operational efficiency is a key area of focus for the company, with Dugmore saying he believes it has the shortest leadtimes in the industry. Turnaround time is something the company is particularly proud of and with the additional capacity coming online soon, reducing delivery times further is a main priority. As with any business, improvements to efficiency are always beneficial and the company has made some fairly large progress. This was highlighted at Composites UK’s recent annual conference where it won the Health, Safety and Environment award after a dedicated programme saw total waste reduced by 40% and the volume of recycled waste increased from 35% to 90%. The export market has also been a key part of new growth, with Amber’s business to OEMs and SMEs across Europe going up over 150% in the last 12 months and the company placing more technical field engineers in Europe. But why would European companies choose Amber over indigenous suppliers? “Purely because of our reputation, response, leadtimes and availability of materials,” says Dugmore. “We’re doing well in Germany and France simply because a typical SME looking for tooling or component prepreg can otherwise face an average 6-8 week leadtime.” Expanding applications In a materials market dominated by large scale companies that produce on a mass scale, Amber has been making steady progress towards the cutting edge, with the marine and automotive industries being important markets. Like any modern manufacturer however, to really show its quality it has now developed an aerospace division to break into this perennially difficult but lucrative sector. Already it has entered into technical partnerships with the likes of Schiebel for its Camcopter S-100 UAV project, providing high precision tooling prepreg for moulded parts and high temperature resistant component prepreg material as well as entering into an ongoing testing relationship for the continual improvement of materials. In fact the majority of its customers are described as ‘technical partners’ and it’s not uncommon for the company to develop specific products depending on the application and as with the leadtimes on standard products, the ability to turn around tailored materials is another of the company’s key strengths. Often, today’s test subjects are tomorrow’s products and it’s technical partnerships like these that help the company to meet specific requirements while positioning products for the future. Over recent years, Amber has been keen to develop these technical partnerships and has announced deals with various companies that are able to drive products forward. Honda Racing’s British Touring Car Championship entry for example, has seen Team Dynamics, who is responsible for running the cars, move from using wet lay-up polyester material to a much lighter, more consistent prepreg on parts such as the front bumper, splitter and floor structure. Similarly, the all-electric Brammo Empulse motorcycle came away victorious from the inaugural TTXGP zero emission race at California’s Infineon Raceway last May, carrying a new seat assembly and tank made from Amber’s 8020 prepreg, shaving 30% off the total weight. As an added bonus, due to the good surface finish out of the mould, no clear coat or paint was required, reducing weight further. Other customers include Sunseeker and wind turbine manufacturer Futurenergy, ensuring that progress is made in all kinds of challenging applications. As for the future, further announcements concerning new products and applications are in the pipeline, with Dugmore cryptically hinting that there are further ‘truly innovative’ materials to emerge in the next few years. For now however, it will be interesting to see the company continue to develop in a highly competitive European marketplace. www.ambercomposites.com