To build a successful manufacturing business takes passion, belief, courage, forward vision, good staff relations, big investment and a stack of hard work, as we found out when we visited the headquarters of aftermarket exhaust manufacturers Scorpion in Derbyshire
At Scorpion for 25 years, the last few as sole owner after he bought out his retiring partner, Shaun Leonard has proven to have those qualities.
The mainspring is passion. As a kid, Shaun was mad about cars and bikes. He left school and took an apprenticeship in tool making for a local manufacturer of car exhausts. He’s been making exhausts ever since.
They spent some time as OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) suppliers in the car industry but the margins were too tight for comfort and the control exerted by the customers too restrictive. They got out of that market before it broke them.
The company may have started out making car exhausts, but nowadays 80% of their output is for motorcycles. They produce upwards of 600 exhausts a week, most of which are exported.
You’re either in the job to do it properly or not
Shaun’s working day starts at 7.30 am when the production staff arrive. He spends the first hour talking to each team to keep them informed about what is happening in the company and to hear about any problems that may have arisen. He goes through the same process with the office staff as they arrive at 8.30.
“It’s important to have the best people and the best equipment,” he says. “It is important that they [the staff] understand that they are part of the business.”
Scorpion employs 58 people at its Derbyshire factory. They make almost all components of their exhausts on-site. Those parts that they buy in are sourced from British companies.
The end caps for their exhaust cans, for example, are made by Pro Moulds in Mansfield. The caps are made from Amodel, a plastic designed for high temperature automotive use. Using Amodel allows high quality components to be produced quickly for a reasonable cost.
For a medium size firm, the capital investment can be eye-watering. One end of the factory is dominated by two computer controlled pipe bending machines. Next to the benders is a test area containing a Romer Arm – a digital co-ordinate measuring tool used to test finished pipes to ensure that the bends conform to specification. Total initial cost to bend and measure pipes – £370,000, of which £50,000 went on tooling. It doesn’t finish there. New designs means new tooling and more expense.
“It’s the only way,” says Shaun. “You’re either in the job to do it properly or not.”
At the opposite end of the factory are two presses for stamping out metal components. Walking round, you see automatic TIG welding machines, manual TIG welding stations, sheet metal rollers and folders, a dedicated polishing room, a carbon fibre manufacturing area with two curing ovens, final assembly and inspection stations, and a dispatch area which is about to be changed as increasing sales demand more space.
Scorpion exhausts are homologated for use throughout Europe. That’s not easy either. All new models have to be tested in either Great Britain, The Netherlands, The Republic of Ireland, or Germany to gain the necessary E mark, which is the equivalent of the BS (British Standards) AU approval. The requirements are strict. Power output has to be within 2% of the standard system and the permitted variance in noise is just one decibel (Db.).
Each test costs £2000 on top of the development costs of the exhaust. Scorpion have their own dynamometers for testing bike and car power outputs. They test noise on an ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) approved road at the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) test facility near Nuneaton in the UK.
If an exhaust design excludes the original catalytic converter, it has to be tested for emissions as well. There are only two approved test facilities in Europe; one in Switzerland and one in Germany. The cost? £4300 per pipe at the current exchange rate.
Scorpion produces 25 new models a year and it takes a team of five engineers two weeks to develop a new pipe. They have dealer friends who lend them bikes for development, but sometimes they buy new bikes to do the work.
So let’s say 50 person/days for development per pipe. That’s 1250 person/days a year from talented, expensive, engineers. Testing absorbs £50,000.
It’s worth doing properly, as Shaun said, but it is expensive. It’s something to think about the next time you are contemplating buying a pipe and the prices don’t seem that high. The market is full of untested, fraudulently stamped items from China and elsewhere.
To underline their confidence in the quality of their pipes, Scorpion offer a lifetime guarantee on all their bike exhausts. The longevity is partly thanks to the British developed and manufactured ceramic blanket they use for sound absorption inside the cans, which does away with the need to repack the silencer.
To help keep track of sold pipes, every one is laser marked. You can contact Scorpion years later and they will know the exact model you have.
Scorpion's software engineering is on a level with the metal and carbon output. Tom, 24, was formerly an IT support engineer and taught himself the key web technologies of PHP and MySQL. He now works full time on the company's web presence, which includes a truly impressive business to business site for Scorpion dealers, which he has linked to their stock control system. An extension into the customer web site is under development. He also advises the team that manages the firm's social media presence.
It is unusual to find almost everything from hard metal and carbon fibre components to computer software being made under the same roof. Scorpion is such a British operation. And while the pipes cannot compete on price with poorly made knock-offs and “me-too” products from the East, they are perfectly affordable. “Bikers are mostly more concerned about quality than costs,” reckons Shaun.
It is often said that it is too difficult to manufacture goods in the UK at prices people are willing to pay. The long term success of Scorpion exhausts, built on quality and customer service, prove that the opposite is true.