Report by Louise McHenry, UTI staff
For TMAT, a UK-based manufacturer of acoustic components for tractors and excavators, the challenge of meeting the needs of a niche market means striving for that extra something to stand out. In a market where engineering overrides cost, the company looks to develop something unique.
The company aims to provide a “complete solution for acoustic challenges” for the ACE (agricultural-construction-earthmoving) market, ceo Jason Lippitt told UTI in a 24 Jan interview at TMAT’s site in Chesterfield, UK.
TMAT’s complete noise-vibration-harshness (NVH) solution includes aesthetic interior, under-bonnet and exterior trim products, and floor mats, using polyurethane flexible- and integral skin foam systems, as well as squashed fibres and cottons.
TMAT specifically concentrates on the niche ACE market and “deliberately keeps away from the resource-hungry automotive business,” Lippitt noted. As a medium-sized business, TMAT is perfectly positioned to satisfy the ACE business of 5000-30 000 units a year. “It’s far too small for a big company to do,” Lippitt commented, adding that TMAT shifts about 20 000 plus units a year.
Just over 50 percent of what TMAT makes is exported, the majority to Europe and South America. Lippitt added that about 50 percent of what the company makes for the UK also gets exported, in vehicles made by companies such as Case, JCB, New Holland and Terex. A significant amount of business also goes to Japan, as well as Brazil and China, which is where growth is currently strong. TMAT has chosen not to compete in India due to the dominant rubber market there.
The largest business area is agricultural, which forms some 60 percent of the sales, Lippitt said, with about 35 percent going into construction and 5 percent to automotive. TMAT is not actively seeking work in this area although it does supply seatbelt housing to companies such as Jaguar Landrover and Nissan.
“Cars are sold on fashion,” Lippitt told UTI.
“Tractors are factories on wheels and have to be very efficient.” He noted that a digger, for example, could cost in the region of €100 000 ($132 000). This means that “the customer is less price sensitive, [it’s] more about engineering.” In automotive, “to reduce half a decibel is good, but it won’t sell more cars. In a tractor, it means it can now be sold in a different country,” Lippitt noted. This is due to stringent standards regarding noise in places of work. A tractor cab is considered as a workplace in many countries.
David Delaney, TMAT’s operations manager, told UTI that “some of the products and shapes are a lot more detailed” in ACE design because there are not the same crash requirements. The components can have “steeper, sharper edges,” Delaney noted.
Innovations in waffle technology
TMAT, which stands for Tailor-Made Acoustic Technologies, has recently launched an innovative polyurethane system, which can produce a honeycomb-shaped elastomer structure.
Lippitt said that historically, it has been “extremely difficult and considered impossible by some” to produce a ‘waffle-backed’ elastomer component of the size and dimensions required by TMAT’s market segment.
“A small waffle is no challenge at all,” Lippitt noted, adding, “To make a deep waffle with acoustic benefits is quite challenging.” The system, called STW 100, is the result of 18-months of development. The difficulty was perfecting the rate of cure, Lippitt said. It was essential to develop a system that would stay liquid for as long as possible, but would cure instantly once the mould was full.
A waffle-backed component is beneficial as it reduces the amount of material used, making production cheaper. Also, Lippitt noted, the waffle shape can be tuned to the level of frequency being emitted by a tractor’s engine.
Noise can be trapped within the matrix of the product. “You can get superior acoustic insulation with half the material,” he said.
The component can have all the physical properties available for a solid mat, like “logo, any colour, at a fraction of the cost,” Lippitt said.
At the time of the interview, TMAT had already supplied the product to one of its customers, and said it would offer this to other customers in place of what they already have.
“We think there’s enough of a saving that they could retool,” Lippitt added.
The company prefers to offer developments such as STW 100 as part of a complete acoustic solution. “We like doing the whole of the cab,” Lippitt said. TMAT currently has a customer in Germany who asked for an improved floormat.
Investigating the cab, TMAT discovered a “massively over-engineered” headliner, as well as “bits of steel [underneath the bonnet] where we can use elastomer,” Lippitt said. By working on all these aspects at once, TMAT was able to create an entire cab that provided better acoustic properties than if the company had worked solely on the mat.
If a company is simply looking for a basic floormat, then “we’re not really in the business of competing on price,” Lippitt commented. “But if you have an engineering challenge that needs to look great, I like to think we’re really good there.” He claimed, “Our products have gone into cabs that have won quiet cab awards. Some that we are most proud of are better than Bentley.”
The raw material challenge
TMAT mostly develops its own formulations, partly because the company found its own cost for development to be cheaper than buying in from systems houses.
“We are quite proud of our own formulations,” Lippitt said. “We gave systems houses a chance to quote for that business but none could quite meet our own cost.” “It is very important for us to have a good material supply,” Lippitt commented, but he noted that dealing with raw material suppliers could sometimes be a challenge. “This is no place for wimps,” he laughed.
He added that the company tweaks formulations depending on the customers’ needs, and that some companies have formulations that are “unique to them.” In June 2011, TMAT reported its first £1-million ($1.5 million) turnover month, which is a turnaround for a company that just over three years ago was in administration. Lippitt, a former coatings chemist, acquired the company with help from venture capitalists, and set about consolidating operations to one site, and narrowing market focus to the ACE business.
Sales in 2011 were about £9 million, up from around £5.5 million in 2009. Some 50 percent of operating profit has already been reinvested during 2011, TMAT said, with projected sales for 2012 of about £11 million.
Lippitt is proud of the work done to change TMAT’s fortunes but admits that the market has sometimes been tough, especially when it comes to dealing with raw material suppliers.
TMAT expects to see a softening in price increases. “What I don’t like to see is when there’s just an upward spiral,” Lippitt noted. “Every time a plant twitches, some executive says: ‘Lets just put another 5 percent on it.’ I see very little value engineering coming from these big companies.” And this has a knock-on effect for TMAT. Recently the company had a customer threaten not to use TMAT if a price increase was applied, but when prices go up, TMAT cannot afford to have negative margins. If there’s a choice between losing a customer or losing out in revenue, “it’s all the same to us,” Lippitt said.
The company is also keen on developing ‘green’ technology. “It’s our aim to have a green substitute for everything we make, to be 100 percent renewable,” Lippitt said.
Although green components can sometimes be a bit more expensive, Lippitt suggested that price sensitivity was not necessarily an issue for TMAT’s customers. He noted that for many of its customers, having an ‘environmentally friendly’ slant could even be an additional selling point.
TMAT has the following process capabilities in its Chesterfield factory:
- Reaction injection moulding
- High-density RPU Polyurethane elastomer Integral skin foam
- Back injection Viscoelastic polyurethane foam
- High-resilience foam - carpet / vinyl
- Compression moulding
- Vacuum forming
- In-house lamination/ die cutting/ Water-jet cutting