Grant support helps sustain growth for Thornaby manufacturer

Vixen Surface Treatments based in Thronaby, received a capital expenditure grant from the SAM project and purchased CAD software. Photo of Vixen MD Aiden Mallon.
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A manufacturer of industrial cleaning machinery and equipment has revealed how a business support programme helped it through the pandemic and prepare for life post-Coronavirus.

Founded in 1990 by managing director Aidan Mallon, Thornaby-based Vixen Surface Treatments is a market leader in the production of wet and dry blast cleaning cabinets, degreasing machines and phosphating equipment.

Manufacturing both off-the-shelf and bespoke machinery, the company exports 40% of its products overseas to customers in the nuclear, engineering, healthcare, automotive and aerospace industries, meaning it is often required to maintain close and constant dialogue with clients.

Thanks to a capital expenditure grant obtained last year from the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project – which offers a range of support to the region’s SME manufacturing businesses – Aidan and the team were able to mitigate the impact of social distancing and travel bans throughout the pandemic, by purchasing state-of-the-art 3D CAD visualisation software.

The installation of ‘Solidworks’ software means Vixen is able to provide 3D demonstrations of its products to clients, allowing them to visualise how products will look and work once complete.

Aidan said: “As a manufacturer you must explore every avenue possible to grow your business, be it investing in new equipment or tapping into expertise and funding – and business support from organisations such as SAM is vital to helping SMEs move forward.

“We’d just extended our factory prior to approaching SAM and wanted to move into Solidworks.

“The grant helped us secure the funding needed to do that and accelerated our growth, helping us gain a competitive advantage by massively increasing the quality of service we’re able to offer clients.”

Vixen began producing 3D virtualisations just under a year ago and it has already enabled the company to secure a major export order from a German aerospace business, as well as helping keep its order book filled during the pandemic, which brought manufacturing supply chains to a halt across the globe.

“The first project we completed after the investment saw us test the Solidworks software on a live project that we won,” he added.

“It was a €500,000 export order from a German aerospace company and I genuinely believe we wouldn’t have won that contract without including it in our offer. It really adds credibility and professionalism to our proposals.

“It also helped us share up-to date designs and updates with clients during the pandemic, meaning we could still fulfil orders despite travel bans.

“That’s not to say we weren’t impacted by the pandemic – as we were functioning with just 25% of our workforce at one stage – but it certainly helped us to continue operating and servicing clients.”

SAM offers four key support functions to businesses that are gearing up to grow, including access to technical expertise, with industrial specialists using their skill and expertise to guide businesses through the process of understanding and implementing technology; R&D, with a team of researchers able to support with the development of new products and processes; factories and facilities, including access to £1m of industry-leading advanced technology and equipment; and its grants scheme, that offers financial assistance to businesses that qualify.

Ken Teears, project manager at SAM, said: “Vixen Surface Technologies is a fine example of how visualisation through 3D technologies such as Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM)can help businesses innovate and grow, even during the most challenging of conditions.”

As well as its comprehensive suite of support, the SAM Project is in its final couple of months of its ‘phase 1’ grant scheme which includes funding for innovation projects as well as an adapted grant scheme to help SME manufacturers looking to pivot during the pandemic.

SAM is urging eligible businesses to apply for funding before time runs out. There is less than £100,000 of funding remaining in phase 1, so companies need to act quickly to receive funding over the summer.

The fund provides support to companies that have had to diversify or adapt in order to stay in business and operational during and after Covid-19, with match funding grants of up to £10,000 available, as well as its normal funding stream to support businesses looking to diversify, or improve products and processes in order to grow.

SAM is a collaboration between European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and University of Sunderland, that was set up to support North East (LEP) SME manufacturers to explore and introduce new technology to improve their products or processes.

It was funded with a £2.6m commitment from ERDF and £2.5m from the University of Sunderland, and is aimed solely at small and medium sized manufacturers (under 250 employees), with an annual turnover of less than €50m (approx. £45m).