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Case studies | Feb 28

Instinct Hardware: masters of efficiency

Case studies | Feb 28

Motivated by a desire to remain cutting edge in the industry, Birmingham-based manufacturer Instinct Hardware has embarked on an ambitious strategy of digitalisation

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Nil Chohan co-runs a Birmingham-based manufacturing company called Instinct Hardware. Since Nil completed the Help to Grow: Management Course, Instinct Hardware has increased its manufacturing capacity by 15% by bringing much of its work in house and digitalising many of the business’s processes.

Instinct Hardware was founded as a manufacturer of architectural ironmongery products in 1989 by Nil’s father Ray Chohan and two of his former colleagues, Terry Bansal and Moh Meharban. The business has since grown steadily and now occupies a 68,000 square-foot premises in Stirchley, south-west Birmingham.

In 2011, Ray exited the business, with Moh following in 2013, and Terry in 2022, and each of their sons, Nil, Haq, and Anthony, took shared directorship of Instinct Hardware. While the previous owners had focused on growing the business by increasing their physical footprint – through more employees and factory space –, Nil felt that there was much that could be done to grow the business through increased efficiency.

Bringing the business into the 21st century 

Prior to taking over the business in 2011, Nil spent four years working on the shop floor getting to grips with the fundamentals and all technical aspects of the business. It was during this time that Nil noticed that the business relied too much on manual processes, which was not only a significant resource drain but also risked human error. One of Nil’s first actions as a director was to bring the business up to date by implementing Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines and Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. These machines mechanised many of the manual elements and allowed employees to become more specialised as they could focus on fewer processes within the manufacturing journey.

‘Bringing the CNC machines was definitely a risk. On top of them costing about £40k each, we only had two computers in the business at the time with limited functionalities, so our staff had to learn new skills and new ways of working. But no other bespoke manufacturers were really digitalising at that point, so I felt the risk was worth it if we could be one of the first.’

Since 2014, Nil has successfully implemented ten CNC machines. This has helped the business in two ways. The first is that with lots of large-scale manufacturing coming through China and other parts of Asia, the products made in the UK had to offer something different. Instead of trying to go against a competitor that could operate at a lower cost, Nil opted to build a more refined, bespoke product to create a niche within the market. The CNC machines and design software have allowed Instinct Hardware to fulfil a variety of orders without the need to specialise in a particular area and focus on quality.

In addition to this, the CNC machines have also allowed Instinct Hardware to bring the entire manufacturing process in house as they no longer need to rely on contractors for parts of the manufacturing process. This has saved the business up to £50k a month, but on top of that it has allowed Nil to further develop the skills of his existing staff. By upskilling his existing team, he is able to take the business into new areas, such as Water Jet Cutting and Powder Coating. While Nil’s staff count has hardly changed in the last ten years, the type of technician he hires has. Instinct Hardware now focuses on hiring specialised technicians who can cater to bespoke orders. When Instinct Hardware needs to hire technicians, they ensure their skills are aligned with what’s required to deliver the new company strategy.

Instinct Hardware team image on the factory floor. Courtesy of Instinct Hardware

Through the increased efficiency that the machines brought, Nil found that he was no longer needed as a hands-on director, and he began to transition to a more strategic role. His first port-of-call was to look at how efficient other areas of the business were. Something that stood out to Nil was the lead times given to customers.

‘When customers place an order, they want a lead time on that order. What we did in the past was generate that based on experience and an estimate of what we thought the available resources were. This occasionally led to a mismanagement of projects as lead times were inaccurate. I knew we needed to generate lead times based on data so we could be accurate and manage our available capacity more efficiently.’

It was shortly after this that Nil enrolled onto the Help to Grow: Management Course to understand how he could holistically digitalise the business to increase efficiency. There were smaller things he implemented to help with digitalisation, such as new admin staff to help with data handling, but with the help of the Help to Grow: Management Course he knew that to fully transform the business into a digital one that relies on data-led decisions, he would need external help.

Knowledge Transfer Partnership 

In early 2023, Nil teamed up with Aston University, where he completed his Help to Grow: Management Course. He successfully applied for a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) through Innovate UK to implement the digitalisation of operational and production processes by adopting an Industry 5.0 approach. Innovate UK is funding 70% of the project cost.

The KTP will see Instinct Hardware using digitalisation to improve manufacturing efficiencies by introducing real-time data systems, which will enable more informed management decisions. 

As well as developing digital dashboards in the factory which will display real time production data to support planning and decision-making, the project will also allow Instinct Hardware to trial new ideas and model ‘what if’ scenarios by using simulation software.

‘We’re thrilled to have such an exciting project. Not only have Innovate UK awarded us most of the funding, but we will also have two professors from the university coming in to look at our business and help implement new systems.’

A continuously evolving strategy 

Since taking over the business in 2014, Nil has propelled the business to new heights. His drive to make the business more efficient has been a long and costly one, but one that has yielded sizable returns, and he aspires to double the turnover of the business to £10m in the next six years.

Nil acknowledges that chasing maximum efficiency is a never-ending task. However, it’s important to remember it’s not about squeezing the most out of the resources you have. No business operates in a vacuum, so you need to constantly evolve the systems and technology you have in place to adapt to an ever-evolving market.

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