Creative Composites….At Technology’s Cutting Edge
Creative Composites is one of those companies that goes into the ‘hidden gem’ bracket when it comes to advanced manufacturing in Northern Ireland…..a company not on many people’s radar but one at the very forefront of its industry. Based at Knockmore outside Lisburn, Creative Composites – as its marketing tag line puts it – is the UK’s most advanced composites manufacturers.
It makes finished composites products for use in high performance cars, in buses, in medical technology, in aerospace, in materials handling and in the rather more everyday world of vending machines. And that’s to mention just a few of its end product applications. The company can trace its roots back 40 years or so when it was the composites division of the highly successful Boxmore International group. After Boxmore International was sold to US firm Chesapeake, an MBO took the Composites Division out on its own.
Then based at a 25,000 sq. ft facility at Blaris Industrial Estate, the firm moved to a purpose built composites manufacturing plant at Knockmore in 2005, doubling its production space at a stroke. Since then, it’s been doubled again to 100,000 sq.ft. “So we’ve quadrupled our square footage since the MBO back in 2000,” says Creative Composites Managing Director Jonathan Holmes. “It has been a case of steady growth in terms of production and sales over the past number of years.
“High quality components are at the heart of what we do here,” he explains. “Our mission statement is clear cut. We set out to achieve better design, better manufacture and better service than our competitors. And we have to achieve that within the kind of short lead times that our customers demand.
“We have the flexibility to cater for composites projects with high, medium or low volume demand, and that has meant a substantial investment through the years in equipment.” The Creative Composites plant at Knockmore includes state of the art presses, active levelling, in-mould coating and vacuum technology. Robotics are used for certain high precision processes.
“We’ve recently added a fourth compression moulding press generating 1500 tonnes of moulding pressure and capable of processing units of up to three metres by two metres in size. It ranks as the most advanced technology available in this industry.” Creative Composites has an established reputation at the high quality end of the composites marketplace. Components manufactured at Knockmore are standard fit, for example, on some of the very best Britishmade supercars.
The firm has made everything from the full body shell of the ultra lightweight Lotus Exige sports car through to a series of body components for other big brand name car makers. Each one, not surprisingly, has to be machined to the very highest standards.
“Believe me, if there is even a tiny blemish on the finish of the piece, our customers would reject it without any hesitation. So we have to get it right every time,” adds Jonathan Holmes. “The car industry, especially at supercar level, is all about weight reduction. So we also have to continually rise to the technical challenges that are set for us.”
The automotive industry customers aren’t the only ones requiring high quality and precision. Creative Components also manufactures largescale components for MRI scanners assembled in Germany.
Closer to home, the company does have customers within Northern Ireland – notably Wrightbus & Hyster Yale Materials Handling, makers of fork lift trucks in Craigavon. “Like any other business, this one is all about the important relationships that we have with our customers. The service element is just as key to us as design and manufacturing are.
“We take a strategic view of R&D,” adds Jonathan Holmes. “We actively carry out product development here. The expertise in this industry, as well as most of the customers, lies outside of Northern Ireland. But we stay very close to our markets. That’s the approach that works for us as a company.
“We look at different materials, we test materials, and we concentrate on the design and development of the end products that our customers want.” Jonathan Holmes says that Creative Composites has been through a sustained period of growth and intends to continue that growth.
“We will grow the business alongside our customers and with a clearly defined range of products,” he says. “Looking to the future, we also see sales going up, square footage going up and a continued investment in technology. That’s essential to keep pace with the demands of our customer base.”
But the firm is also looking at new sectors and new customers. One current example is the railway sector. Train manufacturers and operators, like those in other transport sectors, are focused on lightweight materials and weight reduction. “Customers, whatever sector they are in, expect strength, quality and functionality. And that’s before we get into cosmetic requirements. Depending on where the final product is used, the surface finish can be just as important as anything else.
“We may not qualify as low-cost in the global marketplace, but it is important for us to be cost competitive and add value to our customers’ products.” he adds.
Skills are an issue for Creative Composites, in common with other companies in the advanced manufacturing sector. “It is difficult to get the right people,” says Jonathan Holmes. “We’ve got some great design people here and some great engineers, but we’ve had to train them on site over the years. Our customers simply expect a level of expertise from us. Maintaining that will always be a focus for us.”
The company has worked alongside the Polymer Processing Research Centre (PPRC) at Queen’s University in Belfast, but does relatively few formal links with education or academia. Instead, it takes a very pragmatic approach to training and developing its people on the Knockmore site.
“Our design teams have a workload that will see them going flat out for the next two years,” Holmes adds. “We’ve got facilities in place for significant growth on our own Knockmore site. After that, we are looking ahead for further expansion.”
“Whatever direction we do go in, we’ll be aiming to be the best at what we do and at the top of our sector.”