Houghton International: Walking the fine line between R&D and manufacturing

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Houghton-Dock-Pump-Repair-290X217Craig Hutton, Houghton International’s Operations Director has been with the company for 22 years and heads all five divisions (Rail services, Electro-mechanical services, High voltage coils, Consultancy and they have recently added the Pumps division). The new Pumps division will allow Houghton to offer customers a more streamlined service and a one-stop-shop for their assets – both motor and pump.

Craig started at Houghton International at the age of 27 on the shop floor as an armature winder. After two years on the shop floor he moved to sales in order to help grow the company, starting as Sales Engineer and moving on to Sales Manager. From there he progressed to Workshop Manager followed by the General Manager role, until he reached his current role as Houghton International’s Operations Director. During his time at Houghton he has seen the business grow considerably, opening up five sites (and now looking to open a 6th site).

All of Houghton International’s sales people are also engineers, so they don’t simply sell services to customers, they also advise them on problem solving based on their own personal experience of working hands-on as engineers. This enables the company to create a partnership with customers and a different type of relationship.

Houghton International’s rail division pioneers technical and commercial innovation in the repair, maintenance and life extension of AC & DC rail traction motors and motor alternator (MA) set into the UK and global markets. They also serve as a high-quality electro mechanical repair shop that specialises in the repair, maintenance and life extension of motors, generators and pumps. Their High Voltage Cols division supplies premium high voltage coils specifically designed for the repair market, as well as auxiliary winding kits.

“Our innovation really materialises in the service we provide our customers”, said Hodi Mirafsari, Houghton International’s Engineering Manager. “We repaired the alternator for GWR and found out on day one that there was a mistake made by the OEM. We contacted the associated body in the United States and were able to resolve that problem for them ourselves. We ended up increasing the overall performance of the alternator generator by 2%-3%, which is significant. This resulted in a 3-year contract with GWR for servicing all of their alternators.”

With Houghton International’s extensive experience of engineering services, materials and methods of operation they manage to do things differently and better every day. They are able to provide a unique and important holistic service and solutions, which most companies do not offer.

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R&D as a service

The type of R&D that Houghton International does falls into several categories. Some are pure in-house R&D, which includes the high voltage coils endurance testing lab and other internal research and development projects they do in order to advance their own services and products. Other types of R&D are undertaken when a customer comes to them and wants to create something based on an idea, which Houghton International’s engineers then help to research and develop and provide the system that they would need to do the job.

A recent example for this are two tidal generation generators, where the high voltage coil and virtually the whole system had to be submerged in 50 meters deep sea water. Houghton International designed and manufactured samples and tested those under different water pressures in order to approve the insulation system. There are many other examples like this, where Houghton - whose orders are always bespoke - need to design, manufacture and test different new solutions for customers. 

“We often use AutoCAD 3D drawing modelling”, said Hodi. “This allows us to adjust the insulation material of the coils and also improving their performance, as well as make adjustments to power output or current output, depending on the customer’s specific requirements.”

At Houghton International it is sometimes difficult to draw the line between where R&D ends and manufacturing begins. 

On the other end of the scale Houghton International may have, for example, a customer who wants their obsolete motor reengineered with brand new coils so it will keep on running. This would require to reverse engineer the old motor - a different kind of R&D.

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Working at Houghton International

According to Craig, there are several reasons why he likes working at Houghton International and why he’s been there for so long. 

“I’ve moved up the ranks, fairly quickly”, said Craig. “There’s always progression for everybody within the business and we always advertise internally for our available positions. It’s very active on a day-to-day basis, it never stops, and it’s never boring. Every day is different and I think that’s one of the main reasons why the business has been so successful.”

For Hodi, who has worked for quite a few corporates - Rolls-Royce and Siemens amongst others - there are big differences between these two types of organisations.

“Coming here was quite a change”, said Hodi. “I like working here because it’s dynamic, it’s based on trust and it’s a very fast-paced work environment. I also appreciate the fact that we are able to show that transparency, honesty and straightforwardness with our customers and suppliers and not just internally. Also, there’s very little red tape. If I have an idea I can just go to Craig and if he likes it we go to Michael [Mitten, Houghton International’s CEO] and it can be decided right then and then that we are doing it. In other companies this process would take months and a lot of people would need to sign off on that.”

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