Where would the foodservice industry be without stainless steel fabricators?
The answer is somewhere up a certain creek without a paddle in sight, such is the role they play in binding kitchen and front-of-house projects together with their bespoke manufacturing skills.
The likes of Proline, Select Catering Fabrications, Promart, CED, Fabs4 and Counterline, will be familiar names to dealers, while there are also dozens of others playing an active role in the market up and down the country.
Fabricators have not had an easy time of things over the past few years. Squeezed margins, rising raw material costs and softening demand have all made life more difficult than the industry would have liked, especially when the health of the business depends solely on a busy factory floor. If the punching machines and steel presses aren’t whirring on a daily basis, then money isn’t being made.
Additionally, competition for work remains fierce in the current climate, and sometimes this can be to the detriment of the project.
Steve Lunt, managing director of Merseyside-based Fabs4, says that the number of nominated suppliers for tenders typically used to be three or four, but it is now seeing triple that on some occasions. “The maximum we have had tendering for the same project is 20 people and when you see that you just know it is going to be an absolute bag of rags,” he says.
This kind of scenario also explains why some fabricators feel there seems to be so many people in the middle these days that the gap between consultants and clients and the factory is getting wider. While the former might be expecting a certain standard, the reality is often very different once the builder’s QS has been involved.
“We have turned down a few jobs to be honest,” says Lunt. “One of them was engineered down from £80,000 to £40,000 and in the end we turned it away because we knew it wouldn’t be acceptable. There is a big difference in the fabrication [between those costs]. Each job that you do is your signature, so you want it to be the best, you don’t want somebody to cut it.”
One thing the financial climate hasn’t prevented fabricators from doing is diversifying into new product areas, honing their offerings and investing in new equipment — no small matter when a single item of machinery can cost the best part of several hundred thousand pounds.
A need to replace outdated equipment and drive greater production efficiencies have been the major forces behind some of the significant equipment upgrades that have been made. Gordon Wright, managing director of Insitu, which specialises in the bespoke fabrication of kitchens and bars, believes that the pressure on fabricators to meet the ever-increasing expectations of customers will encourage the industry to continue pushing the boundaries.
“I think the fabricators will have to invest in more hardware and software to ensure they can cope with the shortening lead times on projects,” he explains. “Also, with the use of 3D design software, this should help the end-user fully understand what the fabricator is providing.”
Insitu’s main highlights this year includ the completion of two large projects for the Hakkasan Group and the bond that it has created with Goodman Restaurants, which is behind the Burger & Lobster brand. “We look forward to strengthening this relationship with a couple more projects,” says Wright.
Fabricators say the thing that differentiates themselves from conventional manufacturers is their ability to provide an entirely bespoke solution for a specific situation. Many have focused on front-of-house counters and displays over the years, where demand for tailored, made-to-measure designs has remained strong.
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Increasingly, fabricators are being challenged to come up with bolder designs that encompass a wider range of aesthetic materials.
Products such as hot displays and counters are now commonly provided with induction hobs that are either inset or positioned under the counter for use with granite or stone top covers.
Tim Flood, managing director of Counterline, one of several prominent foodservice equipment fabricators in the north west of England, suggests that those in the business of bashing metal have to be able to accommodate the changing requirements of the customer to survive.
“I firmly believe that the cream will always rise to the top — the fabricators who have shown flexibility and adaptability in the recent uncertain times will undoubtedly prosper,” he says. “Giving the customer what they want and bringing every contract in on time and to budget is of upmost importance.”
One of the major plus-points for Counterline this year has been the successful roll-out of several exclusive products, including fan-blown hot display cases. These have now been certified and adopted by five of the UK’s top high-street dining brands. Additionally, the company is also in the process of taking over Merseyside rival DHR International, which it intends to run as a separate business. Details on the new structure are expected towards the end of the year.
One intriguing facet of the landscape is the existence of catering equipment distributors which have their own in-house fabrication expertise, such as ScoMac, Carford and CCE. Wholesaler RH Hall also has its own fabrication capability after acquiring Hertfordshire-based MBM Fabrications two and a half years ago.
“We produce a wide range of foodservice stainless steel products, benches, tabling, trolleys, shelving, sinks, merchandisers and vending cabinets to name a few,” explains managing director Ray Hall, who says its 15,000 square foot facility is equipped with NC control press brakes, spot welding, TIG and MIG welding, metal finishing bays and powder coating booths.
“The difference we have is that RH Hall fabrication services are wholly owned by RH Hall. This unique combination means that the caterer can benefit from a fully integrated approach, ensuring they will end up with the best solution,” he says.
ScoMac boasts a 36,000 square foot facility at its head office in Livingston, a 10,000 square foot operation in Northumberland, and can call upon additional capacity from other sister companies within the Unitech Group. All in all, it can deliver general kitchen fabrication of standard sizes right the way through to custom fabrication for specialist fittings and hot and cold foodservice items.
The company’s managing director, Iain Munro, says: “One of the most significant factors that sets ScoMac apart is our in-house joinery and solid sufaces (Corian and LG HiMacs) workshop in Livingston, which allows us to integrate stainless steel, joinery and corian all under our direct control. The ScoMac regional branch teams all seem to have gained a good knowledge of the ScoMac fabrication offer and we are now securing more projects with a greater content of our own manufactured products, from homes economics labs in schools to custom hotel bars along with high value foodservice counters.”
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Munro says that recent projects involving Sheffield University with The Russell Partnership, and Wragge & Co with Humble Arnold, also show that it is beginning to gain more recognition for its bespoke manufacturing capabilities.
With consultants reporting an improvement in business of late, and dealers talking of strengthening pipelines, fabricators can feel confident that demand for their services will only increase. Fabs4’s Lunt is certainly among that contingent. He says the company has got work all the way up to Christmas. “There has been a slight turnaround. What we are looking for now is a bit of consistency, and then hopefully the quality can shine through again.”
It is a sentiment that his competitors will no doubt share as hopes build that a genuine recovery is taking shape.
External forces create tension
While planning ahead for work is never as easy these days, the cornerstone of any fabricators’ business is all about feeding the beast that is the factory floor. Increasingly, companies are adopting more standard practices to ensure a certain level of output is achieved, thus maintaining margins and remaining competitive on price.
But there is no doubt that times are changing and new challenges are always just around the corner. ScoMac’s managing director, Iain Munro, believes that the evolution of raw materials is going to have a major impact on the market in future.
“The perception within the catering industry is that the more magnetic the steel, the lower the amount of chromium, which in turn means the lower grade of stainless between 430 or 304. The steel producers have now developed sheet metal which is magnetic, but retains the hygienic properties for suitable use in a foodservice application. I can see these being used more frequently as the demand from the Far East impacts on the price.”
UK-based fabricators have become accustomed to being pushed hard on price, particularly as the flow of lower quality ‘flat pack’ options from the Far East and Eastern Europe has increased. The issue for many fabricators isn’t necessarily the extra competition this brings, but that customers are often misled into comparing prices with fully-welded alternatives.
Counterline’s managing director, Tim Flood, cites several customer trends influencing demand at the moment, including the need for product longevity, a growing preference for eco-friendly materials and low consumption methods of chilling and heating.
At the same time, however, the obstacles confronting stainless steel fabricators in the UK include rising material prices and “excessive and wholly unnecessary” legislation. “There are expectations for hard-pressed fabricators to embrace expensive and time-consuming processes to satisfy bureaucracy,” laments Flood.
Gordon Wright, boss of Insitu, identifies the changing cost of labour, materials and fuel as an ongoing threat to the landscape, particularly as it makes it difficult to price for work that might not be completed until further down the line. “Shortening lead times are a challenge, too,” he adds. “Projects are starting later, but end dates aren’t. This in turn puts pressure on capacities within the workshop.”
Gary Allen, sales director of E&R Moffat, which fabricates a wide range of commercial catering equipment, agrees that turnaround times have reduced dramatically.
“Quotations are being asked to be returned in very short timescales and when orders are placed a very short window is being asked for in which to turn the fabrication around. This seems to be happening across all market sectors,” he observes. “Ever-reducing lead times are our biggest challenge and while we will always endeavour to meet our customer’s expectations there remains a finite time to manufacture a product.”
What makes steel special?
Stainless steel is an alloy of iron with a minimum of 10.5% chromium, according to the British Stainless Steel Association, which promotes and develops the manufacture and use of stainless steel across the UK.
It says that chromium produces a thin layer of oxide on the surface of the steel known as the ‘passive layer’. This prevents any further corrosion of the surface. Increasing the amount of chromium gives an increased resistance to corrosion. Stainless steel also contains varying amounts of carbon, silicon and manganese.