Manchester firm EDM won at last year’s Northern Powerhouse Export Awards. In the run up to this year’s awards, we talk to sales manager Lee Whittaker
Training simulator provider EDM has an inspirational story to tell would-be exporters across the Northern Powerhouse region.
The business, which is based in Newton Heath, Manchester, was not only crowned exporter of the year at last year’s Northern Powerhouse Export Awards, it also took the title of Large Exporter of the Year and was commended for its entrepreneurial and innovative approach to exporting.
Sales manager Lee Whittaker says: “Winning the award last year was a massive achievement for us and it gave recognition to everyone in the company for all the hard work they had put in over the past couple of years, so it was a nice surprise to win it and we hope to build on that for the future.’’
Founded in 1971, EDM is a leading global provider of training simulators to the civil aviation, defence, rail and other industries. Originally, it was a model making business serving companies such as Rolls-Royce and similar manufacturers, building scale models of ships and other equipment for testing.
“We then brought engineers into the company and started adapting what we had done in the model make field into aircraft training devices with electrical and mechanical functionality,’’ explains Lee.
The business now operates in two main sectors: military and defence, designing and making bespoke training devices for military pilots and drivers and technicians.
“If be BAE systems sells Typhoon jets, we supply the training equipment. The devices that we sell are a full-sized replicas of the aircraft and then we install different systems in there so that the technicians could, for example, take an ejection seat out safely. In the past they would have had to do that on the real aircraft, but we model the functionality so they can use these purely as training devices.’’
EDM also makes simulators for fast jet pilot training and maintenance training for the technicians and procedure training.
“The simulators are for the final line before a pilot gets into a real jet, so it has to be really high fidelity, all the switches have to work and everything has to be really accurate,’’ says Lee.
For the civil aircraft sector, the company manufactures evacuation trainers for cabin crew, buying old fuselages and converting them into evacuation trainers. It supplies major airlines around the world.
The exporting record of the business, which employs more than 210 staff, is an impressive one. Last year it reported annual turnover of more than £24m and some 90% of that is made up of export sales. Its markets include the US, China and South East Asia and even Ethiopia. At times, the main road outside its Newton Heath base has to be closed for about 30 minutes while a 19 metre by 6 metre, 30-tonne A330 fuselage converted for training, is carefully manoeuvred out of the gates prior to its road and sea trip to China.
What makes EDM’s exporting achievement even more impressive is that the business came to overseas sales relatively recently.
Lee says: “Exporting really took off for the company in about 2005 when we started looking at the China market and we won our first contract there and ever since then there has been a constant flow of work from China. We won a big contract with Lockheed Martin for the F35 fighter jet and that has been ongoing since 2008. We are still engaged on that program, continuing to produce training equipment for the F35.’’
Given the global nature of its sales, EDM is unlikely to be knocked off course by Brexit. In fact the fall in the value of the pound in the wake of the referendum helped the business.
But EDM succeeds on quality rather than price.
“We are not necessarily the cheapest but if an airline wants a really robust trainer and they want it to last for 15 years then they come to us,’’ says Lee. “There are low-cost options and some of the low-cost airlines do prefer that, but we generally supply the major airlines.
“We have a big in-house design team, so we’re always leading on design. Innovation wise, for example, we are the only company that supplies a trainer with a real time visual system, a full flight simulator visual system on every cabin window. None of our competitors have got to that stage, it was a three or four year development programme for us and it has worked really well.’’
EDM has also been helped by DIT.
Lee says: “We get plenty of help from the DIT, mainly in China at the moment but we have used them in other areas. We have just won a contract in Vietnam, a big contract, and they had a part to play in that one. We do get their advice whenever a new area comes into play.’’
Its location is also an advantage, as the North West and Lancashire is home to a major aerospace sector.
Lee explains: “That helps. We call on quite a few companies to help us out with parts of the manufacturing process and if you look around the area, there’s plenty of scope for finding what you need and we always manage to find it in the North, and it’s also easier to visit companies and deal with them face-to-face.
“I think being from the North helps. A lot of airlines like to fly into Manchester and they like to come to Manchester and stay in Manchester and visit Liverpool and Chester so it’s quite attractive to them.’’
But, EDM has no intention of resting on its export laurels and always has an eye on where technology and the markets are heading.
One of the main developments the company sees on the horizon is the use of virtual reality, VR. It has developed a concept for its own systems, which it’s currently demonstrating to its airline customers for their feedback and buy-in.
“VR, especially in training situations, in the next 10 years will be hugely important,’’ says Lee. “In the civil aviation business, you will still have to have the physical trainer, because part of the requirement is to have the ability to feel, for example, the weight of a door. But if the VR and HAPTIC [interaction involving touch] progress together, then it is going to take off.’’
In terms of markets, EDM has yet to make inroads into South America, but it has every intention of trying.
“We are looking at sending a couple of guys are there next year to meet the airlines and see if we can find a representative who can help us get into the airlines and the various customers out there.’’
EDM has also strengthened its position in a couple of overseas markets, having recently acquired RP Aero Systems, a competitor based in the South of England, which will continue as a separate company and brand in the EDM Group.
“They have a very similar product line to us but they manufacture it differently. We manufacture using aluminium and steel, they make the same products using composites,’’ says Lee. “We bought them to enhance our market penetration in Australia, where they have a good foothold, and with the low-cost airlines in the US.’’
By any standard, EDM is an export champion. Does it have any advice for other would-be world-beaters?
Lee says: “In my experience the key to exporting is getting a representative in the area who knows the business and knows the products and has the contacts. That has been the number one key for us. We found a really reliable representative in China working out of Hong Kong and it just worked. He helped us with the language barrier, customs and any other problem and helped us get into the market and talk to the different companies.’’
There's still time to enter the PD Ports Northern Powerhouse Export Awards in association with HSBC and the Department for International Trade.
The international trade campaign seeks to recognise the most entrepreneurial exporters from across the North of England.
For more info and to submit your nomination visit www.northernexportawards.co.uk.
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