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Cambridge Precision Ltd: From two men in a shed to global engineering leader




You probably won’t know it, but you will have used or interacted with many types of technology that have been created with the help of Cambridge Precision Ltd’s unique skills.

With a research and development site at St John’s Innovation Centre in Cambridge, and a machine shop in St Neots, the company has been offering expert engineering services now for 25 years.

Nigel Rata owner of Cambridge Precision Engineering in St Neots. Picture: Keith Heppell. (14967832)
Nigel Rata owner of Cambridge Precision Engineering in St Neots. Picture: Keith Heppell. (14967832)

Tony Murray, sales and business development manager, said: “At the core of many technologies that we now depend on in our modern world, there is likely to be a small but critical manufactured component – many of which are made by Cambridge Precision.

“Next time you hear about robotic surgery, listen to surround-sound or give a sigh of relief as you pass through airport security, remember that it is likely that the most important mechanics of this amazing technology are dependent on the sophisticated engineering skills of our team.”

Today, the company supports innovators from concept development and prototype manufacturing through to large-scale machining production. But it had humble beginnings.

“The company started with just two men in a shed, with an obsessive belief that bespoke and specialist mechanical engineering had a significant future,” said Tony.

“If you think back to those days in the early ’90s, huge corporates were ruling the roost and the concept of innovation or expertise coming from the small-fry was unimaginable.But our two directors, Nigel Rata and Richard Hobbs, were probably more aligned with the emerging computer technologies than with the established manufacturing market – looking at new ways to do things, ways to improve performance and output, and so began Cambridge Precision Ltd.

Cambridge Precision Ltd. Picture: Cambridge Precision (14935333)
Cambridge Precision Ltd. Picture: Cambridge Precision (14935333)

“From a tiny, garage-style workshop, we have now grown in to what is probably the highest spec machine shop for the unique type of work we undertake.”

The key to this work is in the company’s name: precision. But the process of making the perfect component has changed over the years.

“Making a very precise component, with practically no tolerance for deviation from the spec used to mean that you started with a block of a material and put it in machine A to cut it to shape one way,and then moved it to machine B to cut it from another angle.

“Then you moved it onto various other machines at each stage of production. At the final check stage –quality control – you would find out if you had done a good job or not,” explained Tony.

“Back in about 2007, we decided that we wanted to work with machines that could do more than one standard process at a time – ie machines that could drill and shape a component in one operation, milling, turning and quality checking with a minimal amount of component movement.

“We have worked in partnership with our own suppliers like Haas and Nikken to produce a state-of-the-art manufacturing environment. This results in a speedier process, a higher likelihood of ‘right-first-time’ product, and the ability to undertake more and more complex work.”

With digital CAD CAM programmes ensuring that the customer’s specifications are met, this approach has helped the company achieve a reputation for delivering on time, winning it long-term partnerships.

At work at Cambridge Precision Ltd. Picture: Cambridge Precision (14935328)
At work at Cambridge Precision Ltd. Picture: Cambridge Precision (14935328)

“It has of course meant that we have spent millions of pounds on our facilities, but that investment has enabled us to create a niche working alongside innovators in med-tech, robotics and sustainable technology,” added Tony.

“Basically, expert engineering, high-quality product and competitive pricing meant we started to win back business that the UK had lost to overseas manufacturer, and win contracts that the UK previously could not have delivered on.”

There is a degree of obsessiveness about CPL, which can rattle off no end of ISO standards it meets to those with a penchant for such things.

Tony says: “We have a bit of a mantra about this: ‘Quality is the backbone of CPL.’ Everything we do has to be done to the very best of standards, way above what would be accepted as the norm in our industry.For us, this means that we constantly review every aspect of the business.

“We are not worried when we see an area for improvement, and we encourage innovation and evolution in our practice.

“Achieving the many standards we have means really being committed to a culture of excellence and having a team empowered enough to spot, manage and then implement improvements.”

But this approach extends beyond precision engineering.

“We see sustainability and well-being as ‘quality’ initiatives and our day-to-day targets like 100 per cent recycling of waste are woven into everyday processes rather than thought of as a separate activity,” says Tony.

Tony Murray and Nick Raven at Cambridge Precision Ltd. Picture: Alan Bennett 2019 (14935337)
Tony Murray and Nick Raven at Cambridge Precision Ltd. Picture: Alan Bennett 2019 (14935337)

“Every day we are ‘audit-ready’ – there is no mad rush to check compliance when audits are due. Operating at optimum standard whether it is against environmental, wellbeing, technical or quality targets is just normal practice at CPL.”

This approach helped CPL come third last month in the National Responsible Business Champion initiative, voted on by MPs.

“We are really thrilled,” says Tony. “It’s not something you ‘enter’ – you get spotted and nominated and that makes it even more meaningful.

“Nothing we have in place has been put there in order to win an award, we just believe that as a responsible employer and business we can make a difference, environmentally and socially, and that we shouldn’t limit that influence to our workforce but instead seek to extend strong relationships with our local community with suppliers and with key influencers like industry bodies and politicians.”

A 5-axis machine at the Cambridge Precision Ltd. Picture: Alan Bennett 2019 (14935326)
A 5-axis machine at the Cambridge Precision Ltd. Picture: Alan Bennett 2019 (14935326)

The business is set up with a flat structure, designed to bring in ideas from all departments from sales to production and stores. There is a tangible focus on professional development.

“Last year, one of team completed their MBA as a day release whilst others achieved technical and professional qualifications in engineering, HR, and finance,” says Tony.

“We have an apprentice programme and seek to take on four apprentices each year in any relevant field – engineering, computing, business management.

“Our apprentices have a real job with us and also attend college and training to develop their skills. We are always recruiting ambitious and forward-thinking people, those with a commitment to being outstanding.Engineers who want to share the experience of working with state of the art machines and technologies, on life-changing projects are very welcome to visit.”

After marking its 25th year with further growth in size and turnover, the company’s focus remains on retaining its niche, working with companies that are developing new technologies.

“Strengthening relationships with existing customers and forging partnerships with exciting new clients is key.

Cambridge Precision Ltd's Tony Murray, centre, with corporate responsibility minister Kelly Tolhurst and Jonathan Djanogly MP as the company is named Regional Responsible Business Champion (14967815)
Cambridge Precision Ltd's Tony Murray, centre, with corporate responsibility minister Kelly Tolhurst and Jonathan Djanogly MP as the company is named Regional Responsible Business Champion (14967815)

“We continue to invest in our capabilities and are just introducing robotic functionality in some of our production processes.”

Its collaborative robot, or COBOT, initiative is designed to support its engineers, freeing them up for highly skilled work.

It is an internal example of the kind of that innovation that CPL is keen to celebrate at the Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards. It is sponsoring the new Award for Innovation.

“This is our second year in sponsoring the Science and Technology Awards and we plan to keep that involvement going for many years ahead,” said Tony.

“The Award for Innovation seeks to recognise the ongoing activity of a company in developing technology or processes that really make a difference to their operation.

“Or it could be awarded for a specific breakthrough product, something that changes or challenges established practice, improving outcomes for the stakeholders.

“Without great ideas, the ability to dream of the unimaginable and the determination to develop a concept into a prototype and then on into full production, progress would come to a halt.”

Rewarding the best in science and technology

The sponsors of the 2019 Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards(14969629)
The sponsors of the 2019 Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards(14969629)

The Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards are now in their third year.

Nominations have closed and the winners will be revealed in a ceremony at the Bradfield Centre on October 30, after a ceremony sponsored by HSBC.

The categories are:

  • Start-up of the Year Sponsored by Regus
  • STEM Initiative of the Year Sponsored by MathWorks
  • Agritech Company of the Year Sponsored by SmithsonHill
  • Award for Innovation Sponsored by Cambridge Precision Ltd
  • Researcher of the Year Sponsored by AstraZeneca
  • The Tech for Good Award Sponsored by Allia Future Business Centre
  • The One to Watch Sponsored by Cofinitive
  • Cleantech Company of the Year Sponsored by Woodfines
  • Games Company of the Year
  • Biotech Company of the Year Sponsored by Chesterford Research Park
  • Medtech Company of the Year
  • AI Company of the Year Sponsored by Appleyard Lees
  • CEO of the Year Sponsored by Grant Thorton
  • Technology Company of the Year Sponsored by the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Anglia Ruskin University
  • Life Science Company of the Year Sponsored by BioStrata

For more information about the awards, visit our dedicated section.

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