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Sheer quality of Shearline Precision Engineering’s team is in demand

Established in 1973, The Shearline Group is enjoying new-found attention as demand for home-grown sub-contract engineering services soars in the new Brexit, Covid and war-afflicted economic environment the United Kingdom finds itself.

Shearline Precision Engineering has been producing quality work since 1973. Picture: Keith Heppell
Shearline Precision Engineering has been producing quality work since 1973. Picture: Keith Heppell

The group, which consists of Shearline Precision Engineering, Shear Xtra Large (SXL) and Hybrid Laser Tech (HLT), is based at Cambridgeshire Business Park in Ely. Founded by David Littlechild, the privately-owned company is currently run by Jon Littlechild and is on the shortlist for ‘Employer of the Year’ in this year’s Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards.

“David is the chairman and proudly started Shearline from a brick shed in his garden nearly 50 years ago,” says Jon. Now employing 118 people, it’s one of the largest manufacturing employers in the region.

Both SXL and HLT are owned by Shearline. SXL is a specialist large-scale engineering sub-contractor, working predominantly with leading autosport and automotive companies. HLT manufactures and supplies precision, laser-cut ceramic substrates to a range of industries including microelectronics and medical devices.

Jon started working for Shearline 24 years ago.

“I started working as project manager, overseeing the air conditioning and the combined heat and power installation in the building at that time,” he says. “I’m a practical guy – an engineer – and having turned my hand to organising that, I then became the maintenance and environmental manager. Five and a half years ago, I took on a new role as production manager and then managing director in 2018.”

So what was it that really started the growth curve?

“It was with the inkjet printing boom when Shearline really started picking up,” replies Jon. “It went from nothing to huge in the 80s and early 90s, and in 1993 the company moved from Milton to Ely – it needed bigger premises in which to continue its growth.”

Jon can’t divulge too much information about the customers which The Shearline Group work with, as he is bound by strict confidentiality agreements. He proudly explains that “the parts manufactured at Shearline end up in an impressive array of applications all over the world – from cancer treatment centres to aircraft, to the International Space Station to F1 cars”.

He adds: “Each customer has their own bespoke requirements, it’s all precision componentry, fabricated and welded parts and electro-mechanical assemblies.”

Jon Littlechild, managing director, Shearline Precision Engineering. Picture: Keith Heppell
Jon Littlechild, managing director, Shearline Precision Engineering. Picture: Keith Heppell

Jon lists the types of roles included in the headcount of 118 people.

“It’s machinists, engineers, sheet metal workers, welders, assembly technicians and all the supporting administrative functions for them,” he says, adding that the workforce is engaged in sectors including “medical technology, scientific, measurement, aerospace, defence, microscopy – we’re the supplier of choice across many industries and we’re willing to develop supply chain partnerships across any industry, if that’s where the work is”.

Bear in mind that Shearline has equipment that costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, with precision and computer-controlled milling and turning machines that engineer products to “within a couple of microns” (one-thousandth of a millimetre).

“The fact that we work in so many varied sectors gives the business resilience,” Jon says. “We ensure we have eggs in many baskets.”

Indeed the business model is replete with ingenuity, right down to its internal operations and recruitment policy. A natural engineer’s drive for efficiency requires a low environmental footprint, and that focus cuts energy costs – a focal point for business as UK energy prices threaten horrendous damage to the bottom line.

“Shearline has always tried to offer something a bit different, and the environmental focus is very important – we are affiliated to the internationally recognised ISO 14001 Environmental Management standard.” Jon says. “Our CHP [combined heat and power] air conditioning system was introduced 20 years ago; at the time it was very unusual.

“We’ve always recycled cardboard and paper and use a Vivex filtration system in the machine shop – not many companies in the UK are using them – and have 150kW solar panels on the roof, which gives us 10 per cent of the electricity we use. Everyone across the factory is involved in the sustainability drive.

Shearline’s credentials as an employer are impeccable, from a four-day week as standard – “so you don’t live to work, you work to live” – to a highly evolved apprenticeship scheme.

“It’s very difficult to recruit very high-quality CNC [Computer Numerical Control] millers and turners,” Jon explains.

“They are in very short supply – in my view because schools and universities have seen engineering as taking place in an old, dirty factory, where ours is actually a very nice, clean environment to work in. But there’s still a shortage so we operate an apprentice scheme which takes on four people a year, with a job at the end of it for those who want to stay on.”

Shearline works closely with all the local schools in the Ely area and the apprentices spend one day a week at one of the local colleges, including West Suffolk in Bury St Edmunds, College of West Anglia and Cambridge Regional College.

Managing director Jon Littlechild at Shearline’s Ely premises. Picture: Keith Heppell
Managing director Jon Littlechild at Shearline’s Ely premises. Picture: Keith Heppell

Qualifications aren’t what the job is about.

“We’re looking for people with an aptitude for detail and quality, and the ability to learn and take on board the skills we provide them with,” says Jon. “Shearline is a decent, flexible place to work – 90 per cent of the team have chosen to work a four-day week; we offered that just before the first lockdown – we wanted to be the first to offer it.”

Shearline has prospered in the last two tumultuous years.

“In the first half of 2020 things slowed down, but immediately after that they got busier than ever before,” recalls Jon.

“Maybe having the parts supplied close to home helps: a lot of companies have woken up to the fact that there’s more to life than buying cheap products from China. We also noticed that some companies started stockpiling – perhaps they’re worrying about what Brexit might bring, so they increased their minimum stock holding levels.

“There’s still a lot of confidence in the marketplace.”

Shearline is entirely self-funded and 100 per cent owned by the founder’s holding company, but there’s no resting on laurels occurring.

“We’ll continue with the [machinery] investment programme,” concludes Jon, “and we’re looking into various robots, to be able to do some of the welding. We don’t have any yet but we’re exploring opportunities.”

We’ll be sure to cover Shearline’s half-century celebrations next year: it’s already engineered its way to a place in the history of the local economy, whatever happens on May 11.

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