In this interview, Mario Peli talks to AZoNano about Allectra's new manufacturing facility in the UK, as well as the industry in general and some of the projects Allectra is working on.
Can you give us some background on Allectra’s products and manufacturing services?
Allectra was founded in Germany in 2002, by Bernhard Luckscheiter and Mike Holmes. We added the UK company, Allectra Ltd, in 2003 – I was one of the original members of staff here in the UK.
The market we serve is the ultra-high vacuum (UHV) component market. Our primary aim from the beginning was to develop a range of electrical feedthroughs for UHV setups, and to become the biggest European manufacturer of those components. The product range has grown since then, and the company has as well – we now employ over 20 people across the two companies.
When Allectra began, we didn’t have much in the way of manufacturing capabilities, so we were primarily a distributor. We have been moving in the direction of more in-house production throughout our history, however. Today, whilst we still distribute some types of component, manufacturing is our main activity.
Vacuum plate to house 156 Allectra Sub-D feedthroughs, sent to Diamond Light Source
What kind of organizations do you work with? Can you share some example projects?
We work with a few pretty high profile organizations, such as CERN, and a company which is working with the European Space Agency to build a system which replicates the environment on Mars – that was quite a challenging project!
We also supply components to all the main synchrotron facilities in Europe. This includes the ESRF in Grenoble, Diamond in the UK, Soleil in France, ALBA in Spain, ELETTRA in Italy, DESY and BESSY in Germany.
A lot of our customers are actually manufacturers who supply systems to the synchrotrons – since we are a component manufacturer, our products often go through another stage of assembly before they are used at these facilities.
We have also started to work with ITER, the big nuclear fusion project at Cadarache, in France. We are quite heavily involved in the development of some custom components for them. That’s a really big project, which moves quite slowly because it is so large, with so many international partners, but it’s really interesting for us to be working on something so cutting-edge.
What are the capabilities of your new UK facility in Sussex?
The new facility is a continuation of the process I mentioned of shifting from distribution and assembly to developing and manufacturing our own product ranges.
Before, we had flanges machined by external suppliers, then brought them in-house for some welding, as well as putting them through our cleaning and leak-checking processes. Now, with the new facility, we can go one step further, and machine the components ourselves as well.
The building itself was actually purpose-built for us about a year ago. This has been a great opportunity, since we had the building designed to our needs and specifications, rather than having to adapt an existing facility.
The layout of the floor very much follows the flow of the manufacturing process, and the whole place is very clean – not like a classic workshop environment at all!
There are a number of reasons why we’ve decided to make this investment – mainly so that we have more control over this part of the manufacturing process, which means we can make safer guarantees to our customers on things like delivery time, the quality and consistency of our products, and pricing.
As well as our machining capabilities, we have also installed a new four-stage automatic ultrasonic cleaning plant, which can clean products to our high-vacuum standard (10-11 mbar).
Having complete control over the quality of our products is really important to our business model. A lot of companies, across many industries, not just in scientific equipment, are feeling a push towards the cheapest possible product – that’s not a race we want to get involved in. We are more about setting our prices in a way which allows us to deliver consistently high quality products and meeting delivery dates, whilst still offering good value for your money.
The other thing that we're pushing towards this year is our ISO9000 accreditation. That's something else that is on the cards thanks to the new facility, and is indicative of the moves we are making towards quality and process control.
How will the new facility help you meet customer requirements?
I think being able to show the customers what we are capable of will build a huge amount of confidence. Because we have fuller control over what happens in the manufacturing process, we are also now 100% happy with the products going out of our gate, whereas before we might have accepted compromises based on what was available from suppliers on a certain timescale.
The really useful thing about the machining capabilities we have is that it gives us a fair amount of spare capacity at any one time. The type of systems we have are typically designed for manufacturers who want to churn out tens of thousands of products, whereas our largest runs are only around 100.
This basically means that if we get an urgent order, we can accommodate it, and turn it around very quickly. This actually happens fairly often, particularly with teams working at one of the synchrotrons.
If they have rented out some beamline time, and brought their own experiments along, they might get there and find that something has broken or doesn’t work, or they need an additional component. Obviously they don’t want to waste their expensive beamline time, so if we can send out the components within 24 hours, that’s a huge advantage.
Allectra's facility in East Sussex
How is having a base in the UK beneficial for your business? How much of your work is on UK-based projects vs international?
The UK is our single biggest market – it probably accounts for about 40% of our turnover. The UK is a good strategic location for us – we have a strong network within the market, and there are a lot of companies here that we have long standing relationships with. A lot of American companies also see the UK as a sort of gateway to Europe, I think mostly because of the language.
Even in Europe, English is seen as the language of physics almost universally, so customers all over Europe are quite happy to communicate with us.
However, just because of the diversity and maturity of the European market, we do have satellite offices to deal directly with the local markets in France and Italy – and of course we have our German office, which deals with the German-speaking market and a lot of eastern Europe as well.
Another nice thing about being based in the UK is the relative ease with which we can import and export things. For example, if we need to import something from the USA, or ship an order to South Korea, it seems to be much more straightforward for us to do that than for our colleagues in Germany, particularly as a small business.
What will Allectra’s priorities be for development in the near future?
The main thing will be optimizing our manufacturing processes and our product lines. UHV is a pretty mature field – the science being done obviously advances, but the UHV technology itself is not likely to change. The innovation is therefore mainly about optimization, rather than developing entirely new products.
We have an R&D team based in our German facility, led by Dr Bernhard Luckscheiter, who have been evolving our components over the last twelve years. The established technology, such as sealing technology originally used in Sub-D’s, is used to create different electrical feedthroughs, such as High Density, Dual In-Line and M12’s, the last two being proprietary to Allectra. Investing in this team will certainly continue to be a priority.
We also have to be aware of competition, and keep reinforcing our position in the market. Many companies are driving towards the cheapest possible products, at any cost, and as I’ve said, that isn’t the route we want to take.
We want to provide competitively priced products, but by bringing critical processes in-house where we can control and optimize them, and by developing new manufacturing processes to increase efficiency, without compromising on quality of the final product in any way.
About Mario Peli
Mario Peli is the Managing Director of Allectra Limited, with overall responsibility for manufacturing, engineering and technical sales from the UK.
Mario has overseen the acquisition and set up of the new Allectra facility in East Sussex, which incorporates a drawing office with the latest software including 3-D modelling, a clean assembly area and a specials workshop.
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