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Fine Tubes celebrates 60 years in Plymouth - An interview with Mark Ayers

Monday, October 10, 2022

Fine Tubes celebrates 60 years in Plymouth, UK

Interview with Mark Ayers, Planning Manager at Fine Tubes on his 42 years of service

This year, Fine Tubes marks 60 years since opening its custom-built premises in Plymouth in 1962. Employees who have been part of this journey for most of the time reflect on what makes Fine Tubes special, how their careers started, and the many changes and milestone moments they have experienced over the years.

Mark Ayers joined Fine Tubes in 1980, intending to stay for a few months. Forty-two years later, he has enjoyed a fulfilling career, working across various departments and in many different roles within the company.

Q. Tell me about your role as Manager for Sales, Inventory and Operations Planning.
Sales, Inventory, and Operations Planning – is about interpreting customer requirements into the language of the factory and fulfilling the order, basically from cradle to grave. We will take customer specifications, the details in their purchase orders and enquiries, and interpret them into the specifications. This is the route information the factory needs to manufacture the product. Then, at the end of the manufacturing process, we manage the logistics, and compilation of test certification & delivery notes; basically, everything the customer would expect to see supplied with their goods.

Q. When did you join Fine Tubes?
In October 1980.

Q. What was your first job at Fine Tubes?
To be honest, I didn’t think I would stay more than a couple of months, as I hadn’t considered working in Engineering at the time. But I enjoyed the experience at Fine Tubes so much when I was offered a tube-making apprenticeship based in the Route design team I accepted. I then worked in every department of the company over the next two years.

Q. What’s the proudest moment of your career to date, would you say?
I’ve worked in many different roles, which is why I’ve been with Fine Tubes for so long. It’s difficult to highlight one thing. In the 1980s, the big one that stands out was, together with an inspirational manager, we installed an ERP system. The factory controlling system at the time was all paper-based. It was an exciting time to be in planning during the 1980s. MRPII (material requirements planning), Theory of Constraints were evolving, and we were tasked with finding the best solutions for Fine Tubes complex job shop.

Over a period of four years, a full business control and factory management system was installed. In itself, not a particularly exciting story, but as members of the Plymouth Manufacturers Group and were asked to give a presentation on ERP systems and we felt a little bit daunted by that. British Aerospace, Wrigleys, Toshiba and other local factories were presenting.

So, we did an honest presentation, and it became a really proud moment for my manager and I because we had achieved better functionality, better integration and, at the time, were paying a fraction of the licencing costs of SAP or Baan systems. It was a vindication of something very special we had done at that time.

The nature of the role meant I was involved in New Product Development from the 1990s on. It was a privilege working with customer design teams. Applications were as diverse as AGR Nuclear power, encapsulated downhole Fibre optic sensing cables for Oil & Gas, tiny titanium tubing deployed for brain surgery & perhaps the biggest, the move from stainless steel to titanium as the standard product for aerospace hydraulic tubing in the 1990’s.

In every case, it’s a proud moment when something the team has crafted here in Plymouth is deployed for the first time.

Q. Tell me about one of your favourite ‘firsts’ at Fine Tubes?
That would be one of the new product developments. We worked with Airbus in Toulouse & Bremen to manufacture & test new 5,000 psi tubing designs for the A380 aircraft. This would have been the early 1990s. Prior to that, all Airbus aircraft systems had 3,000 psi tubes.

I suppose a favourite memory from that time was being in Toulouse and later at the Paris Air Show with our Sales Director to see some of the first A380 flights, which was very special as it was all over the news at the time. That was something that had a long gestation and a big team effort across the whole business. We still support that product today.

Q. What is a memorable moment at Fine Tubes?
I managed the supply chain for many years and was travelling with technical experts, and commercial team members across Europe, Asia, & the US for purchasing, selling and technical presentations.

For me personally, the most fun visit and memorable moment was auditing a steel plant in Gujarat in India. Just because, culturally, it was so exciting for me and so different to be immersed in a completely different culture for a time. A wonderful experience.

Another favourite personal memory was Fine Tubes’ 25-year anniversary of being in Plymouth. We hired a marquee and invited all our key accounts and customers for a two-day event and hosted a family day on Saturday. I remember my father toured the whole factory. We all go home and try to explain to spouses, kids and loved ones what we do all day, but it was difficult to visualise, so this allowed us to really show our family what we do.

Q. Where do you see Fine Tubes going over the next ten years or so?
I think it’s always in a state of flux, which is why I’ve so much enjoyed being here. It has had its dark days, of course. There were challenging years in the 80’s when the whole engineering industry in the UK was taking a massive kicking.

But the big success story for Fine Tubes, as I have said to lots of people who joined after me, is that it is continually evolving. It continually changes and it’s a product and a workforce and a culture that embraces evolving new markets. A lot of companies make a big deal of that. This one doesn’t. It’s just part of our DNA.

So back in the 1990s, we were making 30,000 to 40,000 metres a week of tubing that went into semiconductor factories, which of course was the dot-com boom. Everybody was putting up chip factories and we were right there, leading the way, making a product where we were probably one of only a handful of companies that could make it.

The dot-com crash came in 2000 and that market was destroyed, gone, finished for several years. When it returned, it was commodity business out of Asia. So, Fine Tubes replaced that. We jumped into completely different markets making high-pressure liquid chromatography tubing for laboratory analysers, which is still a core business for us.

Titanium came along in the 1990s and replaced stainless steel on aircraft. We embraced it, we invested in it, and we continue to make titanium tubing for advanced applications, like aerospace.

Some people would see it as an existential threat to the business. I never have in forty years here. What we’re good at is re-inventing ourselves to stay ahead of the competition, which becomes commoditised over time.

The next ten years, I’d be very confident, we will be evolving into emerging markets in Space exploration, medical and oil and gas fields. New nuclear too, I’ll be long retired by the time some of them come on stream, but I’m sure Fine Tubes will stay at the cutting edge.

Q. How much is Fine Tubes involved in sustainable aviation?
The whole migration to Titanium over the last decade was a weight-saving exercise to both improve cost economy but also fuel efficiency and carbon emissions. We remain at the forefront of developments with our customers in the deployment of lighter, more sustainable products and in specialist areas such as the fuel system switches to Biofuels.

Q. What have you learnt over your career at Fine Tubes?
Trust in your colleagues and trust in your team. That’s very sincere. One main reason why we are all still here is that we are all very close to each other as colleagues. We all know each other very, very well. Some of us have spent as much time with each other as we have with our families over forty years!

One of the reasons why Fine Tubes works it that there is an implicit trust in each other. For me, it still feels like, in many respects, the family-owned firm that I started working for forty years ago. That culture is still here.

Q. Even though Fine Tubes is part of a larger corporation now?
Yes. I think it’s a ‘Fine Tubes first’ sort of philosophy for some of the old hands here. The people are genuinely good fun to be with. We take what we do very, very seriously, but we also enjoy doing it. Being part of a large corporation isn’t a challenge as our previous ownership comprised 5 tube companies in the US as well as one of the largest tube stockholders. AMETEK are great owners, and the business has gone through some growing pains of the transition, and since 2016 has benefited from the wider expertise of our new sister companies.

Q. How does Fine Tubes stand out from other organisations?
I think the depth of industry knowledge that exists at Fine Tubes is what makes us special.

There’s a lot of bound-up knowledge in the plant. Our customers perceive that. If you want to occupy a space where you are not competing in commodity products, you’ve got to have that. It’s your Unique Selling Proposition. The depth of our relationship with our customers and the technical knowledge about the product that we make.