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Fine Tubes celebrates 60 years in Plymouth - An interview with John Gilkes

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Fine Tubes celebrates 60 years in Plymouth, UK

Meet John Gilkes, Production Routing Engineer at Fine Tubes

This year, Fine Tubes celebrates 60 years since moving its operations from Surbiton in Surrey to purpose-built premises in Plymouth, Devon. In this interview series, we talk to employees of Fine Tubes who have worked at the manufacturer for more than 40 years.

Production Routing Engineer, John Gilkes, talks about his long and impressive career at Fine Tubes, which has spanned more than four unbroken decades.

Q. What is your business title, John?
I’m the Production Routing Engineer. That means I write out the work schedules for the shop floor and design the routes from raw material to finished product. I’ve been doing it for 25 years as part of the job.

Q. For how many years have you worked at Fine Tubes?
41 years, next month!

I was in the Navy first for five years before I joined Fine Tubes. Then, during the recession in the 1980s I joined another firm after I left the Navy, but they closed their factory quickly because of the recession. I was then offered a temporary post here at Fine Tubes for six months. The manager and the foreman were both ex-Navy, so they felt my Navy discipline skills would be useful to get the job done. I was on the shop floor for the first 15 years before I moved to the office.

Q. What inspired you to join, would you say?
During the recession, there were just not that many jobs around. It was a good opportunity to get some steady employment – which has proved to be the case!

Q. Over the years, what have been some of your proudest moments in your career?
When I left the shop floor after 15 years, the reason they wanted me was to bring some practical knowledge to the office planning and systems. Fine Tubes has been through a long period of work study about getting the standard times right for every operation. I was part of the team that installed that into the computer system and we moved from typewritten work schedules to them being produced by the computer.

When I first came to the office, there were three or four staff typing up the work schedules for the shop floor to work on. Over the years, we migrated to digital technology. That transformed the entire process.

Q. Tell me about some of your favourite ‘firsts’ at Fine Tubes?
I designed routes for specialist tubes used in the testing of a next-generation rocket engine programme. That was something that was really new to us at the time and a big project too.

Another memorable ‘first’ was the titanium tube programme. When I first started here, we hardly worked with titanium at all. Now it’s a major part of our business and I’ve worked on multiple routes and expanded many schedules to help keep titanium operations flowing over the years.

Q. What’s a fun, memorable moment at Fine Tubes that you can remember?
There’s a good one from the first time I went abroad to the United States to work with our sister business, Superior Tube. I went with our IT Manager to help train and install the systems over there. The first Sunday we were there, we had the day off. So, he set the sat nav to take us to see the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia as we were just outside there.

It was the early age of sat navs and we couldn’t work out how to use ours. We ended up at the Liberty Bell Museum, which is about 50 miles from Philadelphia. So, we wasted our whole Sunday travelling away! We then followed the sat nav back to get us home again, and when we went into Superior Tube on the Monday morning, they said, you were only ten miles from New York when you gave up, so you could have gone on to there!

Q. Where do you see Fine Tubes going over the next couple of years?
I can see us doing more work in the nuclear sector in the future. On a day-to-day basis, I can see us going virtually paperless. We use a lot of paper at the moment for all these work schedules, but I think with new technology we’ll be putting it on computers and tablets, so we don’t use paper. We’ve talked about that in the past, and when it comes top of the list, it will be our next project, I think.

Q. With new technology, will you be looking to introduce AI robots?
We have had one or two to test. We’re removing manual handling from a lot of operations now. When I first started here, the staff had to lift 30-kilo pieces of tube all the time by hand. That’s not acceptable anymore. So, lots of automation is going in and devices to help the staff handle the tubes. That can only expand in the future. I can imagine in the future we will have robots cutting the metal tubes in our facilities. Especially where safety is concerned. Metal’s a sharp thing, so we don’t want people touching it.

Q. How important is the work culture at Fine Tubes?
Over the years it’s the people that I remember. We’ve had some good times, some laughs here, just day to day. The work can be quite intense. There’s no point if you can’t have fun! I do try to leave the work in the workplace and then come back the next morning to start afresh.

Q. How does Fine Tubes stand out from its competitors or from other manufacturing companies in the Plymouth area?
I always think we are among the best, but my knowledge is quite limited as I’ve never worked anywhere else! My previous employer, the Royal Navy, used to fine me a day’s pay for being five minutes late. Fine Tubes has never done that!