Technology makes millworks work

21 July 2021


The Cambridge-based cladding, decking and fencing specialist, Millworks, has successfully navigated pandemic and emerged equipped for growth. Mike Jeffree reports

It’s been a testing time for the timber trade across the board. But for start-ups and small to medium-sized businesses the test has no doubt been toughest of all – dealing with pandemic lockdowns and consequent economic turmoil and uncertainty, followed by a market turnaround characterised by raw materials price inflation and supply issues.

For some companies, coming through the crisis is probably success enough. But hi-tech profiled product specialist Millworks, manufacturer of decking, cladding and contemporary fencing, has done more than survive. It’s continued to grow and develop, increasing capacity and capabilities.

Founder Steven Newman puts its resilience down to sticking with the strategy adopted from the outset, which has to date delivered 30% growth annually. That means responding rapidly to market demand in terms of product development and meeting customers’ precise, bespoke requirements, including on high spec architectural projects.

It’s also meant a commitment to using latest processing equipment to drive productivity, quality and flexibility and, in a clear indication of its positive outlook, Millworks has just completed one of its biggest investments to date. Its new high output Weinig moulder came on stream in the new year.

“We’ve always kept a close eye on technology, including through the pandemic, and we decided this was the right time to implement a new production line,” said Mr Newman. “And it’s proved the right decision. Not only is the Weinig helping us increase efficiency and keep pace with growing demand, we’re already seeing ways we can go further with it.”

Coming from a background in homegrown timber supply, Mr Newman launched Millworks just over four years ago.

“I saw an opening in the market for high end custom mouldings, specialising in surface textures and coatings, all manufactured in-house,” he said.

“Besides exterior cladding, decking and fencing, we’ve also developed a growing business in interior cladding or panelling. The focus from the start was on quality, durability and style, which in turn led to our committing to the latest and best technology. In fact, the new Weinig moulder is our third.”

Millworks operates on a five-acre site in Bottisham near Cambridge. Its modern production unit is a converted agricultural building and it has another barn nearby for raw materials storage.

“We’re ideally placed. Cambridge itself is a dynamic, fast developing location, we’re near London and have good access to the motorway, enabling us to offer nationwide service,” said Mr Newman.

Millworks’ timber range and selection reflects the diversity and quality orientation of its products; a mix of material sourced via agents and imported direct. It includes western red cedar, Siberian larch – super long lengths a speciality – redwood thermowood, western hemlock, European oak, and Accoya. It also supplies sawn and machined packs in cedar, larch, oak and thermowood.

Two years ago, the company installed a Weinig optimising cross-cut saw to enhance its service and flexibility further. It also describes its coating line as “state-of-the-art”.

“It’s based on Makor technology and includes automated infeed and outfeed and a self-stacking system, plus in-built sanders and texturising heads,” said Mr Newman. “It’s very productive and gives a super-consistent finish.”

Millworks’ factory-applied coatings include industry leading water-based coatings and silicone-based Organowood. It also offers FRX fire retardant treatment and is an approved supplier of Osmo products.

The company has a growing workforce of just 15, but its level of technology enables it to undertake major orders for some demanding clients.

“We’re equipped to take on long runs and work with some of the national building contractors, supplying developments around the country,” said Mr Newman.

At the other end of the market spectrum are the self-build and architect-led projects.

“We’ve developed a strong following in this area through word of mouth and targeted marketing,” said Mr Newman. “We approach specifiers direct and reach the self-build sector through exhibitions, notably Grand Designs and Ecobuild, plus the National Self Build and Renovation Centre. We’re also major users of social media. We have a specialist working on this to make sure we get the most out of the various platforms and it’s been very effective in driving traffic to our website. Essentially, we try to do everything the 21st century way.”

Award winning case studies Millworks has posted online have also been featured by home style and architectural press, including Grand Designs magazine and RIBA Journal.

Recent such projects to attract media attention, and which underline the specialist nature of some of Millworks’ contracts, are the neighbouring Larch House and Zinc House, part of a Midlands development designed by Studio Spicer Architects. The complete envelope of the Larch House comprises Siberian larch and Millworks supplied extra-long lengths, so roof and walls are joint-free, delivering a “clean, clinical” cladding profile.

In the Zinc House, which featured in Grand Designs magazine, the building is wrapped in a zinc skin, with Siberian larch cladding used for the dramatic front façade. In both buildings, the timber is planed all round, with a 10mm shadow gap for added detail, and is left untreated to weather naturally.

“The effect achieved by the timber is pretty spectacular,” said Mr Newman.

When pandemic lockdown hit, all Millworks’ markets went into a “major lull” for a couple of months. And Mr Newman acknowledges the first reaction was “something of a panic”.

“But from late May, enquiries and orders picked up and it hasn’t stopped since,” said Mr Newman. “What helped lift the business is that we picked up early on the strong upturn during the pandemic in DIY and home improvement markets. People in lockdown and on furlough have taken the opportunity to upgrade houses and gardens and develop their properties as live/work spaces. So we committed to a lot of stock and geared the company to service this developing demand. Fencing and decking sales have been especially robust, but we’ve also seen strong growth in components for offsite garden office manufacturers.”

The outcome is that, after anticipating turnover contracting in 2020, Millworks actually hit budget, seeing “a nice bit of growth”.

With the way the market was going, both in terms of volume and product diversification, the company decided the time was right for the Weinig installation.

The new machine is the latest multi-head Powermat 1500, billed by Weinig as combining high speed repetition precision for long-runs, with ultra-quick set-up for rapid switching between profiles, plus “outstanding surface quality”. It’s integrated into Millworks’ production line with full mechanical handling and features the PowerCom Plus controller and software system.

“It gives us faster running speeds, exceptional flexibility and still better finish,” said Mr Newman. “It ticks all our boxes and we’re already seeing the benefits of the improved performance, particularly in production of offsite building components. It also gives us scope for more growth.”

A new networked Weinig toolroom further enhances the moulding line’s capabilities, improving tool management and reducing downtime.

To minimise disruption in a still challenging marketplace, the Weinig engineers installed and commissioned the machinery over the Christmas break.

“The follow-up has also been very efficient and effective,” said Mr Newman. “Weinig can monitor the machine’s performance online and have already made a number of modifications remotely to fine tune it to our requirements, including giving us variable speed on all motors.”

He acknowledged that the current raw material supply situation isn’t making life any more straightforward currently, with availability tight in certain species and grades and prices rising seemingly inexorably.

“Our aim is to build stock, but at the moment it’s more hand-to-mouth and volumes are not what we’d like,” he said. “However, we’re working through it. Without compromising on product quality, we’re sourcing more mixed grades and, by keeping customers informed about the situation and not inflicting sudden price hikes, we’re managing to pass on rising costs.”

Further underlining the company’s confidence, despite ongoing challenges, it is also now developing more yard area and covered storage, with further projects planned.

“It hasn’t been an easy year for anyone, but with our latest investment, and continuing development of new products and new markets we’ve come through strongly,” said Mr Newman. “We’re now well-placed for further growth and to achieve our ambition to become a still bigger name in the moulding service and coatings sector.”

Millworks supplied both the Larch House and the Zinc House
The inner workings of the Powermat 1500, which is Millworks’ third Weinig
The moulder is integrated into the production line with automated infeed and outfeed