Specialised Orthotic Services is one of the market’s most established suppliers of advanced seating products. So when Drive DeVilbiss acquired it in 2015, the firm became a recipe for success overnight. AMP speaks to production director Stuart Pegg and learns how a combination of innovation, cultural change and new-found financial firepower is fast making SOS a leader in the field.
How has Specialised Orthotic Services arrived at where it is today?
The company was founded by Gordon McQuilton 39 years ago. He came up with the idea of casting disabled people’s body shape to give them ultimate postural comfort and positional correctness. SOS originated in Gordon’s garden shed where he created the moulded seat insert and that product has formed the backbone of the product range that SOS has today.
Predominantly our main customer has always been the NHS but looking forward we knew we had to diversify into other markets and we explored the potential of selling our products into the community sector back in 2012. At that time we were probably about 90% NHS and now we’re probably about 60% wheelchair services and 40% what we term community. The next stage of development was the casting method.
The previous method of casting people was to use casting bags, where we vacuum the air out and it leaves the impression of the person; we then used plaster of Paris to form a hard cast. We realised we needed to develop this process and we invested in our first seven axis robot and the method of taking that information on the person’s body was then done with a digital scanner.
How has that changed the way you work?
We take a digital scan of the form, convert it to a machine programme and then it goes onto the robot to cut the form. We started with one robot, which was quite a big investment. This was quite a cultural change because people were used to producing the cast form. The new method is much quicker, more accurate and much cleaner – you don’t really want to take plaster of Paris into people’s homes. We then bought a second robot to produce the seating systems, which has speeded things up again.
What has been the impact of Drive DeVilbiss’ takeover?
The culture of change is developing all the time. We were bought out by Drive DeVilbiss in 2015. I think that it’s developed well over the last few years. We’re finding that employees are more interested in the development of the product and they’re coming up with fresh, innovative ideas too. There’s much more togetherness in the company now, we listen to their suggestions and a lot of work is happening on research and development and that’s working really well. Our biggest focus right now is taking the labour content out of the product. We’re looking at the method, product and technique. And that’s constantly ongoing.
Has the partnership with Drive provided you with the resources to progress?
Yes, I think so. I think the difference was that we were pretty unique in the Drive group because what we make is totally customised and we have direct contact with the client, which is pretty unusual in this day and age. I have a suspicion that when we were taken over they didn’t really know where to pigeon hole us. We were totally different. SOS deals with the end-user, which is something Drive had never been involved with before, so it was about gaining an understanding and not making mis-informed changes and that was really well done and that’s how it happened.
We’re now starting to reap the benefits because we’re getting really good back-up from HQ team at DDH and we’re very slowly integrating into the whole group. We can use Drive’s facilities and they can draw on our expertise. What we’re finding is that in the past we made product specifically for a person and we’ve now developed what I would call a more generic or standard range that is symmetrical. It allows us to export our product internationally and we are looking to develop our sales within the European markets too. So that’s again a changing culture.
Has the backing from Drive helped to change or accelerate your R&D processes?
We don’t design as other companies in the industry do – we tend to go straight in and make the product. This is a legacy from past times. We have always felt it was important to be able to look, feel and test the product. We don’t draw until we’re happy with the product and we create the whole thing as a prototype first. It allows us to change mid-stream and we can see problems early on. It’s very much a hands-on process. Our R&D is all in the open so employees can give their input. A lot of what we’re talking about now is about aesthetics rather than functionality. The functionality doesn’t have to change very much so R&D is mainly done to make the product appeal.
How does your UK manufacturing capabilities set you apart from competitors?
I think what it gives us more than anything is control of what we’re doing and control over lead times. Our lead time is four weeks, which is at least twice as quick as anyone else in the UK. Most people are working on eight weeks for a seat. By controlling everything in-house it enables us to meet those demands and gives us a bit of a leading edge on our competitors from that point of view. There is definitely a slight change in culture working with private companies because they’re in it to make money whereas the NHS are just providing a service. So there’s an element of looking at costings and processes. Currently we’re looking at a new modular seat that would be much more adjustable to give a longer lifespan so that’s very attractive to the service providers.
How has your expansion impacted on your manufacturing processes?
It’s allowed us to bring everything under one roof. We’ve just had a major restructure of our production facility. Over the years we have built various extensions and so the process flow has become a little bit messy. Last year we had a major shift around which has given us a really nice flow through the factory. We’ve put a lot of time and effort into it and it means that we’re more efficient. It makes our product more affordable because we can make it more economically.
How far have manufacturing and costs been impacted by Brexit?
It’s not really affected us as we buy very little from Europe. Most of what we get is sourced in the UK. There are certain smaller components that we import where we’ve built our stock up a bit just to accommodate for any potential problems.
How are your sales channels developing?
We still go direct to end-users. The next challenge we have is to work more closely with wheelchair services. Clearly now wheelchair services are increasingly being put out to tender. We initially got involved a bit in the tendering thinking we could do the managed service but clearly there was a lot of stuff in it that we didn’t know about. On the upside we started to build relationships with a couple of the bigger providers in the UK.
What was behind the new clinic you recently opened in Bridgend?
I think that is part of the integration with Drive. What we’re attempting to do with the clinics is to streamline ourselves to make the assessment, casting and delivery process more efficient, effectively providing our customers with an easier, more straightforward path to delivering what they need. It also allows us to time manage more effectively and enables us to see more customers over a shorter period, through the clinics we are able to treble the number of clients we can see in a day.
If it’s a success there are other opportunities that we may look to roll out. Our own clinic room in Tutbury opened last month; our on-site technical services team allows us to deal with any required modifications there and then which is a real bonus for both our customers and ourselves. We recent partnered with AJM Healthcare and have taken over the Derbyshire clinics; they are now using our onsite facilities and this is working really well – we’re hoping that’s something we’re going to develop more.
How far does your client base stretch?
The whole of the UK and Ireland. We believe there is huge opportunity to develop our wheelchair services activity through the tender process; we are regaining business and developing new opportunities through partnering with AJM.
How are you approaching tenders?
We’re looking from a long term point of view; we need to gain a greater knowledge of the tender process and we are proactive in building on this with a view to increasing our activity in the wheelchair services tender process.
Where do you see the company in five years?
I would like to see us working with many more CCGs (clinical commission groups). We currently work with around 30 in the UK and I would like to double this. That’s what I’d love to see. If we can develop our wheelchair services client base in Scotland and Wales too that would be great. Our clinic opening at our Bridgend site in South Wales is very well located and is central to being able to deliver an improved service to our clients in the South West and Wales.