Interview with Nick Michaelson of Silverfox
You’ve been in the Wire and Cable Industry for over 30 years – what do you feel is the biggest change in the industry and has it changed the way in which you do business?
Well, over the past 30 years, I have seen an array of both positive and negative changes! For example, there has been a significant move to computerised labelling production, away from the manual solutions. This has saved a lot of time on projects which is a good thing. But, the trouble with some of these newer systems is that they are often not as durable as their predecessors. This may be due to cost restrictions becoming ever more important or it may be because manufactures aren’t sufficiently vigilant in designing the necessary durability and ensure their systems and the final printed products work satisfactorily in the environments for which they’re being offered. That affects all of us.
For instance, when our customers see our independent test results, we’re frequently asked, whether we have “just tested the material”. Of course, there are some tests where testing only the material is specified in the test method – for example our recent IMO FTPC for tests on our Fox-Flo® tie-on cable label material for smoke & toxicity and surface spread of flames. Those sorts of tests aside, we ALWAYS insist on testing the finished printed label. It makes sense to us, to undertake rigorous tests on the finished product and not on just the material. I guess some manufacturers might test only their material, rather than the final printed label, perhaps to enhance their results, as seen in the market. On the other hand, we choose to give ourselves and our finished labels, a hard time in all our testing! That way we can really test our finished products to their extremes. It makes sense to us, and meets the expectations that we believe and know our customers have of us and our labels.
We work in the oil and gas industry and, there, H2S is often an issue. We chose to test our labels for H2S exposure. The fact that they pass is a testament to the durability of our system. Actually, we know of no other labelling company that has tested their labels for H2S.
As I mentioned earlier, there are positives and negatives. Our customers also have to save costs and so in a very important way, we can save them significant amounts of time, which is a positive. The negative is, there are fewer engineers able to take the time to plan and so take advantage of what can be significant time savings available, it makes our job a bigger challenge.
Where did “TIP time into profit” come from?
Actually, it came from our customers over a period of years. Each time a customer sees our system, we always get positive feedback. Often it’s because they see the significant time savings that can be achieved. It really does bring smiles to the faces of the engineers! We wanted to crystallise this into a few words. So we had a brain storming session, and came up with “TIP Time into Profit”.
In what way would you say Silver Fox’s cable labelling solutions set themselves apart from others?
Our solutions are continually evolving and improving. This comes both from our own product development team and most importantly, from user feedback. This feedback from our customers across the world is particularly helpful. It’s our gold dust, if you like. We know engineers are very sensible people and their common-sense approach matches exactly our own approach to labelling. That’s perhaps part of what brings the smiles to their faces when they see our solutions.
What they want are solutions that are easy to set up and easy to use, powerful enough to address their real world needs; simple and fast to run. They want labels from a dependable source and the final products that are reliable and durable. We totally agree!
I recently heard a story of one oil company being obliged to erect new scaffolding in a fabrication yard, to replace the cable labels that were falling off, even before the module floated out. Quality is important! That’s why our ISO accreditation, attention to detail and independent testing is so important to us and, ultimately, to our customers.
We listen very hard to our customers. For example, after detailed discussions with a design engineering company, based near Chiswick, who were working on a large project in Kazakhstan; we designed and developed brand new Professional level software, specifically for use on their project. Doing this was a huge investment for us, but it also meant that we were then able to offer a solution that was really focused on, and relevant for, major oil and gas projects globally.
What differentiates this software was and is the very powerful import functionality, enabling the user to take an Excel output directly from their design packages and easily selects the exact information required, with the minimum of fuss and with total accuracy. Everything can be done in seconds. By the way, for the first time, it made it possible for the user to produce the Cross-Ferruling information – for the wire makers in seconds.
And how do we get all these improvements out to our users? Well uniquely, both our Advanced and Professional levels of software incorporate an automated web update module. So wherever our users are, in the background, their software is automatically downloading the latest improvements. It then alerts them they are ready to install these improvements. They keep up-to-date with our latest software and benefit from the feedback from other engineers, all completely free of charge.
There are lots of examples of this. Here are just two both connected with our Professional software:
When using our heat-shrink or non-shrink labels, there’s now functionality that allows a user to print the labels for both ends of their wire at the same time. Uniquely, our printer allows for two rolls of material at same time, via our universal guidance system. By organising our software and printer together, the net result can be that one roll is for one end and the other roll is for the other end. It’s a first in our industry. And for existing users, this is also backwards compatible.
Variable duplication is another first. This is a very interesting option. It allows the user to duplicate each of the cable ID’s in different quantities.
Cable specs often call for labels at fixed intervals, for example every five metres. Cable runs will vary in length, so the quantity of each ident required will depend on the cable length. With our system, this is easy. Different quantities of each ident can be prepared in moments, and then rapidly printed.
This all sounds very interesting, but how can an engineer get started?
The route into our solution is also straightforward. We offer something called “Fox-in-a-Box®” There are two levels, either Advanced or Professional (referring to the software). Both are supplied with everything a user needs – even the printer cable. We’ve developed our system so that it’s straightforward to set-up and run.
There’s also FREE telephone support that covers set-up and questions at any time during operation. Particularly for set-up, we can arrange a call time convenient for our customer to talk them through right from opening the box. This usually takes about 30 to 45 minutes at the same time we talk them through the software and operation.
Why so much free?
We like to help, and we like satisfied customers. They’ve invested in us; so we’re keen to take the time to help them get the most from their investment. Satisfied customers come back!
Can you tell us a little bit about your system and all the different labels?
Everything goes through the same printer, the same software and even uses the same ribbon. So whether it is Fox-Flo® Low Smoke Zero Halogen tie-on cable labels, heat-shrink, non-shrink, two-part wire marking, wrap-round self-laminating labels. It’s still the same printer and the same ribbon with the same software. The software also drives all our laser range, so really the Fox-in-a-Box® covers everything. As we add more even more label options, these will be available via the same printer. The templates are updated via our automated web update functionality.
What sets Silver Fox apart from other companies?
The commitment of our team – who give exceptional service and support. The response time that flows from that commitment. Our sales department is different as well. In our world they’re the customer’s representative in the company; so look after our customers from the moment they make an inquiry right through to delivery. Our whole philosophy is that we’re there to help.
Where there are questions or issues, as a matter of routine we follow up with our customers to make sure they’re satisfied and we’ve addressed all their questions. We don’t just assume that their silence is sufficient.
As a UK manufacturer the delivery we offer is very, very good! Even for the very large project orders, we work with our customers to schedule deliveries to best suit them.
What would be, in your opinion, Silver Fox’s biggest achievement to date?
Well that’s an interesting question! I guess every stage, when we’ve been told “it can’t be done”.
A good example would be our universal guidance system for use with our heat-shrink and non-shrink tubing. In this instance, we decided to use outside design agencies with all their powerful CAD packages. After days of intense work, they announced, that what we wanted to do, was impossible.
Well, I’ll let you into a secret. We found an 85 year old engineer, who didn’t use computers and so didn’t understand that “Computer says No”. Between us and him, we made our new guidance system happen!
Then, of course, winning the Queen’s Award for Excellence – International Trade in 2005. We were one of only 80 companies in the whole of the UK to achieve this. On a personal side it was meeting Her Majesty, The Queen as a result of winning this Award.
Are there any other recent developments that our readers should be interested in?
Our new Low Smoke Zero Halogen Fox-Flo® labels are a great step forward. To make things easy for the engineer these labels can be printed on the same printer, using the same ribbon and the same software as all our other labels. What could be easier? They’re also 1mm thick, giving them a good feel and better durability, over some of the thinner examples available from our competitors. Plus, they’re made in the UK!
In making them, we selected the very best materials (as we always do) to ensure the very best performance. And so unsurprisingly, when we have them independently tested, the final printed labels have performed to a very high standard.
On an observational note, we were surprised recently, when we were shown a data sheet from one of our larger US competitors, giving results from their UV testing. Looking closely we found that they were only reporting on their white labels. There was absolutely no indication whether they’d tested the finished printed label or just the material. Not surprisingly the test results appeared to be acceptable.
Silver Fox is both cautious and thorough. We test ALL colours at the same time AND test them as final printed labels. So we’re proud to say that all our colours as finished printed labels have performed exceptionally well for 1500 hours of accelerated UV testing. We even expose our finished printed labels to salt mist spray tests, and, again, we’ve not seen this from other manufacturers.
Where do you see the market going?
For us, the market’s getting better, year on year. We’ve had a program of heavy investment for over 10 years. As a result of all this we’re seeing a solid growth in business. The investment is, of course, on-going.