SDC: The New Reality

The timing was almost a little too perfect. In 2008, UK consultancy PwC laid bare an organisational deficiency in the make-up of modern manufacturing businesses in the United Kingdom – the disability to anticipate change and address it deftly while keeping the core business on course. Almost simultaneously, the first GFC wave hit the island, marking the start of a historic downturn that would suffocate many a British trailer building company in the time to come. 

It was then that ‘agility’ became a new buzzword in the corporate world. Those who were flexible enough to scale back mass production and focus on custom building were able to sit out the crisis, while those who had backed the standardisation horse proved too rigid to adapt to the new reality. Some of them are still recovering today.

Setting a precedent for modern manufacturing, SDC Trailers, a privately owned business that originated in Northern Ireland, proved agile enough to avoid that fate. It had used the 2007 boom to invest in state-of-the-art technology that would allow it to modernise production without prohibiting its intricate design and manufacturing processes, setting it up to survive and thrive in a constricted market.

What’s more, by retaining the ability to innovate and change, it set an example for foresightful management that is only becoming obvious now that the British economy is accelerating again.

“Agility is the strategic mix of standardisation and flexibility, targeted at those organisational pressure points where they’re not only needed today, but will most likely be needed tomorrow,” PwC determined back in 2008 – summarising how SDC has secured its prominence in modern-day trailer building, with a market share in the UK of around 30 per cent.

According to Managing Director Mark Cuskeran, the 36-year-old company survived the drought by retaining flexibility in a market spellbound by the concept of standardisation. During the 2007 boom, many businesses tried to boost efficiency and cut costs through standardising processes and maximising output, leaving them bogged down with inflexible processes when the crisis came.

SDC, meanwhile, retained a healthy balance between normalisation and customisation that helped it thrive in the tough, customer-driven market that emerged from the GFC. “Our on-going success is indicative of the importance of designing and manufacturing a product based on individual customer requirements,” says Cuskeran.

“By retaining an agile manufacturing foundation, we were able to step up to the challenges the crisis posed and even managed to see the opportunities it offered,” he explains – pointing out that added flexibility does not mean compromising on operational efficiency.

“The two goals may be somewhat contradictory, but it’s a tightrope every business must walk. At one extreme, sweeping standardisation holds your company and your people to rigid, inflexible systems and processes; at the other, customisation – a critical component of flexibility, when used correctly – can create chaos.”

With the right mix of process standardisation and flexibility in place, SDC built a €150 million business that is expecting a solid 23 per cent rise in turnover for the 2014/15 period – even though construction, industrial production and manufacturing in Britain have yet to outstrip levels reached in 2008.

Aiming to roll out 7,500 units in 2014, SDC is spearheading the UK trailer ranking and has now laid claim to additional market share in mainland Europe, which is widely dominated by German trio Schmitz Cargobull, Krone and Kögel.

But SDC doesn’t plan on challenging the big three in the open. Instead, it focuses on specialised equipment where additional engineering work is required. And the plan is working out: “We’ve sold trailers in Europe for 20 years and have seen a large increase in the number of enquires coming from Scandinavia and the Middle East for a sturdier, UK-built trailer with additional features such as improved aerodynamics and on-board safety equipment, as well as specific heights and capacities,” says Cuskeran.

In February, SDC secured a €1.5million order from the Rezayat Group in Saudi Arabia, which saw 60 trailers go into production – with manufacturing output beginning to peak that of the 2007 boom. In August, TIP Trailer Services ordered 450 new trailers with a total value around €10 million.

Naturally, SDC’s commitment to retaining a more agile architecture is only one reason why it emerged strongly from the recession. It can also draw on a long and proud history in manufacturing and has a strong, organically grown product portfolio to build on. Then again, even the company’s long-standing core values reveal a strong commitment to transformative agility: Next to quality and customer service, they include innovation and customisation.

“Our vision has always been to provide flexibility and innovation to every customer, developing quality products to ensure maximum return on investment. By continuously re-investing and updating our engineering facilities, we have been able to adapt to change in the industry and stay flexible,” says Cuskeran.

In line with that objective, SDC has kick-started many ‘industry firsts’ in UK trailer manufacturing. In 2010, SDC made advancements in the field of trailer aerodynamics with the launch of the aptly named ‘Aeroliner’, which was designed to improve fuel economy and reduce carbon footprints by optimising the airflow across the trailer, with a curved chassis and vortex generators at the back to help reduce drag. Other features include an air deflector at the front of the vehicle, aerodynamic side skirts and a curved superstructure, as well as an aerodynamically optimised side-curtain. According to SDC, the trailer’s actual capacity is not compromised by these measures – with a 2.058m-wide rear access, it can still hold 26 pallets while saving up to 12 per cent in fuel consumption.

In 2011, SDC was the first company to introduce a longer length semi-trailer which is currently being trialled by the UK government. The extra-long design is capable of carrying more freight per run while still conforming to the maximum permitted weight and turning circle.  The company has also launched a longer length skeletal trailer.

Unveiled in May 2014, the 15.6m unit can provide an additional capacity of up to 15 per cent per 50ft container – equating to eight pallets per load.

In 2013, SDC went on to launch the ‘Autoliner’ range of car transporter trailers, in response to growing demand from vehicle transport operators. Boasting increased flexibility over the classic car transporter, SDC’s Autoliner model has a fixed bottom deck and two hydraulically adjustable lifting decks that can carry up to six SUV-type vehicles or eight standard size cars.

The Autoliner range will feature prominently at the 2014 IAA trade show in Hanover, where SDC will formally introduce itself to the international audience. Next to a 13.6m Stobart curtain-sider and SDC’s event hospitality trailer, the company will also display a new low ride height skeletal model in Germany, demonstrating just how diversified it really is.

“This year’s show is going to be big as many operators postponed purchasing during the economic decline,” says Managing Director, Mark Cuskeran. “The road freight industry has a vital part to play in the recovery of the global economy, be it by transporting construction materials for new housing or finished goods. SDC is the right brand to assist them in getting the job done in the most economical way.”

According to Cuskeran, being aware of who you are as a company is crucial to succeeding in today’s market and will also be key to leaving a mark in Hanover. “Our trailers are distinguished by their sturdiness, durability and maintainability. We only install components of the highest quality, while in the process of design and manufacturing, we strictly adhere to all current technical standards and safety regulations. I think that’s what fleet operators’ value most at the moment.”

From 3D modelling, steel selection and chassis stress analysis through to fabrication and assembly, SDC has direct control over the manufacturing process. “Through expansion and acquisition, we have gained complete control over the design and manufacture of our trailers so we can provide a high degree of flexibility at no extra cost,” he adds – emphasising that working with the UK’s top transport businesses has helped refine the product over time.

For example, the company uses a two-pack Nexa ‘autocolour turbo plus’ paint over the fully shot blasted and pre-drilled chassis frame to guarantee the residual value of each vehicle. Also driven by the demanding fleet clientele was the development of a unique bolt-on body concept, which provides a “highly durable chassis, practical repairs and minimal downtime”, according to SDC.

In additional to an in-house livery department, SDC has a comprehensive parts and repairs service, extending “complete aftersales services” to its customers. Its sister company FPandS parts is the largest UK replacement parts provider with 18 branches nationwide, while subsidiary SDC Parts delivers truck and trailer parts throughout Ireland.

“Operators can’t afford to have vehicles off the road so we are doing everything we can to support them in the field,” says Cuskeran, admitting that getting the work done behind the scenes has always been more important to him than being in the limelight.

As a result, the company itself has largely flown below the radar since it entered the scene in 1978 – even though 30 per cent of the transport equipment currently on the road in the UK are adorned with the SDC logo. But with the company’s first IAA appearance in September, followed by a trade launch in the Middle East, that could change dramatically. 

“We are ready to get out there and tell our story,” says Cuskeran. “SDC has done a lot right since the GFC, and we’re proud to share that experience with the market.”

What enabled the family business from Northern Ireland to come that far is the combination of economies of scale with a distinct focus on customisation – exactly what PwC had predicted before the GFC hit. “We understand customer satisfaction is the key to long term growth and sustainability, so we will continue to preserve our flexibility on the production line while utilising state-of-the-art technology to achieve economies of scale.”

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