Fans of James Bond film Goldfinger will be familiar with how a laser can slice through metal.
In a memorable scene, the super spy is strapped to a slab and faces being cut in half by a beam of light.
Dramatic yes, fanciful no.
For the principle of vapourising steel with highly focused light has been honed since the 1960s and today plays a vital role at Advanced Engineering Techniques, in Halfway, Sheffield.
Its 6kw fibre lasers can cut through inch-and-a-half thick slabs of steel to produce complex parts used in diggers, dumpers, cranes and buses.
The company is an enthusiastic adopter of automation – spending millions on lasers and robot welders that do the job of several people.
But it’s not about sacking staff, boss Dave Birch says, it’s about keeping up with demand. For AET can’t hire enough skilled people and is turning away up to £2m of work a year.
And it has run out of room across its three buildings on Holbrook Industrial Estate.
But despite this, the 200-strong firm has had a “good last eight years” and last year posted a record £14m turnover.
Dave said: “We can’t really fit any more people on this site but the cost of land is proving prohibitive.
“The cost of a move would be seven figures, so that’s on the back burner. We’re a high-turnover low-margin business and we put our money into equipment.
“One of the ways we get the best out of this site is automation. It’s not about cutting jobs it’s about adding capacity.”
The company still employs 60 welders as well as machine tool operators and metal formers.
But this year alone, it has spent £1m on a new laser-cutter and a robot-welding cell.
A further £650,000 spend on machinery is on the wishlist for later this year.
Dave added: “We wouldn’t normally buy two pieces in the same year but we are having to do it to fill gaps and keep us competitive. We’ve invested well over £6m since the financial crash and we have done our research on trips to buy equipment in Switzerland and Germany.
“On the continent, there’s four times the investment in automation.
“It’s a different culture here and since the recession firms have been reluctant to take on finance, especially with the stricter rules.”
AET is a contract engineering business making parts to clients’ designs.
Unable to predict when work will come in, it can feel like a precarious business.
It’s “feast or famine,” Dave says and you have to be “all things to all people”.
“We want customers to consider us an extension of their factory. They have got all our phone numbers and we will take calls in the middle of the night.”
AET bosses, including Steve Woollen and Andy Richards, have all been “blooded” on the shop floor, worked shifts and risen through the ranks.
They also attended university, with Dave and Andy obtaining MBAs.
Dave added: “No one out there would say we are not worthy of our jobs.
“We put ourselves through university and I’m very proud we did.
“We encourage others, we’re not creating a corporate monster, it’s a commonwealth where we put back in.
“We choose the machinery, do the negotiating and get involved in the installation.”
AET gets through 700 tonnes of steel a month.
It has vacancies for fabricators, CNC machinists and press brake operators.
A CLUB WITH INTEGRITY
The Made in Sheffield brand is something we are proud to be a part of, says AET boss Dave Birch.
He added: “There’s a lot of focus on the south east of England – it’s good for the North to have a voice and a profile through this organisation. We’re proud to display it on our literature.
“I think every company that’s successful that shares the brand can help others and it does us no harm to be part of a club which has some integrity.”
Dave says he voted for Brexit, but adds: “I didn’t vote for all this dithering. I think the UK is an important enough place to deal with the rest of the world and Europe.
“The cost to this business of European legislation has been significant.”