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It is one of the great challenges of being an OEM. You've designed a product for a client. You've tested the prototype for usability, build quality and ingress protection. You've done your market research. Then, suddenly, the big order comes in. Moving from a prototype to a large production run almost overnight requires a flexible, proactive supplier that can respond quickly to your demands.
That was the challenge faced by Cambridgeshire-based customized electronic controller manufacturer Top Hex a few years ago.
“We had prototypes of a laboratory product we had designed, a cathodic disbondment tester for accelerated testing of gas pipelines,” said Gary Weston, Managing Director of Top Hex. Cathodic disbondment testers are used to evaluate the performance of barrier coatings on underground metal pipes using an accelerated lifespan test. Top Hex's product allow these tests to be carried out with accuracy, consistency and repeatability in accordance with standard test methods.
“We came to Rapid Electronics with a shopping list – for example, we knew we needed a transformer, but we didn't know what manufacturer or voltage”, says Weston. “Rapid found a transformer from a specific manufacturer on the lead time we needed. Once that issue had been resolved, it made sense for us to source as many components as we could from one supplier. Virtually everything that went into the Cathodic disbondment tester came from Rapid Electronics – resistors to spacers, fuses to plug fittings. Everything was specified by ourselves and they came up with everything we asked for.”
“When we got the green light for production, Rapid were as good as their name suggests.”
“Rapid can move quickly and are always six weeks ahead of us”
Although Top Hex work with other distributors, being able to consolidate their orders brings significant advantages, and that is why Rapid has become one of Top Hex's favoured suppliers. They work very closely with their account manager at Rapid to ensure that forward stock requirements are catered for. With careful specifying and stock planning, Rapid are able to provide assistance in ensuring the components needed to purchase were readily available at the moment the client gives the go-ahead.
“When you are manufacturing something, even if you're waiting for something as insignificant as a spacer, then the whole production is delayed”, says Weston. “We just can't afford to let that happen. Rapid can move quickly and are always 6 weeks ahead of us in terms of what we need. That is very impressive. In fact, we haven't found anyone who can do that.”
It is not just Rapid's ability to source and stock the components he needs that Weston values. It is the strength of the personal relationships that have developed between Top Hex and Rapid Electronics. Having long established reps and account managers creates a sense of loyalty within both parties. Taking responsibility for customers is key. “The words I hate to hear are: ‘It's not my job'. Rapid has a genuine commitment to customer service. When I ring them I know I am going to speak to my account manager,” Weston adds.
Elise Atkinson, Rapid's account manager for Central & Southern England, explains how she works with Top Hex. “I visit Gary very regularly and we scope out new projects and potential new products that have been introduced that he could possibly use in the future, making samples and data available if and when required.” I also work closely with Top Hex's purchasing team, managing the order book on a weekly basis”, says Atkinson. “I make sure scheduled orders will be on time and if not problematic parts are highlighted in advance and a delivery solution is found. Working with Top Hex is a thoroughly enjoyable experience – we work hard together but also enjoy a few laughs along the way too.”
The Top Hex cathodic disbondment tester
The Top Hex cathodic disbondment tester
Gary Weston, managing director of Top Hex (left), with Adam Caddy, marketing manager of Rapid Electronics
Free design service
Gary Weston and Simon Pollington founded Top Hex in 2002 with a clear mission. Weston had worked in sales and Pollington in electronic design for other companies, but both found it frustrating to keep having to charge new customers for producing electronic designs. A free design service has helped Top Hex to grow its turnover from £100,000 to £1.2m in 14 years.
Over the years the company has developed an impressive reputation supplying bespoke electronic controllers for a wide range of clients. Top Hex designs are found in all kinds of environments, from calibration for medical equipment to farming, health and fitness to retail, and industrial automation applications where wiring has to be minimised. Their products, for example, have been integrated into water quality monitors, pump controllers, packaging and temperature controllers and gaming consoles. A Top Hex controller can incorporate a range of features, such as digital and analogue I/O, numeric, text and graphic displays and Ethernet communication.
The cathodic disbondment tester is one of Top Hex's flagship products. CDT tests can be configured through the inbuilt keypad/display or using a PC connected to an Ethernet port. Multiple units can be networked over Ethernet and monitored remotely using the unit's powerful CDT PC application. 16 independent tests can be carried out simultaneously, and the unit continually logs test data to non-volatile flash memory. The data can be viewed directly on the unit or extracted using the CDT PC software.
The Top Hex team will use their experience to tweak the ‘building blocks' of past designs and provide a bespoke solution to each new challenge. While a PCB design requires a lot of common elements, each new project will make different demands of a supplier like Rapid.