FEMALE manufacturing directors in the North-East are as a rare as hen’s teeth, but those that do exist are often brilliant examples of innovative thinking. Kay Wilson reports

The Northern Echo:

Husqvarna at Aycliffe Industrial Park, Newton Aycliffe   Picture: DAVE CHARNLEY PHOTOGRAPHY

CARALINE ROBINSON leads Newton Aycliffe-based Husqvarna which produces electric and robotic garden equipment and is part of the global Husqvarna Group with offices in 40 countries.

Her career path started at Longfield School, Darlington where after doing well in her GCSEs she joined the business as a 16-year-old apprentice. She was then sponsored by the company to do a degree in instrumentation and control at Teesside University.

After graduating she worked as a production engineer in the moulding section just as automation was being introduced. She said: “When I was at school I had always been interested in computers so the chance to work on programmable robots using software and controllers for the first time was brilliant for me.”

After a series of promotions, which gave her experience in all areas of the operation, she was appointed manufacturing director ten years ago.

Consumer demand for the robotic mowers has grown at an ever-increasing rate during this time. In the years between 2006 and 2017, one million were manufactured, with more products made now in one week than in the whole of the first year – but the next million will be produced in a much shorter time than this.

Caraline is also extremely confident of future trends generating business for the company and is building manufacturing capacity to be ahead of the curve of demand.

She said: “Our season, October to July, has seen an increase in demand for robotic machines, a common challenge now year on year. Our potential markets are all gardens and large green areas as well as businesses which have green space. Our products enable them all to care and maintain lawns with minimum expense and effort. An added benefit is that here is potential to operate the robotic mowers from a phone on the other side of the world if required.”

In terms of marketplaces Husqvana products are sold all over the world to more than 20 countries with Germany one of the main markets.

Caraline said: “Our growth in Germany was really down to the fact people there were early accepters of innovation. Nordic countries such as Sweden are quite a saturated marketplace for our types of products but there is huge untapped potential in the UK.

“There is a tradition of hand-held mowers in the UK but it is changing although with a robotic mower there is sometimes not as much time-saving as you might think, as people have a tendency to stand and watch it in operation!”

The Newton Aycliffe facility has five robotic lines and three traditional hand-held production lines due to the demand for automated machines.

It also has a sister plant with production lines in Vrbno in the Czech Republic. This close working relationship is an invaluable support when there are fluctuations in demand.

Caraline said: “We are constantly looking at ways to improve our processes and products. We work strategically with the designers in Sweden to help in the development of new products. It generally takes around two years from conception to delivery but this process is constantly evolving.

“For example we are introducing more automation, artificial intelligence and 3D vision. We have just started on our journey to create a factory for the future and want to make a robotic product with even more automation than we have currently.

“We invest several million pounds each year on developing the plant and the workforce are a big part of this. We want our employees to always say ‘What can I do to make this business better?’ It is important we have a culture where their improvement ideas are always considered, and where appropriate taken on board.

“We also recruit six apprentices a year, primarily in the technical and product teams as it is vital we have skilled staff now, and in the future, to deliver all of our growth potential.

“Sustainability is also a watchword for us and we are proud of our record of zero waste to landfill. There is inevitably scrap produced from our processes but this is all re-ground and reused to make low risk components and packaging for component storage. We also have 100 per cent wind-generated green electricity supplied to our site.

  • Husqvarna is a member of North East Chamber of Commerce for the benefit it brings, with connections across the region, linking to other businesses and the ability to raise its profile.