Hill attachments: safety personifiedPublished 18/12, 2017 at 16:38
Based in Newry, Northern Ireland, Hill Engineering has been making quick couplers and excavator buckets for over twenty years. The company was established in 1994 by a charismatic entrepreneur Ian Hill with an ambitious goal to become a world’s leader in attachment safety. Well, it is safe to say that twenty years down the road his ambitions have been fully vindicated. Andrei Bushmarin reports on his visit to the Irish manufacturer.
Newry is a small industrial location just an hour’s drive from Belfast. In not-so-distant past notorious - along with Beirut and Baghdad - as one of the world’s “three lethal Bs”, Belfast nowadays is a peaceful, beautiful town steeped in history. It was out of the Belfast harbour that the Titanic went on her maiden sail in 1912 – down to the ocean bottom and into legend. Although far from being a plain one, the sailing of Hill Engineering is proving a lot more successful.
The hands-on manufacturer
Ian Hill started out his career as an apprentice welder making trailers and various agricultural attachments. This was a valuable experience for him that helped shape out the hands-on and informal business style that became a company trademark in later years. In 1995, the budding entrepreneur spotted a gap in the market for quick hitches and excavator buckets, and that was the beginning of Hill Engineering. Having prioritized safety, the fledgling manufacturer set out to design robust, reliable and affordable solutions for excavator owners and plant hire companies. The market response was encouraging, and in the first decade of its existence Hill Engineering enjoyed a rapid growth. Within the space of a few years, it gained the ISO 9001 accreditation and built a second plant in Newry to produce excavator buckets. In 2006, Hill implemented a £4.5ml investment programme that saw the coupler plant and the original factory amalgamated into a single 8,000m2 manufacturing facility. A year later the original factory was converted into a research and development centre.
In 2008, the manufacturer began to work on the concept of a fully automatic quick coupler that would become its signature product, driving the company's growth for the next decade. Called TEFRA after a volcanic rock matter of extraordinary hardness, the coupler had only three moving parts, which made it one of the safest and effective solutions on the market. Fitting carriers ranging in weight from 3 to 120t, the TEFRA hitches featured cast steel components, uniquely shaped hooks, a dual safety mechanism and a patented smart valve. The TEFRA couplers became a great success when they hit the market in 2011, spring-boarding the company into the major league of attachment manufacturers. On the heels of the first series came the TEFRA mini range of hitches designed for 3 to 7t machines. It completed the TEFRA line-up and consolidated Hill’s position as a market leader.
Things were definitely looking up for Hill Engineering in the early 2010s, and the best was yet to come. In 2013, Hill solutions were recognised with an “Innovation in Engineering Award” at Plantworx trade show in England. Next year the company won a very prestigious “Queen’s award for Enterprise”, again in the “innovation” category. Also in 2014 the company broke new ground in the attachment industry by introducing TEFRA Tilt – a revolutionary quick coupling system that boasted the full functionality of a tilt rotator without the necessity to invest in dedicated attachments it requires. The new product took off almost as soon as it was launched. According to Oliver Phelan, Global Sales & Marketing Manager at Hill, the company recorded a 60% growth in sales of the TEFRA Tilt over the last year, and sales are still climbing up. Designed for 7 to 20t machines, the coupler features a self-lubricating HKS XtraTilt power actuator allowing up to 180° rotation. Buoyed by the market reception, the Irish manufacturer keeps perfecting the coupler by adding new features to next-generation models. With an estimated cost of only 30% of an average tilt rotator, the TEFRA Tilt is a very viable alternative also from the pricing point of view.
Hill Engineering’s other core business is excavator buckets. Having been manufacturing them for almost twenty years, the company now possesses a complete line-up of rugged and high-performance buckets aptly called TITAN. The range is divided in two main categories: the TITAN HD buckets are designed for medium-duty digging and loading applications where high loading capacity is essential. The TITAN HDX rock bucket range built to operate in abrasive ground conditions. Made from high-tensile wear-resistant steels like Hardox, Weldox and Hi-Tuf, the HDX buckets boast a minimum 35% content of high-strength steel and can be tailor-made to suit a specific application. The latest addition to the bucket range is a so-called “thumb” system. Still new in the UK, the thumb concept has been known and employed already for some time in other markets. The most telling example is the USA where some 90% of the machines are equipped with this system. Fitted on the excavator boom, a thumb serves as a sort of grab holding bulk or rock material firmly in the bucket. Hill manufactures its thumbs from high-quality Hardox 400 steel for 3 to 20t excavators. While most thumb makes on the market today are 120° rotatable, the Hill devices allow for 160° rotation. The company says that the thumb idea is quickly gaining traction in the UK and Ireland, particular in the demolition and material handling sectors.
but remembering its roots
At the moment the majority of the company’s sales is done in the UK and Ireland. Oliver Phelan estimates the current domestic to international sales ratio at 80 to 20%. He adds, however, that there is a plan in motion to increase the share of international sales to 40% within three to five years. Having already established a strong foothold in the US and Canada, the company is now actively developing the French, Middle East, African and Chinese markets. Another country high on Hill’s ‘target list’ is Russia. While working hard to expand globally, the manufacturer remains committed to its British and Irish customers. The Irish market is now booming thanks to an influx of foreign investment, with the US accounting for a lion’s share of incoming funds. The corporation tax in Ireland is one of the lowest in Europe, which makes the country a tax haven for overseas investors. In order to cater to its ever-growing customer base in Ireland more efficiently, Hill has recently expanded its sales force with the appointment of William McIntosh. Over a past few years, McIntosh has proved himself as a valuable member of the Hill team working in different capacities, and his involvement in domestic sales is expected to lead to a further strengthening of the company’s position on the home front.
“We take it very personally”
Thanks to the fact that the company's growth was rapid but controlled, it managed to retain a personal touch with its customers. Hill is proud to have a very loyal clientele whom it always tries to support in any way possible. Its sales team spend much of their time with end users and managers of plant hire companies learning their needs and requirements. Apart from personal consultations, they use professional blogs and various social media to stay in constant touch with customers. A forward-thinking company, Hill strives to work smarter rather than harder. Towards this end it has appointed the Irish industry stalwart John Boyle as general manager. His main tasks as an expert in process management and engineering include streamlining the production, reducing lead times and optimizing stock control. Innovation is an ongoing process at Hill: the manufacturer is currently field-testing a new 1.5t hydraulic TEFRA coupler designed for mini excavators. The global market for mini excavators and loaders has been steadily growing in recent years, and Hill is preparing to meet the demand. After 23 years in the business, Hill Engineering remains a vibrant dynamic company in growth mode and, in the words of Oliver Phelan, “a fun place to work at”.