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In business, small can be beautiful

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FIRMA was launched in 2013 by 3 engineers experienced in:

  • aerospace
  • defence
  • the renewables industries
  • R&D projects

For us, there seemed to be obvious synergies with nuclear decommissioning, a highly regulated industry that requires innovation, accountability and robust approach to quality. The nuclear sector has a reputation for being difficult to break into and we were prepared for an uphill struggle. What we learnt is that while some barriers are valid to ensure the necessary technical output, some are perceived rather than real. They often revolved around guarded attitudes from the industry towards outsiders. This, while initially slightly frustrating, is not restricted to nuclear – most large sectors have their own barriers, but what’s interesting is how they are dealt with.

We attended our first NDA Supply Chain Event in 2013 - daunting to a start-up micro-SME such as us. While the reception was friendly, we did recognise elements of a slightly closed culture.

Recognising the potential difficulties, we focused on our strengths:

  • capability to understand and deliver
  • skills and qualifications
  • track record

Fortunately, we soon learnt that the NDA was open-minded and supportive of new entrants.

Our break came when we were asked to represent new entrants on the ‘NDA SME Steering Group Committee’. This enabled us to give feedback on our challenge and explore a more productive approach, while gaining insight into commercial mechanisms and culture.

SME Estate Steering Groups logo
SME Estate Steering Groups logo

See more useful information for SMEs

Our initial commercial engagement began in March 2015, prompted by our marketing campaign. We were invited to contribute to designing a machine to sort, segregate, consolidate and condition waste material at Sellafield’s First Generation Magnox Storage Pond (FGMSP).

This is a priority project, raising the stakes for us as a business to exceed expectations and giving us a great platform to showcase our professionalism.

We drew on a wide range of skills to deliver a solid CAD model, detailing fabricated parts and assemblies. All this was complemented by auditable documentation to support certification of the machine in line with Sellafield requirements.

We found the path sometimes less than straightforward. Participating in a multi-tier supply chain created challenges to align the potential solutions for all parties, ensuring they were practical and realistic. We were also keen to keep an eye on costs which meant keeping things simple.

We found that SMEs, particularly smaller ones, are able to offer benefits that, to be fair to supply chain managers in the industry, are not always obvious. Reduction in project cost and delivery time is often achieved by removing wasteful overheads, e.g. duplicated project management which is usually well catered for by senior (usually Tier 2) supply chain partners. This frees up smaller SMEs to concentrate on the technical solution.

We estimate the annual cost per engineer in a large organisation may be twice that of the advertised salary when equipment, software, administration, benefits, etc. are taken into account. This provides food for thought compared to the costs of a micro-SME used for specialist tasks on an ad-hoc basis, and should encourage us to acknowledge our strengths.

Another point is that the micro-SME is playing a high stake game. As a newcomer to the industry, we don’t have the luxury of not meeting expectations.

Finally, a message that the NDA has been keen to support is that of the requirement for innovation in the nuclear industry. It is accepted that SMEs can bring genuine innovation and hopefully this will be acknowledged as micro-SME contributions are celebrated at events such as the NDA Supply Chain Awards.

Supply chain support from the NDA

Entries for the next round of NDA Supply Chain Awards open in late spring 2016. NDA's annual supply chain event takes place in November.

Sign up to NDA's e-bulletin to be informed of these events and other progress in nuclear decommissioning.

Learn about NDA's Supply Chain Charter

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