Company with the current longest lifespan at Shannon continues to break the mould

The footprint of Precision Tool Group’s (PTG) Shannon operation, Hi Life Tools, may be different to when the company started life in Ireland as SPS in 1960 in a 100,000 sq. ft. factory at Shannon Free Zone but the same engineering and pioneering spirit as existed in the early days still resonates within the current 75,000 sq. ft. which the company has been occupying since 1980.

When SPS first set up in Shannon, the intention was to manufacture precision fasteners for industrial use in the European Common Market (EEC); however, when Ireland’s entry into the EEC was delayed, production of cutting and forging tools for internal use in other SPS operations was introduced as well. Early recruits were ‘young men’ drawn from the hinterland of Co. Clare with little or no previous experience so that they could be trained in the skills required. Most travelled to Shannon on the thirty or so buses that arrived in Shannon shortly after 6am every morning; males under 18 were not permitted to work after midnight![1]

At that time, SPS made both fasteners and tooling and the company was known for its high standard of operational excellence. Fast forward to today and you will find a company, PTG’s Hi Life Tools, which concentrates solely on tooling and that is not only one of the longest established tooling companies in the world but the market leader in a lot of different product ranges.

The company has developed a highly specialised operation in Shannon for producing thread roll dies in a fully integrated manufacturing operation with state-of-the-art equipment including extensive use of CNC machine tools and in-house heat treatment. It is led by Siobhan Roche, one of only a few females in such a role in PTG’s corporate structure, and a lady who says that, while qualified as a Chartered Accountant and having audited manufacturing companies for many years before joining PTG, she prefers the cut and thrust of the busy manufacturing environment she now finds herself in.

Describing what the company does in lay terms, she says: “We’re the tooling that prepares the threads that enable the production of fasteners or special formed parts. Our products cover the broadest ranges of applications in the aerospace, automotive, energy, general industrial and, more recently than thread rolling dies, the medical device market sector, although we are over twenty years supplying this market.

“We manufacture the tooling in a variety of materials, heat treatments and surface treatments. So, when you see an aircraft parked at Shannon Airport or a wind turbine in a field as you traverse Ireland, it is likely that the fasteners used to keep all the parts in place have been produced using our tooling.

“If you have to undergo surgery, or have a knee replacement, it is likely that some of the high-precision instruments used by the surgeons have been formed by our tooling. We expect to penetrate the medical device market further in the years ahead as our medical facility operates to the ISO 13485 standard and we have installed automated and robotic inspection systems to cater for this product range.”

Retaining cost competitiveness over a sixty-year timespan has always been a high priority for PTG Hi Life Tools. As Ms Roche says: “Sixty years is a long time to try to do that but it has been achieved through investment in technological advancements, the knowledge built up over the years, and the bespoke systems that we have designed in conjunction with our suppliers. The software, the engineering, the heat treatment systems, particularly the formulae we use to heat treat is not something we share. That’s our intellectual property; that’s what makes us a market leader.

“We are continually redeveloping our product range and our skill set. We follow market developments. For example, as we make the tooling used in new aircraft builds and aircraft maintenance, we always follow the build programmes and build rates and maintain close links with the maintenance, repair and overall MRO sector.

“We have also learnt a lot about our team’s adaptability and resilience during COVID-19. We have learnt to do business differently,” she adds, expanding on the fact that the company managed to invest significantly in its plant in the past year, using new technologies.

“We needed to invest in new equipment for our cylindrical cell. A financial outlay of this magnitude, $1m, would require a Factory Acceptance Test (FAT), involving trial runs and testing of the equipment to ensure that it operates to the specification. This would require factory visits by teams from the supplier but, as this was not possible during the pandemic, we used a simulator, communicated virtually, and succeeded in running products successfully. This technologically advanced machine has increased our capability and the range of sizes we can do on parts.

“Virtual collaboration may be the way forward for us,” says Ms Roche.

Collaboration is a word that comes naturally to Siobhan Roche who is fulsome in her praise for her team. With a background in finance and now running an engineering company, she describes the expertise and skills of the 100 people working with PTG Hi Life Tools as the experts.

“My role as general manager is to keep the wheels of our business turning and ensure that we retain our leadership position through focusing on continuous improvement and identifying new opportunities in growth sectors. Traditionally associated with the aerospace, automotive and general industrial sectors, PTG Hi Life Tools is already gaining traction in the medical device sector and plans are well underway to penetrate this market further.

“Our medical device cell is highly automated. We have built up a vast amount of experience in heat treating a wide range of metals from tool steels, high-speed steel (HSS), stainless steels and exotic metals. Our equipment includes numerous vacuum and tempering furnaces, of which some are validated specifically for medical devices. We have a cryogenic treatment unit for processes that require ultra-low temperatures and a slow rate to prevent thermal shock to the components being treated. Our on-site metallurgical laboratory enables us to test, analyse and advise our customers on material condition.”

Heading into her fifteenth year with PTG Hi Life Tools, Siobhan Roche exudes confidence that the company is set for new heights.

“It’s the variety of what we do that is interesting,” she states.

“We don’t do mainstream production. We are very bespoke with a great customer spread. Our people are highly skilled and loyal to the company. With over 150 pieces of equipment in the building, our challenge is to harness the craft as people retire. Our business is a craft, and one that we want to build on to reach our next longevity milestone in Shannon,” she adds, convincingly.

[1] Information obtained from ‘SPS in Ireland, 1960 – 2010: A Short History’ by Justin Wallace