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Andrew Thomson of Ultraframe is no stranger to the process of re-designing a traditional product. Libbie Hammond spoke to the man who wants to change
the face of conservatory roofs.


03.jpg Ultraframe is the world's acknowledged leader in conservatory roof design and manufacture, and over the last ten years, it has supplied roofs for over 750,000 conservatories. With 20 years experience in the market, the company has been instrumental in driving growth across the whole industry, and has always focused on innovation as a point of differentiation for its products.

Andrew Thomson is the design and development director at Ultraframe, and was brought on board to keep the company's product range fresh. He told me: “The company has a history of innovation and that is primarily from where the company drives its growth - having products that are better than the competition. Our products are regarded as 'the one to have' and we work hard to maintain that."

It is this focus on innovation that attracted Andrew to leave his position of engineering director at Dyson and join Ultraframe. He explained a bit more about his career progression.

“I studied mechanical engineering at Imperial College and then went to the Royal College of Art to read industrial design," he began. “James Dyson was the external examiner and as soon as I graduated he asked me to work for him, at the time the company was just starting. The DC01 had been designed and was about to go into production and I started working on the DCO2 which was the first cylinder cyclone cleaner that we produced. I was responsible for the total design of that, literally designing from the initial cyclone down to the aesthetics,” he said.

This meant Andrew started the design with a blank page. “James Dyson encourages different thinking and that is why he likes employing fresh graduates as they don't have the history or baggage with them,” he explained. "When I joined the company there were only two other designers - by the time I left I was the engineering director and there were 300 in the design department working there, so I saw some significant changes and growth.”

Finding a totally new design for a traditional domestic product is not easy, and Andrew began to find that the market was becoming claustrophobic in terms of product areas. “Making a big step forward in an area like that is incredibly difficult,” he said. “We did it with the cleaner but to repeat that is very hard - you are treading on other people's patents and because we set out our stall as a company with technological innovation, that is what we were always trying to do. It lost a bit of its fun, and when the manufacturing moved away I lost that hands-on contact too.

“When I was approached by Ultraframe I hadn't really considered leaving Dyson, but when the opportunity arose the pieces fell into place. My father is an architect and I was brought up in that background, and while at the RCA I had involvement with Grimshaw Partners and had liked doing architecture and industrial design but never pursued it. It seemed a good opportunity and I felt the conservatory market was an area that had lots of potential for new design.”

Ultraframe has recently introduced some new products, including a roof called Uzone with a new method of construction called Clicklock technology and a revolutionary bay extension that lets in far more light than traditional designs, called Litespace. Andrew explained further about Uzone. “The way a traditional conservatory roof is constructed inherently means the aluminium components conduct heat and cold from the outside to the inside, which means the structure degrades the performance of the glazing, which is very common. With Uzone all the roof fitting structures are on the inside, which means it has very good thermal performance, and is as good as the glazing you use.

“To help cope with the general shortage of skilled workers in construction, we looked at de-skilling the installation process. We developed a unique Clicklock joint connection technology, which gives speedy, practically bolt-free and virtually tool- free on-site assembly. As I come from a manufacturing background I am very used to designing to what the Japanese called Poke Yoke, or foolproof construction. Traditionally conservatories have been constructed with bolts and these can be over-tightened, not tight enough, or even not installed at all. The whole essence of the construction of Uzone is that we do a high degree of factory preparation on the product, so that when it comes on-site the whole product just snaps together and goes up in literally a third of the time of a conventional conservatory - about 45 minutes. The main goals in the development were to make sure it was easy to fit, and increase the thermal insulation, both of which were achieved.” Adding a conservatory to a property can have a range of effects. "On a lot of properties it can improve the thermal performance of the whole house, because of the thermal gain the conservatory has and the insulative properties that it can add. We are very much looking to improve that all the time,” said Andrew. “We are also very conscious of the impact a conservatory has on a house," Andrew continued. "The conservatory design market is moving on because purchasing motivations have changed. Historically conservatories were an aspirational product, particularly for the over 50s who had money and wanted to enjoy their garden whatever the weather. However, in more recent times especially with the boom in the housing market where moving house has become less affordable, conservatories have been a way of adding practicality to a house, so the drivers are less aspirational and more practical.

“These buyers are a different animal and will all look on the internet for products, they will research in DIY shops and not necessarily buy through a specialist conservatory installer, and we have done a lot of research into this new audience.”

Tastes may be changing but it will be a gradual process, as Andrew explained. “People are still somewhat traditional in their thinking about conservatories, and are slightly reluctant to accept new shapes and designs,” he said. “But there is a core body of people interested in our more conceptual designs and shapes, with about 30 per cent of people looking for something different and new, and so there is a market out there to be satisfied.

“I think changes in shape and colour will come but it will be incremental growth," he continued. "There is a huge scope to make changes. Buyers are mindful of re-sale value, especially the younger people, so although they like the interesting looks, they have to consider if someone else likes it. But having said that, we are always introducing innovative new products to attract customers and reflect new trends. “For example, with our Litespace product we are moving towards conservatories that are more part of the living space, rather than a bolt-on element. This is a three facet walk-in bay window, which is glazed to the ground. It removes the doors from the house and maintains the high thermal performance of the house using high performance glass. Rather than adding another room, it enlarges the space you have already, and works particularly well for patio door replacement. We have had a tremendous amount of good response to that.”

Another innovation that Ultraframe introduced is a quality test designed in partnership with the BBA, specifically for conservatories. “We were very much at the forefront of setting down the standards for conservatories, because conservatories fall outside the building regulations and we wanted external recognition of our quality. Working with the BBA we developed a test and they estimate a minimum life of our roofs of 25 years,” said Andrew.

“Quality is key to what we do and it is also reflected by our Registered Conservatory Installer Scheme, which is approved by the Guild of Mastercraftsmen. We think this offers peace of mind and also a guarantee of quality.” Another guarantee of quality is the company's ISO9001 certification - ensuring the entire production facility works to exacting standards. Andrew explained further about the company’s operations. "Our main site is in Clitheroe with 600 employees," he said. “We have another site locally with two more factory units, a distribution centre in Bedford, and then sites in the US as well.

“A key part of what we do is the overnight delivery distribution network. In fact the conservatory market is quite strange as we are mass manufacturers, but every single product is bespoke. We offer a service where customers can design any conservatory roof using our software, or if they give us a sketch we will design it and a roof is made to these exact requirements and delivered within five days. So we have a very rapid turnaround and a very flexible process.

“We also constantly battle the fact that the person who sells who the conservatory may not have the design skills - however one of our strengths is that we can always manufacture a product that fulfils consumer needs. This of course wouldn't be possible without the latest technology such as 3D CAD, which allows us to make prototypes very quickly, and that data can be rapidly exported and translated into tools. We also have our own conservatory CAD system that puts our parts in the right format and we use that information to drive the machining centres as well.

“Within the factory, we are always hot on health and safety and we are always aiming to improve our standards. One of the key improvements involves the lifting and moving of goods, so we now ensure that package sizes are under 25 kgs so when our roofs go on-site we are not asking site staff or delivery staff to lift something that is too heavy. Safety has also been improved with the Clicklock technology, because it is easier to assemble for the on-site staff, and more of the product is manufactured under factory conditions, which is safer for personnel.”

The quality of Ultraframe roofs has been reflected in the frequent appearance of the company's products on television design programmes such as Better Homes and Room 4 Improvement. Andrew is keen to see more of this type of activity. "This is good publicity for the company and we want to achieve higher brand recognition with the customer,” he said. “Communication with the customer as a systems supplier is always difficult and we want to be able to drive innovation into the market - this is easier if the customer is demanding it.” CT-E

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