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4 minute read

How one SME manufacturer approaches innovation & investment

Rob Stark, product director at Fortress Interlocks shares the inside track on how a company that could appear to be a traditional Black Country lock making firm is instead leading an industry with innovation. 

With roots in Victorian era lock making and a traditional mechanical product that is simple but effective, we tend to surprise with our recent Industry 4.0 innovations.

In less than 4 years, total annual sales revenue has grown from £17.5m to over £30m. Much of this recent growth is driven by becoming one of two safety interlock switch manufacturers globally to integrate both major safety network communication protocols (PROFIsafe and CIP Safety) with third party safety approval.

Industry 4.0 arrived overnight in the Fortress product in a tangible manner as additional data transmission and diagnostics became accessible from safety devices. More on the potential of the Industry 4.0 initiatives are mentioned below in our future plans.

Total annual sales revenue at Fortress has grown from £17.5m to over £30m / Picture: Fortress Interlocks


Financial sales values are not the only good news manufacturing story from Fortress. Employment opportunities have grown in line with revenues and the Fortress team now totals 163 people. 30 employees have been with us less than a year, while 57 employees are between 1-3 years of service.

During Covid-19, Fortress has remained open supporting our customers in essential industries like food and beverage manufacture, paper and tissue manufacture and automated logistics.

How Did We Get Here?

In short, £600,000 of investment in the last couple of years. Funds invested back into the business have been split evenly between engineering resource and manufacturing excellence. Our current building was purpose-built when the company had less than £10m in sales revenue 10 years ago, investment was needed as it became unsustainable for the facility to treble the output required.

2018-19 will be remembered internally for the manufacturing transformation. Without any production shutdowns; new high bay stores were erected, new CNC machines were installed, assembly lines were rearranged for efficiency and the first steps to automation arrived into product packaging.

Fortress installed new CNC machines and assembly lines were rearranged for efficiency / Picture: Fortress Interlocks


On the engineering resource side, five years ago we employed one electronics engineer. Today we employ two software engineers, one firmware and five electronics engineers. The expanding engineering team reject the typical product development approach by concentrating on establishing technology competencies rather than products. These competencies create an agile engineering team than can react to requests for solutions and work closely with end users to develop strategic relationships for machine safety.

It hasn’t been easy to recruit. Engineering resource is available in the employment market but the number of those capable of creating safety products to comply with international machine safety standards are rare. Predominantly our engineering team recruits are recent university graduates and have developed their competencies in house.

Fortress is not afraid to invest, our secret to quick recovery on investment is customer led innovation. Delivering new concepts that solve problems the market place faces means we often recover investment in a matter of months not years.

What’s Next?

We will continue to bet on our talent as we are not afraid to give opportunities to employees identified as having high potential to support our growth goals.  Leaders in manufacturing, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, marketing and product management have been internal appointments to employees under 30 years of age. With the aim of securing a balanced and successful future for the business, 26% of the business are under 30 and 31% of our employees are female.

Three apprentices have then been selected from 15 shortlisted candidates via a 2019 partnership with Dudley College. Further education for employees who wish to further their careers is encouraged and supported financially, this includes non-manufacturing qualifications such as project management, business and accountancy degrees.

26% of employees at Fortress are under 30 and 31% of employees are female / Picture: Fortress Interlocks


We also won’t stop innovating. Our latest offering, FRANK, is a direct result of the network connectivity and pushes Industry 4.0 forward.

FRANK ties an access control database to the interlock to only allow access to manufacturing areas based on training credentials. A complete audit trail of interaction is then provided. ‘Who’, ‘When’ and for ‘How Long ‘data is fed into productivity systems. We have installed our first systems in the UK and have installations upcoming in the US and Europe. FRANK is forecast to generate £6.4m in revenues within 5 years delivering strong net profits due to software and service elements.

During Covid-19, Fortress is generating a series of web-based content to engage with customers. So far uptake has been beyond initial expectations with our focus on providing engaging, amusing content that offers an alternative view to machine safety during these times.

Fortress is keen to share its insight on innovation and its continuing growth journey – you can follow Fortress Interlocks on LinkedIn for regular updates.

Fortress may appear to be a traditional lock making firm but is instead leading an industry with innovation and Industry 4.0 initiatives / Picture: Fortress Interlocks


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