Kwikbolt is a young SME with the sort of agility and focus you’d expect. The Isleworth, London-based company spotted an opportunity less than 10 years ago in the convergence of new materials and new manufacturing techniques and seized it.
Its revolutionary solutions, single-sided temporary fasteners developed with the help of NATEP, have driven a doubling of turnover in each of the last three years, and netted a ‘double’ in the prestigious Queen’s Awards for Enterprise.
But the key to Kwikbolt’s success is not just innovation, says commercial director Christian Wenczka. The company has just eight employees, split between commercial and operational functions, but they punch above their weight. “Everyone has people who can solve problems, but we’re also good at exploiting the solutions that our engineering team develop.”
Kwikbolt was set up in 2011 to develop a solution for the emerging challenges posed by the increasing use of composites in airframes, and automation. Lockheed-Martin liked what it saw, and asked for refinements to the new product’s size and functionality to suit the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme.
“That was where we got involved with NATEP,” said Wenczka.
The first of its two NATEP projects enabled the firm to develop its wet fit fastener (Storm) product; the second supported development of the slave fastener for automation (Lightning AX & AT) product. Its industrial partner in both projects was i2M.
The device they developed, which OEMs use to precisely align aircraft panels and fuselage during assembly, has few competitors. The fastener simplifies the manufacturing process, helping to reduce costs, improve precision and speed up assembly.
The company now has a range of five technologies and supplies a global market, which helped cement its rare double win in the 2020 Queen’s Award for Enterprise programme, cited for both Innovation and International Trade.
The awards, said Wenczka, were “recognition that the UK can inject innovation in a traditional market and go on to achieve high sales and growth via excellent engineering.”
Finding a market demand
He describes the company philosophy as finding profitable problems and solving them. It’s an important distinction. Too often, he said, innovation in engineering starts with a solution, in his view a short road to nowhere.
Industrial innovators need to find a market demand, said Wenczka. “We very much pre-sell a solution. Otherwise there’s no reason to do the project.
“Too many people try to get the perfect mousetrap, then go to market. We do the opposite and it’s been successful for us.”
How successful? “This year, even with a recession, we’re going to double in size, as we have each of the last four years.”
The company was quick to embrace the advantages of additive manufacturing (AM) and makes full use of it with outsourced production. “Until AM came around, a lot of parts were hard – if not impossible – to manufacture. That technology has opened up the design envelope.”
More than that, it’s enabled nimble and innovative companies to “claim the ‘real estate’” of future development. For example, Kwikbolt patented a screw thread within a fully flush fastener before technology blocked this design function.
“We only develop technology if we can get a patent around it,” he said.
Knowhow in programming
How does Kwikbolt protect its intellectual property (IP)? “We ‘black-box’ it to the AM machine operators,” said Wenczka. “Our knowhow goes into the programming. We give them the software to run; they give us back the parts.”
Kwikbolt also makes wet fit fasteners, and recently completed its first fully flush, fully automated install and removal temporary fastener for a large US prime. This solved the problem of protrusions on the control surface. “It’s difficult to add automation within the hole countersink,” said Wenczka. “Now a robot can pick it up and place our fully flush temporary fasteners in the aircraft, hundreds of times.”
NATEP, he said, allowed Kwikbolt to move“outside our comfort zone” and partner with companies whose expertise covered areas of risks such as drill bit behaviour, how interfaces work, environmental concerns and more. “Collaboration is a much better way to develop,” said Wenczka.
“NATEP gives you time to apply your brain power.”