Avon Rubber, PLC, a leading developer and manufacturer of technologically advanced respiratory protection equipment and thermal imaging systems, constantly challenges itself to improve its products and develop new ones in order to meet the demands of an ever-changing market. Janice Gable Bashman reports.
Forward thinking and anticipating future needs drives Avon-ISI to develop technologically advanced products to address the needs of the respiratory protection equipment and thermal imaging systems markets. This user and market focused philosophy enables Avon-ISI to deliver products that leave a lasting impression on its customers and have them returning for more.
Avon Rubber has five main manufacturing locations worldwide: one in the United Kingdom and four in the United States. The Avon-ISI (International Safety Instruments) portion of the business originated in 1980, but in order to fully comprehend the history of this remarkable company one has to look back at the roots of Avon-ISI’s British-based parent company, Avon Rubber, which had its start in 1885 manufacturing items from rubber.
“We were a tire company for many of our formative years in England,” says Alan Coates, Director of Operations. “1885 was also the same year that Gottlieb Daimler invented the internal combustion engine, and it had a profound impact on the future of Avon Rubber. In 1897, we began the development of pneumatic car tires in the U.K., even though there were less than 60 vehicles on the road at the time.” It was that forward thinking and anticipation of future needs that put Avon Rubber in the forefront of its industry back in 1897. The same philosophy drives its efforts today.
In the 1920s, Avon Rubber began the development of its first gas mask, and manufactured more than 20 million of these during World War II. Production peaked in 1954 with over 50,000 masks produced each week. In the 1980s, the British Ministry of Defense awarded Avon Rubber a contract to develop and manufacture the next generation of military gas masks, which are still in use by the armed forces today.
The United States Department of Defense (DOD) awarded Avon Rubber the largest single military respirator development contract in the world to develop the M50, a Joint Services General Purpose Mask (JSGPM) for use by the United States Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. This was an important milestone for Avon Rubber in the year 2000, and was a factor in the decision to acquire ISI in 2005. “We wanted to complement our gas mask business with the self contained breathing apparatus to fully meet the needs of the market,” says Coates.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR OF INNOVATION
In 1980, Avon-ISI introduced the first refillable emergency escape breathing apparatus approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Donald Dawson believed there was an opportunity to provide safer products to firefighters and set out to develop and manufacture these products with the creation of Avon-ISI.
Avon-ISI found success quickly. In 1982, it introduced the first National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) approved self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), the Ranger, which used a single stage regulator design. In 1989, it introduced the first NFPAapproved, two-stage regulator with the Magnum SCBA. In 1995, they introduced an innovative hood design, emergency escape breathing apparatus with a demand valve air management system for use by offshore rescue units on oil rigs.
The 1990s also brought the introduction of the Vision Series of thermal imaging cameras, and Avon-ISI was the first to use the thermal sensor BST (Barium Strontium Titanate) for that purpose. Continuing to make great strides in the industry, Avon-ISI marketed the Viking SCBA, the first NFPA approved SCBA with a heads up display in the mask.
“In 2005, the same year we were acquired by Avon Rubber,” says Don Reycroft, sales and marketing manager, “we were awarded the Global Excellence in Technology Award, which is an innovation award, for our Telemetry Electronic Air Management System (TEAMS). And in 2007, we introduced the Viking Z Seven SCBA. It is the first NFPA approved breathing apparatus with a 10-point adjustable voice activation system, which customizes communication for firefighters.”
Today, Avon-ISI produces SBCA and thermal imaging systems for firefighters worldwide, combining the initial core competencies of both Avon Rubber and Avon-ISI into one company that works hard to meet the growing demands of this evolving industry.
COMMITTED TO WORLD-CLASS MANUFACTURING
Avon Rubber manufactures respiratory protection products in both the United Kingdom and the United States, with a worldwide workforce of between 850 to 900 employees. “All of our manufacturing locations have received significant capital investment over the years and will continue to do so,” says Coates. “All our locations hold ISO: 9001 certification and we introduced Six Sigma processes and principles for those locations. Lean manufacturing is a way
of life for us not a process.”
“We’ve experienced regular growth in this very, very competitive marketplace,” Reycroft says. “Because the NFPA was developed for firefighter safety, it has allowed us to use our core competency to address the market. We were able to redesign our PASS system [Personal Alert Safety System] to meet current needs because our product was already technologically advanced to the point where we were able to do the least amount of changes to meet the 2007 NFPA standards. What this shows is that our products were more advanced than our competitors prior to the standard being written.”
THE CORE OF SUCCESS
Avon Rubber prides itself on its research and development initiatives, and invests heavily in this area each year. Dedicated research facilities on both sides of the Atlantic focus on material development activity, with product development performed at each business location. “We are in a position where a significant amount of our assets are intangible assets consisting of patents and intellectual property,” says Coates. “That is an indicator of our dedication to research and development activity. When we were awarded the JSGPM mask development contract by the DOD, it was an indicator that we were in it for the long haul. That product was in development for seven years before being approved for fielding by the DOD. We were willing to invest a lot into research and development before we saw a return, but the result will be the largest single mask contract ever awarded.”
The ability to apply lean manufacturing principles to all locations helps to minimize manufacturing costs incurred as well as benefiting from the leverage Avon Rubber’s global position and size brings. This results in buying power when purchasing materials. Avon-ISI
has not been afraid to venture into developing markets such as Eastern Europe and the Far East to find and obtain the best value for its component acquisitions. As a result, it is able to offer high quality, state-of-the-art products at competitive prices.
HOMELAND SECURITY BUILD-UP
Substantial growth in the fire service market occurred immediately following 9/11 and has continued thereafter with firefighters and law enforcement agencies increasing their stock of protective equipment as part of the Homeland Security build-up. Much of the money used
to fund this build-up came from Fire Act Grant monies. It is expected that these grant monies will decrease in the near future and fire departments will need to use their own money instead of grants to buy equipment. “This will create a very competitive environment,” Reycroft says. “But we are helping the fire departments who need to request grants for protective products. We provide product information and give them direction to apply for grant monies.”
What’s also important to note is that today’s incoming firefighters are a technically savvy generation who grew up with computers. Avon-ISI recognizes this trend and is focusing its energies on marketing efforts and products towards a technologically competent customer. “The previous generation really didn’t focus on computers,” says Reycroft. “Now we can take our core competency, which is technologically based, and it becomes a stimulant for that younger firefighter. We see our business growing over the next few years as a result of these efforts.”
AT THE TECHNOLGICAL FOREFRONT
Avon-ISI is “heavily investing again, in advance of any mandates, in the next technological leap that the market wishes to see,” Coates says. What that means is that Avon-ISI is already at work
on meeting new technological standards well in advance of the NFPA’s next standards revision, which is due in 2012. “We are always in the forefront of the marketplace.”
Over 100 years ago, Avon Rubber began producing high-quality, technologically advanced products to meet the requirements of its customers, and Avon- ISI continues that tradition today. “We establish what the market needs, and we deliver that through the leading technology,” Coates says. That’s what makes Avon-ISI a leader in the SCBA and thermal imaging systems markets.