Econ at 50: True grit and laser accuracy

Dominic Browne

It's not rare for the people of Yorkshire to hit half centuries, but it is always worthy of celebration. Econ Engineering - the UK's most popular gritting manufacturer - has reached this milestone in style and shows no signs of slowing down.

The company is the largest British manufacturer of gritting vehicles, controlling 80% of the bought or hired gritting market and producing 360 units per year at its 88,000 sq ft factory, which opened in 1980 on Boroughbridge Road in Ripon, North Yorkshire.

It also operates a growing hire fleet, currently numbering more than 800 units, which has boosted annual turnover to over £34m.

This family-owned UK business is experiencing an unprecedented order book, which it put down not just to harsher winters, but also to its 'multibody products that allow customers to utilise one chassis for multiple tasks, such as road repair as well as winter maintenance, making the investment usable throughout the year'.

The 220-employee company carries out all design and manufacture of its products in-house including painting of components, and for nearly one-third of its life has worked with Swiss supplier of sheet metal processing machinery, Bystronic, to maintain the high level of component accuracy.

The road to success

The company was created by the late Bill Lupton, who single-handedly started a business towards the end of the 1950s in a barn on his family's farm.

He began by making flail mowers and hedge trimmers to cut verges and hedgerows more efficiently.

After exceptionally cold and freezing weather during the winter of 1962/63 brought England to a standstill, with many being cut off for weeks, Mr Lupton was inspired to put his mind to developing the first salt spreading vehicle that would keep the country moving and the wheels of industry turning.

This led to the creation of Econ Engineering in the autumn of 1969 on an old brewery site in Ripon.

By then, the M1 motorway had opened as well as sections of the M2, M4 and M6 and local councils, notably Lancashire and Westmorland, were interested in winter maintenance operations such as salt spreading and gritting to make driving safer.

True grit and laser accuracy

In 2003, the second generation of Luptons – Jonathan and Andrew – took over running the company and were instrumental in developing contract hire for gritters and snowploughs at a time when public spending cuts were making new equipment purchase difficult.

To ensure a leading position in this market, in 2005 they increased the fleet size through the acquisition of a major competitor, Municipal Hire Services.

They also added new technology to the business strengthening its reputation for precision and quality combined with bespoke design.

It was in the early 2000s that the company bought its first Bystronic laser machine, which replaced a turret punch press and a plasma profile cutter for processing the majority of components made from mild steel plates.

The components are used in Econ's shop, to work on gritters, snowploughs as well as bodies for highway maintenance and road patching that Econ mounts onto lorry chassis, often Mercedes and DAF, supplied to clients’ specification.

This ByStar 4020 laser machine with a 4kW CO2 power source supplied by Bystronic UK, greatly increased production efficiency and component accuracy.

Sheet metal up to 4 metres x 2 metres could be processed on the machine, while its 4.4kW and then 6kW successors were able to accept sheet up to 6.5 metres long and nominally 2 metres wide (in practice they use 1,830mm wide stock).

This is the maximum size readily available in the UK - Econ's sheet is cut from coil produced in Europe to meet the company's required steel specifications.

This matters because larger body panels can be produced without welding and the productivity of smaller components is boosted by the ability to nest and cut more parts in one sheet, reducing the amount of wasted material in the skeleton.

Econ's current laser machine was installed in 2014 and works 24/7, processing up to 35 tonnes of steel a week into any of 87,000 different components. These are produced in batch sizes ranging from 5- to 30-off and to an accuracy in some cases down to ± 0.5 mm.

Keeping track of this operation is no small feat and extensive use is made of modern MRP (manufacturing resource planning) software as well good old colour coding of components on the shop floor.

The effectiveness of the procedures - including planning cutting schedules 14 days ahead is evidenced by an above-average OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) of 63%, representing the proportion of time the laser is actually cutting metal.

Among the other equipment on site are three Bystronic press brakes on site, an Xpert 40 tonne / 1 metre press brake, which arrived in 2018 for bending smaller parts more efficiently, a VR 10x4000 jobbing guillotine and a belt grinder from German firm Weber.

Jonathan Lupton, joint managing director said: 'We have always tried to innovate and strive for excellence and nowhere is that more apparent than in our use of the laser to cut steel in our body shop.

'Despite the Bystronic machine representing a considerable expense at the outset, it was another example of how we always lead the way in our industry. The investment has more than paid off in terms of higher production output, while improved accuracy has almost eliminated fit-up during assembly and cuts costs further.

'We have gone from strength to strength by focusing not only on quality but also on the needs of our customers. That is why we have a UK-wide network of depots for servicing and recalibrating our equipment in the field, including a new one that opened recently in Alloa and another due to open in Cardiff in spring 2020.'

Staying ahead

Econ was the first in 1989 to invent the quick change body (QCB) system that allows a single chassis to have multiple applications, for example by the addition of an asphalt hot box for road repairs or for use as a tipper, crane or gulley emptier.

This was one key step in a long history of innovation, which has moved into software as well as hardware.

A recent Econ invention was a Spargo system that controls grit or salt spray and width patterns from the cab, automatically optimising the amount of product used and hence saving cost as well as protecting the road surface.

It also provides one-touch control for lowering the snow plough, turning on the gritter's beacon bar and performing other functions, making the driver's tasks easier and less tiring. And it is connected to the vehicle's GPS to help plot the most effective route.

The Econ story is far from over and the company has said it already has driverless vehicles and liquid de-icers in its sights.

That is the kind of ambition that takes you to a century.

Highways jobs

Collision Investigation Officer

Transport for Greater Manchester
£26,844.00 - £38,228.00 Per Annum
Are you excited by the opportunity to make a difference to the roads of Greater Manchester? Greater Manchester
Recruiter: Transport for Greater Manchester

2 x Environmental Health Officer (Food, Health & Safety)

Dacorum Borough Council
£31,218 to £39,786 (Inclusive of London Fringe Weighting) + Car Allowance   
Seeking to appoint 2 x fully qualified Environmental Health Officer’s to work within our... Hertfordshire
Recruiter: Dacorum Borough Council

Senior Traffic Engineer

East Riding of Yorkshire Council
£32.029 - £34.788
We seek an enthusiastic and experienced traffic engineer to manage our Traffic Team. East Riding of Yorkshire
Recruiter: East Riding of Yorkshire Council

Head of Asset Management (Regeneration & Environment)

Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council
£55,856 - £59,773
We have a current vacancy for the role of Head of Asset Management, and we are looking for a dynamic individual to lead the service Rotherham, South Yorkshire
Recruiter: Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council

Environmental Education Assistant

Brent Council
£22,779 - £24,030 p.a. inc. (pro-rata)
Looking for instructors who complement our enthusiastic, motivated and friendly staff team. Brent, London (Greater)
Recruiter: Brent Council

Structures Asset Manager

Kent County Council
£52,713 - £58,774 per annum (salary dependent on experience) 
If you have the ability to succeed in either of these roles and are able to prioritise competing demands and objectives, coupled with... Ashford, Kent
Recruiter: Kent County Council

Structures Senior Engineer

Kent County Council
Starting salary £33,082 per annum
Providing engineering support for maintenance of highway structures, liaising and working closely across KCC. Ashford, Kent
Recruiter: Kent County Council

Development Management Engineer

Warwickshire County Council
£37,849 - £39,782 per annum
The successful applicant for this post will be capable of taking the lead on work within the team associated with... Warwickshire
Recruiter: Warwickshire County Council

Permit Officer – Place

Enfield London Borough Council
£27,228 - £29,241
You will have the ability to understand and learn relevant legislation and be able to work on your own initiative but also work as part of... Enfield (London Borough), London (Greater)
Recruiter: Enfield London Borough Council

Senior Policy Planner

London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth
£32,643 – £45,704 depending on skills
Are you looking for working arrangements that enhance your work-life balance? London (Greater)
Recruiter: London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth

Community Services Manager

Copeland Borough Council
Competitive Salary
Looking for an energised and enthusiastic candidate to lead and focus the service through the challenges set by the Resources and Waste Strategy. Moresby, Whitehaven
Recruiter: Copeland Borough Council

Highways Infrastructure and Maintenance Manager - Highways Network

Bridgend County Borough Council
£37,813 - £40,760 per annum
An exciting opportunity has arrived inside the Highway Asset Maintenance Team within the Communities Directorate. Bridgend (Pen-y-bont ar Ogwr)
Recruiter: Bridgend County Borough Council

Business Support Officers - Transport Team (2 Jobs)

Kirklees Metropolitan Council
£19,554 - £21,166
Within the Transport Team you will be required to work flexibly in accordance with the needs of the service, which can men... Kirklees, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Transportation Planning Manager

Brent Council
£55,638 - £58,779 p.a. inc.
ou will have an excellent knowledge and understanding of transport policy at both local and national level. Expertise of both people and... Wembley, London (Greater)
Recruiter: Brent Council

Commercial Contract Supervisor

Wirral Borough Council
£30,507 to £32,878
No holding back. No excuses. Just change Wirral. Wirral, Merseyside
Recruiter: Wirral Borough Council

Technical Officer – Pest Control

Kirklees Metropolitan Council
£19,554 - £23,836
This job is temporary for up to 11 months from the date of appointment to cover the absence of the current post holder. Kirklees, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Divisional Director Neighbourhoods & Sustainability

Glasgow City Council
£83,708 - £95,232 (LDR3a, Grade 11)
This innovative role will contribute to the Council Strategic Plan Theme of A Sustainable Low Carbon City Glasgow, Glasgow City
Recruiter: Glasgow City Council

Principal Transport Manager

Be First
Competitive Salary
As our Principal Transport Manager, you will deliver the Local Implementation Plan, ensuring the £2.4million TFL budget is used effectively London (Central), London (Greater)
Recruiter: Be First

Highway Operations Manager

Croydon London Borough Council
£43,590 - £45,585
We are seeking an enthusiastic, motivated and well organised highway operations manager Croydon (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recruiter: Croydon London Borough Council

Structures and Watercourse Manager

Croydon London Borough Council
We are seeking an enthusiastic, motivated and well organised manager to look over the structures team and wider Highway section. Croydon (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recruiter: Croydon London Borough Council

Highways on Fridays

Register now!

Latest Issue

latest magazine issue

Valuing our roads: What is a network worth?

Also inside:

Traffex review 

Diary of a flood.

Beautiful roads

Live Labs exclusive briefing 

View the latest issue

Latest Video