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Dundee automation firm wins biggest order in 40 year history

SP Automation & Robotics has created systems for everything from scampi manufacturers to contact lenses companies in its four decades in the city.

Roy Henderson and Lee Nixon of SP Automation & Robotics.
Roy Henderson and Lee Nixon of SP Automation & Robotics.

It’s been a double celebration for Dundee’s SP Automation & Robotics as the firm celebrates its 40th anniversary with its largest ever order.

The Camperdown Industrial Park business designs systems for companies to automate their production processes.

SP has worked for businesses all over the world in a diverse range of industries – making everything from compact discs, to drugs, to golf balls.

Now the company, which has 37 staff, has achieved its largest ever single order for £2.3 million.

SP Automation & Robotics history

The company was formed as SP Technology Limited in 1984 by Rod Chisholm and Allan Morrison.

Based at Hawkhill Industrial Estate, the former Ardmel workers quickly established a diverse range of customers looking to automate. The first order was for a scampi making machine.

Two years later, the business hired its first apprentice, Roy Henderson, who today is one of the co-owners.

Roy acquired the company with colleague Lee Nixon in a management buy out in 2017.

The business moved to premises at Nobel Road in the late 1980s and then to its current premises in 2000.

The core activity of the company hasn’t changed – to provide solutions to companies looking to automate.

Despite being the owners, Roy admits that he and Lee are still “engineers at heart” who love problem solving.

He said: “Our USP is fully understanding the problems and then coming up with the solution.

To celebrate SP Automation & Robotics’ 40th anniversary, the founders and current owners attended Perth races – Rod Chisholm, Roy Henderson, Allan Morrison and Lee Nixon.

“Sometimes we’ll have some customers that come to you again and again with parts of the process. Sometimes it might just be one machine, because that’s all they need.”

Lee adds: “We provide an end-to-end process from design to installation. It’s a really fulfilling job.

“It’s everything from drawing something on a screen, to seeing that turn into a metal structure, to seeing it moving and outputting finished goods.”

Increasing amount of robotics

The company rebranded to SP Automation & Robotics in 2020 to better reflect its core business. It coincided with the launch of SP Elements, which provides collaborative robots.

Since then the business has sold around 120 robotic arms to companies looking to bring in automation. Among the customers are Dundee furniture company JTC.

SP can be seen as a barometer of the wider economy, as its fortunes directly relate to companies’ willingness to invest.

An SP Elements robotic arm. Image: SP Automation & Robotics 

The owners admit the company came close to having to close its doors in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash.

Annual sales average around £4.5m, though this can range from £3m to £6.5m.

Lee said: “It’s quite a wide range. We could have a large project sitting on books for over a financial year, which makes one year look low, but it’s an artificial low.

“We tend to have around a dozen projects on the go at any one time.

“This year we are expecting sales in excess of £6m.”

This has been boosted by a growing number of customers in the Dundee area.

SP’s largest ever order

The customers the company serves and the technology it uses are highly confidential.

However, the SP directors have revealed that reaching the 40-year mark has coincided with its largest ever single order.

Roy adds: “The company has received orders over the last four weeks in excess of £3.3m with the largest order in excess of £2.3m.

“The big order is for a complete line for a UK manufacturer for the assembly and processing of complex sensing devices.

“The other orders are for a mixture of medical device automated systems for three new customers and systems for a large biscuit manufacturer.

Courier Business Awards 2021: Lee collects the award for most innovative business.

“These systems are for customers spread across the whole length of the UK, from the very north of Scotland down to the almost southern part of England.”

The pair said they are also proud to achieve reaching the four decades milestone.

They said the priority for the business isn’t for rapid growth, but for sustainability.

Roy said: “We’re probably one of the longest running automation companies in the UK, that’s still under the same name. We are proud of that.

“We’re all about sustainability of the business and what’s a crucial part of that is the team and keeping the talented people we have here.

“It is very hard to replace the skillset that some of our workforce have, many of whom are long-serving. I like to think there’s a family feel about the company.

“But we also always look ahead and currently we have two apprentices. We work closely with Dundee and Angus College and MSIP.

“Lee and I are still really passionate about what we do. We’re still very hands on, looking to solve problems and lead the team.”