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‘This level of engineering is science… we take on the work that nobody else can do’

TUCKED AWAY on the Denbigh industrial estate in Bletchley, halfway along First Avenue, stands a 1960s factory, one of many on similar industrial estates in the older parts of Milton Keynes. Typical of the time and surrounded by similar industrial buildings, it is a reminder of the manufacturing prowess of years gone by.

Inside, engineering at the truly cutting edge is taking place. “We take on the work that nobody else can do,” says Steve Matheron, director of The Engineering Quest.

It is no hollow claim. The Engineering Quest has become a world leader in high-level, high-precision engineering, having been commissioned to deliver projects such as laser devices to boost signal in fibreoptic cables, a detector to be used in space to measure the waves emitting from supernovae and an experiment for NASA’s first Mars Rover mission.

Steve Matheron with his wife and fellow director Nicky.

The company has also built casing for a space-based telescope to monitor weather emergencies and drilling tools for oil shale fracking. It is a leader in the manufacture of prosthetic limb joints and the largest manufacturer in the world of micro-equipment used by eye surgeons in ophthalmic surgery.

It is a far cry from 30 years ago when The Engineering Quest was formed after its predecessor company Tracel acquired Proform Tools, based on the current First Avenue site. That was when Steve, who had begun his engineering career aged 13 under his father Brian’s supervision, took over management of the business and merged the companies. The troubled economy of the early 1990s forced a move from traditional tool manufacture.

“You have to change or die,” says Steve. “The only way we felt we would survive was if our customers bought from us because they needed us so we decided to merge the specialist capabilities and go looking for the work that nobody else could do.

“This level of engineering is science. We do everything by science and resolve the client’s problem by being scientific.”

Such high-level work requires the best equipment and machinery money can buy. Your Engineering Quest purchased a £350,000 Kellenberger cylindrical grinder, used in the manufacture of high-precision fuel components, earlier this year and has around £8 million worth of machinery under its roof, the majority made in Switzerland.

“It has to be Swiss equipment because of the accuracy we require,” says Steve. “It is part of offering the service that no one else can offer. We work to per micron accuracy.”

State-of-the-art machinery is all well and good but no good without the expertise to operate it so for The Engineering Quest recruitment is key whether it be experienced technicians or apprentices, of which the company commits to taking on two a year at its two sites in Bletchley and at Great Gransden near Sandy in Bedfordshire.

“We have always been strong on apprentices,” says Steve’s wife and fellow director Nicky. The company welcomes mature applicants and anyone not looking at a traditional apprenticeship but interested in the company’s own Quest Diploma training programme.

“We look for a positive attitude, a good work ethic and an interest in what we do. They shadow the existing workforce because we want to hold on to the skills that our highly skilled people can pass on.”

Steve and Nicky also take their STEM career programme into schools locally, particularly primary schools, in order to encourage the next generation to consider an engineering career

The current recruitment and retention challenges are well documented. “We want people to stay with us,” says Nicky. “We are always open and available because we want people to feel valued – if they feel valued and cared for, they work harder for you so it’s a no-brainer really.”

Candidates join a half-day ‘taster’ session before they join to see for themselves whether The Engineering Quest is for them. Most do – the company recruited 14 new staff earlier this year.

A willingness to learn and problem-solve is a key approach to their work. Steve has been problem-solving since he joined the company aged 13 and is a strong believer in collaboration in order to do so. “I am always willing to listen because no one will ever know everything about engineering,” he says. “Engineering is all about adding simplicity but that is often more difficult than adding complexity. We try to stop people from solving problems with technology – we prefer them to solve them with basic engineering.

“Part of our mission is to get youngsters to lift their heads up. It saddens me that I see so many people in the street looking down at their phones rather than looking up at nature.”

Having survived the pandemic – indeed, Steve admits, having flourished due to winning a prosthetic limb components contract from an American manufacturer who shut up shop – The Engineering Quest is looking to the future with confidence, seeking a site on which to merge its two current premises – it also has a factory at Great Gransden near Sandy in Bedfordshire – with room for further expansion. The business currently turns over £12 million a year, with capacity of £16-18 million. A move to new premises means the target to double turnover to £24 million becomes achieveable, says Steve.

The Engineering Quest’s success as an employer was recognised at the 2022 SME MK & Buckinghamshire Business Awards, when the company brought home a silver award as Business of the Year and struck gold as Employer of the Year.

“We only entered because I was badgered to do so,” Nicky admits. “But it has made such a massive difference to our recruitment. Winning employer of the year was huge because it proves we are a good company to work for and that, we have found, really matters to people.”

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