24.06.2016

Funds help realise the potential of ingenious invention

‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ is a platitude which found its way into Victorian commonplace books and sewing samplers. It is difficult to dispute the thought behind the saying – after all, who would waste time and resources inventing something for which there was no apparent need? Not all inventions meet the necessity they were designed to satisfy however. In building and construction, there is the case of an Edwardian machine for building brick walls. It was great so far as it went, but the patented system failed to find a market when it was realised that it could not turn a corner and continue laying bricks without being dismantled.

It might be assumed that there is nothing left to invent in the construction of garden sheds; no necessity to meet. Two brothers in the West Midlands nevertheless came up with a change in shed design in response to a crime of which they were the victims. As representatives in Europe for a leading manufacturer of Motocross bikes, they fell prey to thieves who broke into their storeroom shed and stole several thousands of pounds worth of equipment.

What Phil and Paul Bagnall devised in response to the incident looked like a quality wooden garden shed but it was built around a secure steel frame. This made it impenetrable to anyone not armed with an oxyacetylene torch: few criminals go about their trade quite that well equipped. The business took off in 2014, and the Secure Shed Company extended its product range into steel-reinforced wooden-clad garages.

Recognising case for up-market system builds

Secure Shed’s units attracted interest from other motorcycle enthusiasts when they appeared on the company’s stand at the London Motorcycle Show at ExCeL; one of a number of events for the industry where the products gained traction. But it was a visitor from a different discipline who really justified the expense in appearing at the event. He had invented a system for building houses and similar constructions using pre-built timber frames and wall panels which were being delivered to a building site for assembly.

There is nothing novel about ‘prefabs’ except that the inventor’s approach allows two-storey houses designed to a high specification to be built in five days with simple locked joints. The interlocking technology involved has secured patent protection in 20 countries.

There was an immediate meeting of minds on the stand at ExCeL: it was apparent the same approach could be applied to steel-framed buildings, and the Secure Shed team was experienced in handling both wood and metal in construction. Working in galvanised steel for the framework has the advantage of being mass-produced to consistently tight tolerances: this would be impossible in timber. Being able to work down to 0.2 mm on a panel measuring perhaps 3 metres square makes it possible to roll out the concept in high volumes to larger and more complex buildings, safe in the knowledge that the entire system will interlock securely using the minimum of tools.

The Bagnalls assessed the economic potential of steel-framed buildings which employ the technology and negotiated an exclusive licence arrangement with the system developer. Matrix Structures was established at Telford in Shropshire to design, manufacture and market applications as diverse as garden offices, workshops, park homes, temporary display premises and school classrooms.

The potential market for steel-framed ‘quick assembly’ buildings is considerable and largely untapped apart from ‘cowsheds’ – steel framed structures usually with thin panel walls; more often associated with farms than industrial applications – and certainly not for domestic use.

Phil Bagnall of Matrix took up the story. “We saw that there is a demand for economical, high-quality buildings which are available almost instantaneously. The alternative was the traditional pre-constructed container-like unit delivered complete on a lorry but lacking any flexibility of design.”

Buildings based on a grid design to minimise costs

The key to the new steel-framed buildings is that they are designed around a simple grid to create an almost infinite number of possibilities – Meccano or Lego re-invented on a macro scale. If the customer designs a building to the same grid, it can be supplied in the most cost-effective manner: customisation ‘off grid’ is marginally more expensive.

No less important is that parts of a finished building can be replaced quite literally within minutes: the company maintains that a window can be changed in ninety seconds; the result in part of the grid basis for building design.

It took the brothers almost a year moving from establishing the concept to having a product set that could be sold, as there were technical issues to be worked around. Phil Bagnall explained that steel structures have problems with ‘cold bridging’, when the temperature on the outside of a building is more than the odd degree different from the temperature inside. “If that is the case, we are limited in how we join the outer and inner surfaces of the resilient Magnesium Oxide insulated panels that fit into the grid matrix. We developed a solution to overcome that particular problem.”

Having demonstrated that necessity had indeed driven invention in this instance, Matrix Structures was ready for business. It was an order from Swansea University for a standalone classroom which demonstrated that steel-framed units were commercially viable. The University is playing host to the British Science Festival in September 2016, and required additional teaching space to demonstrate the integration of advanced technologies in a school environment.

The specification called for the building to be left in place for five years, then removed from the site. It will no doubt be re-assembled at another location where a classroom is required – although there is nothing about the design or the construction which would prevent it from being re-configured for an entirely different application.

Lack of funding to undertake ground-breaking order

Despite its technical prowess, the company was about to face the same uphill struggle experienced by many small businesses as they move from development into production and sales. There was an order to be fulfilled but this would involve purchasing materials and outsourcing the manufacture of the steel frame. Paul Bagnall outlined the problem. “We had committed all our resources to the project and paying for the materials was going to prove a bridge too far. When we searched for possible solutions, we discovered that Trade & Export Finance was the only organisation prepared to fund that vital stage of an order.”

UK EXIM Finance, the specialist finance associate of TAEFL, agreed to fund the purchase of the materials required to fulfill the order; total of 75% of the value of the order. Matrix Structures manufactures the component parts in-house except for the galvanised steel sub-structures which are currently being sub-contracted to specialists.

From a chance meeting at a trade show to being the exclusive licensees of what should prove a game-changing development in one year indicates the determination of the Matrix Structures team. Later this year, the company is off to Africa where it will be supplying its weather-proof, solution for affordable housing built to UK standards, offering quality at an affordable price.

The demand for a high-quality system building solution has been met with ingenuity. The team at UK EXIM Finance would see itself as the catalyst which turned an exceptional invention into a commercial proposition with huge potential.

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