Hawk Electronics in Accrington on the trail of the God Particle
PUBLISHED: 15:40 06 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:18 20 February 2013
From the CERN project in Switzerland to the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert, an Accrington company leads the way in high tech electronics. Martin Pilkington reports
Earlier this year as scientists at CERN announced they had probably - found the elusive Higgs-Boson Particle, an Accrington company watched with special interest. For Hawk Electronics supplies circuit boards critical to the Large Hadron Collider.
Alicja Kay established Hawk with a business partner in 1990, buying him out ten years later when he wanted to retire. Our landlord at that time wanted us out to develop the site, and everything came at once. I found this building near the first site, so I was trying to refurbish these premises while running the company in the other one. It was not easy.
Her arrival in England in the days of the Cold War was no picnic either: I was born in Warsaw, and was working in Germany. I came home for Christmas and through a friend was invited to a party where we met a group of English people installing some equipment in a factory. I met my future husband and the man never let me go! At that time, 1973, getting out of Poland was very difficult. The second time I came over here we got married and I renounced my Polish nationality.
Unfortunately my husband passed away last year, the worst moment of my life, but I had to keep going with the business as a lot of people rely on me for work.
Alicja gained a Masters in economics in Poland, and added a marketing diploma from UMIST. She worked for 13 years in industrial development with the Accrington local authority before a combination of disenchantment with bureaucracy and the opportunity to set up the business prompted her career change.
During the early days at the new site on Malt Street in Accrington Hawk began what became a long-term collaboration with Liverpool University. That led to working with the CERN project in Geneva, and we still work on that via the university and also directly with CERN.
Ian Rothwell, Hawks Operations Director, explains: The boards are used to capture and analyse the explosions that occur where the particles come together and collide.
They won the CERN business against far larger rivals: Our advantage was that we have the skilled people capable of doing hand-work, were not just automated, says Alicja.
And Ian added: A lot of what we do is hand-placement because no machine can do it. With the CERN boards for example they are on very delicate substrates and the only way they can be soldered is by hand, minimal brief heat rather than a protracted automated process.
Though she knew the destination of these special circuit boards, Alicja came to realise fully how significant they were to the LHC in a very unlikely place. I was sailing to New York on the Queen Mary II and was sitting in their planetarium. One of the films they showed was about CERN in Geneva, and I saw all our boards in use, and only then realised our impact on the whole project. I was very proud. When you look at the pictures its amazing, there are thousands of our boards, lines and lines of them.
Secrecy agreements meant they had been given little information about the application. It was only about two years ago that we were invited to Liverpool University to a lunch where we were finally able to talk about it. It was very hush-hush for a long time, says Alicja, though she has now made several visits to the site, amused at having to ride a bike to get around in the 27km tunnel.
CERN is not the companys only big-name customer. Along with industrial giants like Exide Technologies to whom they deliver thousands of boards a month theyve also worked with Mercedes Benz on components for their Formula 1 Kinetic Energy Recovery System, and with Aston Martin. And by way of contrast their boards went into the stage lighting for the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert. We do a lot of special things, we dont do cheap and cheerful, says Alicja.
They now have some new acronyms to get used to: The scientists at CERN have found the god particle they think and they are moving to the next stage, ATLAS. And we had people here from ESRF, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble. We havent secured the contract yet but we hope to get their new generation of boards. They homed in on us after our experience with CERN.
The steady flow of new contracts and repeat business from long-established customers is keeping the 62 employees of the company fully occupied, Alicja included, with teams about to fly to Exide facilities in New York and Poznan. We are extremely busy in spite of the recession. Its a friendly place, and we have very low staff turnover. If people do leave they generally want to come back quickly!