Bola Manufacturing Ltd, based in Bristol, is the world’s leading manufacturer of bowling machines for cricket. Nye Williams, Managing Director, explains what the company does and the difference SSC Laser has made to its products.
At one end of an indoor cricket pitch an outline image of Ryan Sidebottom, the England fast bowler, appears on a near-lifesize screen, mounted at the front of a machine with something that looks like a small flying saucer on top. The Sidebottom figure looms larger, simulating his intimidating run-up. As he reaches the far wicket his arm goes back, rotates and – boom! A ball is fired out of the flaying saucer and thuds into the ground and drapes behind. It seems to come at the wicket faster than a bullet.
“That’s not quite fast enough. It’s only 65 miles an hour,” says Nye Williams, Managing director of Bola Manufacturing. He makes some adjustments on a hand-held tablet and the figure on the screen begins its run-up again, rotates his arm and – boom! The ball thuds into the back drapes, an instant later. Covering the 22 yards of a cricket pitch at 65mph takes just over two-thirds of a second; at 85 mph – to which Nye Williams has set the second delivery – it’s half a second. For anyone who isn’t accustomed to such fine differences, it is very hard to make any kind of adjustment.
For those playing regularly at international, county or even dedicated district or village cricket club level, the machine that has just been demonstrated is an essential tool in training and practice. While it would be nice to have a fast bowler of the quality of Ryan Sidebottom on hand to bowl a few overs when your batters want a bit of practice, he simply isn’t available. And even if he was, he wouldn’t want to spend hour after hour, pounding down at top speed, to let someone swing their bat at him. Bola machines will do it, instead.
Nye Williams has been demonstrating is the TrueMan model, the latest in Bola’s line of training aids that include baseball pitching machines, fielding equipment and even a golf trainer. He’s justifiably proud of the latest equipment, which was welcomed by MCC Head Coach Mark Alleyne for the important visual cues the LED image gives the batsman. And it’s not just about fast bowling, either. Bola’s machines can make a ball spin and pitch off the ground as viciously as any in the world. It truly provides batsmen with a realistic experience.
Bola is recognised as the world’s leader in the design, manufacture and delivery of bowling machines. Inside the ‘flying saucer’ is a pair of polyurethane-tyred wheels that power the ball down the practice pitch at a speed that the operator can determine. Adjusting the angle of their axles and their relative speeds enables the whole range of spin, seam and movement to be generated. The delivery is managed by electronics mounted within the ‘saucer. With so much power on tap the machine has to be stable, in order to provide reliable delivery.
“All of the framework is laser cut; it makes assembly so much easier. It cuts down loads of jig making,” Nye Williams said. SSC precisely laser-cuts mitres and mounting holes into the tube sections it supplies Bola, so that room for error in assembly is pretty much eliminated – there is only one way everything can go together
Bola was established in 1982 and first turned to SSC Laser around 2010. The effect of the shift to laser-cut components is immediately apparent when an older machine is compared with the newer version. It looks more precise, better put together, ‘cleaner’ in their guides, joints and connections.
“Laser cutting produces a nicer, more accurate product,” said Williams. “It allows us to do things that are hard to do by hand fabrication and to produce a better quality product. It looks better and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a crucial thing. Everything just fits. We can produce high quality, completely consistently.” He indicated a row of machines and components of various sizes, ready for assembly, and confirmed that the tubes and profiles were all from SSC Laser. They are for an order that has a pretty short delivery time.
“They are very good at delivering; they give accurate dates and they don’t let it slip. If you need it, say, next Wednesday and you know you’re going to get it, that reliability is worth paying for.” While Bola is not producing on the scale of an auto assembly plant, OTIF (on time in full) is still important.
“It’s very much to do with space and we do, generally, have a fast throughput,” he explained. “We may be making 10 of these TrueMan machines to go off to Australia. We have a 20-foot container and limited space to put it. Once you have all that sitting there, ready to go, you don’t want to be waiting around for parts.” The components SSC Laser makes have to go to a fabricator before they are delivered to Bola for final assembly, so there is often pressure to deliver within a tight window for the fabricator, too. SSC hasn’t let them down.
“SSC is a good company to deal with,” said Williams. “We have dallied with others; one competitor was cheaper but they were not as good, so the saving wasn’t worth it. Even better – SSC invested in a new machine, I understand, and have been able to offer competitive pricing as well.”
Its market is quite specialised but that doesn’t mean that price is not a consideration. Its customers have become very cost-conscious. SSC Laser’s response, reliability and quality of supply means that Bola has been able to compete, while remaining commercially viable. It now makes 450-500 units a year of its main model, the Professional Bowling machine; a “couple of hundred” Junior machines, which are intended for lighter use; and has recently supplied 20 of its new, top-of-the-range TrueMan machines to the ECB (English Cricket Board), for use at the County grounds. Bola has been the world leader in bowling machines for nearly 35 years. Quality, precision, innovation and fulfilling customer expectations are the elements that will keep it there.