Has Industry Forgotten How to Cooperate in Technological Developments?

BHR’s Commercial Director Mike Butcher comments…

The British Hydromechanics Research Association was set up in 1947 to continue the "white heat" of technology of the war years. Steered by its members, the work was always industrially focussed and resulted in many of the British Standards that form the basis of many of today’s design rules.

The question is where did this industrial co-operation go and how much has British industry lost? With the pressure on manufacturing, the first thing the accountants cut is research. This equally applies to politicians when times are hard. A quick fix but a long term decline. Established manufacturing industries rarely seek or can utilise the "Breakthrough or Paradigm Shift" technologies so beloved of the technical bureaucrats. It requires testing, consultancy and staged development on a time line ranging from immediate to two years. Significant changes in government policy in past years has meant no central R&D support and manufacturing has declined.

Contrast this with France and Germany that have industrially orientated Carnot and Fraunhoffer research institutes funded by central government and/or industrial levy and tied directly into their end user groups. They also still have a manufacturing industry.

However all the blame does not sit with government, the industry must carry its fair portion. With privatisation of R&D each piece of equipment must earn its keep. If industry fails to organise to use the facility it is scrapped. Hence at BHR Group we have scrapped facilities created for the pump and valve industry, which would cost millions in today’s money to replace. The failure to use a facility is a self-fulfilling cycle, each company complains the price is too high because the rig has to be reconditioned or rebuilt each time. This is because the industry only uses it once every 3-4 years and because it’s expensive, the development programme gets cut.

From our perception every UK valve and pump company is working in isolation and searching for technological assistance when they have a problem rather than at the outset of the design programme. Any business, especially a consultancy/service provider who uses capital intensive specialist equipment and highly qualified staff, cannot build an income on this basis - it needs stability. Strangely enough this is also what industry needs for its technical development. Especially looking forward to addressing future legislative, quality and cost pressures.

A classic example is ISO 15848 (fugitive emissions). The oil industry showed massive savings could be made in lost product and they gained significant green credentials by doing so, as well as pre-empting emissions legislation. LDAR became the buzz-word. Testing for field applications using ‘sniffers’ was totally adequate but for valve qualification testing it does not stand up to scrutiny. A funded EC project under the Standards Measurement and Testing programme showed the way to obtain unequivocal valve and seal qualification data. Valve and seal companies were intimately involved in the project which resulted in a technically defensible test procedure, which can cost effectively be implemented if the industry co-operates in a shared cost test facility. This means an ISO qualification on the product, opening many more doors than a single company standard. The valve industry reaction at large was "it costs money, it’s unworkable we cannot do it" - the oil companies had their own standards so were not bothered. The result is the valve and seal companies have to qualify for each end-user company’s specific standard.

Most core technologies in the industry are common, and shared development or co-operation in establishing a project or test facility to which several companies are committed makes both technical and commercial sense. It also provides a route to knowing government thinking, influencing legislative development and accessing 50-75% funding from EC and DBERR (DTI) for product development. These programmes require expert assembly of R&D proposals, as one needs to know the Lexicon of the bureaucracy, but sometimes regional monies are available for assembling the bids.

The industry must not forget the only constant is that any technological advantage is eroded at an ever-increasing rate and someone somewhere can always make it cheaper.

Published in Valve User Magazine Issue 5

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