Automate to build growth

Automate to build growth

Let’s Grow was about creating jobs but, as Wessington Cryogenics shows, that hasn’t ruled out investing in automation, as Peter Jackson reports.

Wessington Cryogenics was a successful company regarded as a world leader in its field, so when it lost out on major orders in 2013, it rankled. The Rainton Bridge-based company designs and makes specialist gas storage tanks.

Its most popular product was its 10-foot isopak tank commonly used for the offshore industry, which had become the international standard, making Wessington global preferred supplier to oil giants such as Halliburton and Schlumberger. Wessington also supplied the world’s largest leasing company.

But the company became a victim of its own success and had difficulty keeping up with this soaring demand in a volatile market which had to be met at short notice. Director Gill Southern recalls: “In one year, even though the customers desperately wanted to do business with us, in one swoop over the summer we lost about £2.3m worth of orders to a French competitor. We lost it purely on capacity, you can only plan for so much. It’s about agility and it made us think that we needed to bring technology into the company and start to automate.’’

The company was founded in 1984 to supply cryogenic pressure vessels primarily to the oil and gas industry but has also supplied sectors such as biomedical research and defence.
A cryogenic pressure vessel is a double-skinned, carbon and stainless steel tank ranging in capacity from half a litre to 100,000 litres to carry super cooled gases such as liquid nitrogen, helium, argon or liquid natural gas.

“They can be supplied to almost every single sector you can think of and have applications right across the board,’’ says Southern. By 2013 It had grown to the point where it had about 130 employees. The loss of the contracts in that year and the realisation that it needed to invest in automation led the company to apply to the Let’s Grow fund to help with the necessary investment in the robot equipment to pilot automation.

Wessington Cryogenics applied to Let’s Grow for, and, in 2014, received, a grant of £100,000 towards a £400,000 investment in a plasma arc profile cutting robot, an automated plasma arc seem welder and some automated rollers.

The business makes its products from sheet steel in a process which had been largely manual using highly skilled traditional fabricators, welders and platers. Despite the introduction of lean manufacturing techniques, this was a manual industry producing high quality products. With the new equipment, however, it could begin to introduce processes which revolutionised production of the complex and often customised tanks.

Southern explains: “Using the robot, we could just cut the holes in the dome ends of the tanks ready for the pipework to be fed in, which had previously been done by manual cutting and grinding. Just one process, which would usually take about an hour and a half was reduced by the robot to about seven minutes. Just doing that and using the automated rollers meant everything was speeded up and there were also significant quality improvements because everything is so much more precise.’’

These pilot improvements saved about 13 hours of labour per tank, where the total build time can be 28 days. This would be even more significant at peak production.

A primary aim of the Let’s Grow programme is to safeguard and create jobs in the region but the introduction of robots is usually associated with putting people out of work. The wider significance of the Wessington project is that investment in such automation can be job creating. Southern says: “We were creating jobs. Right from the outset the plan was never to shed jobs.’’

The automation not only led to greater efficiencies and higher quality, it also fed into a plan which was already well underway at Wessington Cryogenics to diversify its markets. “About 50% to 60% of our business was all heading towards oil and gas and offshore and we very deliberately had already diversified and were already producing non-cryogenic tanks, mainly for those same blue chip companies, we also had more to offer them,’’ says Southern.

“We also wanted to find one or two strong new sectors to complement offshore and we have been on that journey for five or six years now. With the robot, people who were freed up from that area of production would be retrained and deployed on the other areas on specialist projects that we were being commissioned to develop.’’

One potential new market opened up by the automation is the cold chain. This is the temperature controlled supply chain, common in the food and pharmaceutical industries. Currently these chains rely on heavy, mechanical refrigeration equipment.

There are initiatives underway to overhaul these. In the case of delivery to out-of-town supermarkets, for example, there is a problem in having produce delivered outside certain hours with environmental rules restricting the running of noisy, generator powered refrigeration units.

Wessington has developed a prototype nitrogen tank for the Dearman Engine project to develop an engine which runs on frozen liquid air. The potential is huge as the ambition is for the replacement of all mechanical refrigeration for the food supply chain. “A project born in the UK could have worldwide potential, it’s very scalable,’’ says Southern.

“There are other exciting developments in food technology where people are seeking very innovative solutions in food processing, packaging and planning which could mean replacing large factories as we know them now with modular units which will revolutionise the industry. These clever systems that are being developed would mean huge environmental savings by being faster and cleaner. We are very excited to be a part of one of those projects.’’

For Wessington the possibilities are endless. “Anywhere where we could think of laser profiling machined parts,’’ she adds. “What could we then cut and manufacture in-house that would previously need to have been subcontracted out?’’

For the Dearman Project the company has moved on from prototype to developing a
trial unit. “It has started to involve suppliers and it has started to involve third party customers, so, while it’s still at development stage, it’s very close to market technology,’’ says Southern.

“If even one of the projects comes good it will lead to high volumes and we have had to show we have the capacity and a plan in place to meet the kind of production batches we are expecting.’’

Inevitably, Wessington Cryogenics has been hit by the collapse in the oil price with the oil and gas industry scaling back projects and investments but, while its growth plans may have been slowed, its new equipment has given it confidence to face the future.

Simon Allen, Let’s Grow project manager says: “We were delighted to be able to support Wessington with their growth plans, particularly so as this was one of those rare investments involving both automation and new job creation. The automation has allowed Wessington to manufacture cryogenic vessels with a higher quality as well as widening their range to provide customers with a full suite of options. The investment will generate more work for Wessington overall, leading to both new and safeguarded jobs across the business.”