LETTERS FROM THE LAB #004

About the Author

Photo of Joe Boissevain checking settings on a 3D printer control panel

Checking 3D print settings for printing parts for a demonstration valve

 

Joe Boissevain joined the growing Actuation Lab team earlier this year as a Mechanical Design Engineer and has since been dedicating his time to developing the company’s Dragonfly Valve.

Previously, Joe worked as a CAD Design Engineer for a company developing a wave energy device. This experience has already allowed him to support Actuation Lab in building relationships with key manufacturing partners and brought new manufacturing insight to the table.

With a keen interest in product design as well as experience across Oil and Gas as well as Transmission and Distribution, Joe is committed to driving forward the development of our innovative products.

 

 

UK valve manufacturing: is it the right way to go?

 

If you are not an engineer, and don’t often wonder about the intricacies of your plumbing or how water and gas end up in your house, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about valves. I must confess that I also didn’t, but since joining Actuation Lab a few months ago as a design engineer, I do. And behind closed doors, so do an awful lot of people in the UK, it turns out.

A busy industry

Around the country, thousands of valve experts are designing, machining and shipping flow control devices. According to the British Valve and Actuator Association (BVAA), they are contributing £3 billion annually to UK plc. Without these people, water, food and fuel would stop flowing.

Having had the opportunity to visit many production sites this year, I think it is clear that we are fortunate to have a high-quality manufacturing sector in this country. Like my colleagues, I am very keen to design, develop and manufacture our products right here in the UK, with the support of this UK supply chain.

However, keeping manufacturing in Britain presents the industry with challenges not experienced when offshoring production to India or China. These markets offer valves and actuators that can be 8x cheaper, due to their inexpensive labour and facilities. But if this is the case, why does the UK have such an active valve industry? How can we continue to compete, or even thrive, as a valve manufacturing country under these circumstances?

The case for keeping manufacturing in the UK

This is not about having no global outlook or being inwardly looking. Market forces are increasingly being constrained by seismic global events, not least the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and the war in Ukraine. This presents opportunities for the UK supply chain.

Decorative image

Tapping some bolts for assembling a test rig

Furthermore, we must listen to our future customers. They have consistently told us that supply and quality assurance are critical to their operations, as is the ability to stand by longer warranties – we know that currently, many non-European actuators can come with a 12-month warranty, but 5 years is possible with strict quality control.

You also cannot beat the human factor. With UK manufacturing, there is the ability to visit sites, see where things are made and build relationships. No time zone difference, and not having a language or culture barrier, can also make a big difference.

This is before we even consider the environmental cost, starting with the transportation of importing goods made thousands of miles away. For instance, if we look at ~10 tonnes of cargo (average shipping container mass, with goods) travelling 21,694 kilometres from Shanghai to Southampton, with a CO2 production of 16.14 grams per kilometre, we end up with a total CO2 output of 3,500 tonnes. In comparison, an average family car produces 2,280 tonnes of CO2 per year.

If we then consider the energy used to make the valves, China using coal and the UK being more likely to be using renewables, nuclear, or gas-fired energy sources, we are saving a significant amount of CO2 in the manufacturing process. In-house, we can also monitor energy use and strive to reduce it; we don’t have control of that offshore.

Finally, one aspect that may not have been considered often is innovation. By manufacturing here, we can bring in new practices as our methods develop. These innovations can lead to defendable new manufacturing practices, which in turn can be applied in other industries to boost UK manufacturing productivity. This makes things greener and more efficient.

How Actuation Lab fits in this picture

This is particularly true of Actuation Lab, where our manufacturing methods are new and have benefitted from UK academia and research council funding. The more engineers spend their time hands on with products in-house, the more opportunities for improvement, which speeds up our own innovation.

So, whilst the UK valve industry may not be able to produce valves at rock bottom prices, there are lots of reasons to keep manufacturing here. As the UK develops its hydrogen industry, we will need valves that have all the above qualities. When specifying a valve for the lightest, leakiest, and most explosive element, will end users race to the cheapest option? We don’t think so; neither does Michel Bolle, CEO of Hinni AG, a Swiss valve manufacturer, in a recent article. A particular poignant quote for me is the one below – we share this sentiment:

“The ‘World champions’ of making ‘fake European’ imported from the Far East will not survive the race for survival over the next 5 years. The rule will be very simple: ‘No local factory to show – no certifications – no business.’”

Actuation Lab recently announced funding by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). This funding allows us to work with a consortium of UK manufacturers and valve users to develop our Dragonfly Valve for hydrogen. Keep an eye out on our LinkedIn for updates on its development.

And the next time you are looking at your plumbing, take a moment to think about the innovation happening in the UK, designing, manufacturing, and delivering on this vital, if often forgotten piece of equipment: the humble valve.

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