BIG READ: Casting giant is moulding a second century supporting renewables

By Scunthorpe Telegraph | Posted: 24 May 2018

Just over 18 months ago, a high capacity foundry in Scunthorpe was facing a highly uncertain future, as Australian owners pulled out of Europe. Now a business with a strong base in traditional energy markets is embracing renewables. David Laister reports.

Built as a munitions factory as the First World War came to an end, what is now the pride of the Bonds Heavy Castings foundry portfolio might not have seen its centenary celebrations had it not been for the acquisition from Bradken UK.

The fact the momentous milestone’s passing in November last year was only recently realised when some old documents were discovered weeks later, does little to dent the pride in what is done on a daily basis down Dawes Lane.

And one of the industrial revolution’s oldest trades is now targeting the green economy too, with the 20 tonnes finished capacity a 40 per cent improvement on what could previously be achieved by the business.

Mark McCarthy, managing director, said: “We only discovered before Christmas it was 100 years old in November. No-one knew at the time.

John Brown & Co (Sheffield), was the original name, the very same as the Glaswegian giant shipyards. We wouldn’t have got to 100 years had Bonds not taken over. 

“Bonds made it quite clear it was looking to the future with this acquisition. It offered us larger castings than we could do previously. It gave us new opportunities, which was just as important for new customers as to retain existing ones.”

Mark McCarthy and Steve Wadsworth. Bonds manufacturing pictures:

And one of these is Drax, Europe’s second largest power station, which has undergone some major transitions of its own, as it switches from coal to biomass – taking with it responsibility for 8 per cent of the UK’s electricity-generating requirement.

“Drax is probably our biggest individual power station customer, but we have other mills in Helsinki, Finland, China, Australia, Japan, US, India and South Africa,” Mr McCarthy said. 

“Most coal power stations wherever they are pulverise the coal, as it allows them to burn efficiently. We make the equipment, the ring and balls that do the work, and we are keen to develop that business. We have developed a relationship on our own now.”

Read more: Growth and more jobs expected at 100-year-old Scunthorpe steel foundry

Business development manager Steve Wadsworth told how since 2000 the company has built a direct dialogue with Drax, looking at metallurgy of the products.

“They have had changes, from burning coal to biomass, and we have gone through that change with them. We have worked together to make the ring and balls better, so they last longer. The change to biomass brought a complete rethink but we came back to chromium iron, it so good they decided to stay with it.”

It is technology developed in the Sixties for the compact mill for the build out of power stations. First Ferrybridge, then Drax, and many more large and small.

Bonds Heavy Castings producing the pulverising ring and balls sets. Bonds manufacturing pictures:

Mr Wadsworth said the operational life is roughly 50,000 to 60,000 hours, and each of the six mills feeding the six firing units feature 10 1.2 tonne balls held in by two 7 tonne rings, making it 26 tonnes of high chromium iron in one set. 

“Ring and balls is a good project we like to have here,” he said. “We do all operations in house. Right the way through the whole process, from checking patterns to making moulds, pouring the metal, even including all machining and inspection. It is all done on this site. Every function gets involved in the manufacture of these parts. Some parts we do a lot of the work then it goes out for machining. We prefer for this to stay in-house.

“They are really large contracts with a very local supply. Everyone here knows Drax, everyone likes it, because all the operations are completed on this site.”

Read more: Drax to pilot Europe's first bioenergy carbon capture storage project

From the 60 staff transferred, there are now 85 employed. “We have a healthy order book at the moment and we are looking to continue with recruitment over the next few months,” Mr McCarthy said. 

“We are keen to work on new aspects, keen to get involved in renewables. Siemens set up the facility in Hull, but the UK has largely missed out in manufacturing of wind turbines, onshore and offshore. We are working with several companies on tidal energy and we are hoping some of these projects will be manufactured here. It would be nice to have new renewable contracts going through as well as ring and balls. We are hopeful of our first tidal project. That would be great. Energy is an important factor in all we do.”

The balls arriving at Drax. Bonds manufacturing pictures:

Tidal turbines are in the 15 to 20 tonnes window, so seen as an ideal market.

Cement production and mining equipment are two other key strands, with project work welcomed too. 

But what of the ring and balls, perfectly demonstrated with a plastic contraption and pool balls on the boardroom table?

Read more: Drax adds to UK Government's pledge to bring an end to coal power

From the scrap, part closed loop recycling of old balls by LAS Metals to getting the patterns out, to them finally entering the specially designed crates put together by A1 Pallets ahead of Les Trevor of Kirton Lindsey taking them the half hour north west, it is an eight week manufacturing process on the 24 acre site, within the huge hall. Cooling alone can take between five days and three weeks.

“Foundries are a special manufacturing process,” enthused Mr McCarthy. “You are taking scrap and making something stunning, whether it is for a ship, a bridge or a power station. It is a very good process for delivering something from nothing, and I like that. I am a making things guy at heart, and I have been involved in machining shops and fabrication shops, but a foundry is amazing. We have a machining shop as well though, so it is really special.”

Bonds manufacturing pictures:

More than 150 grades of metal are available to clients, who send plans through that are assessed and 3D printed as models to check viability.

Acknowledging the efforts of the supply chain, Drax Power chief executive Andy Koss said: “A well as playing a vital role as the country’s biggest power generator, Drax Power Station continues to play a crucial role in supporting the regional economy.

“Thanks to a sophisticated supply chain that spans both the east and west coasts of the country, Drax supported over 6,000 jobs across the North of England last year and generated more than £500 million in economic activity. 

“Drax works with hundreds of businesses across the Northern Powerhouse region to ensure millions of homes across the country have the power they need each day. The North of England has a rich heritage in providing energy to the rest of the UK. Companies like Drax have an important role to play in delivering a low carbon economy as part of the Government’s wider industrial strategy for the country.”

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