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Machinery boss seeks ‘collective effort’ to drive environmental change

Combating Climate Change Exploring Green Manufacturing

Made Here Now is writing a series that will examine the manufacturing dimension to combating climate change – how the new forms of "green manufacturing" now evident in the UK can change the world for the better.

Over the past 200 years, the growth of manufacturing has brought many benefits. But together with its reliance on energy generation linked to fossil fuels, manufacturing has also led to the steep rise in carbon dioxide emissions widely acknowledged as the trigger for climate change.

Against these negative effects, production industry can play a big part in combating the global warming threat. Engineers and scientists are finding new ways to make existing products in a less environmentally damaging manner. They are redesigning cars and other machines to greatly reduce energy consumption when in use. And in the realm of power generation and storage, they are creating novel equipment - from solar cells to batteries - that will cut reliance on carbon based fuels, in some areas of activity to zero.

UK manufacturing offers many examples of businesses that are rising to these challenges. Efforts to move in this direction have captured the imagination of many people - among them the 15- to 25-year-olds that are a key audience for Made Here Now. We want to highlight the best stories where new ideas and technological verve can make a difference.

If you know of people or companies that you feel deserve coverage please let us know.

Machinery boss seeks ‘collective effort’ to drive environmental change

Above: Engineering business AESSEAL has started an effort to reduce significantly the environmental impact of its operations, including a project to cut energy used by its machine tools.

A “green-tech” leader and an electrical equipment pioneer have teamed up to champion a potentially ground-breaking energy-saving fix for manufacturing machines, highlighting how small changes in industry can help to combat global warming.

The innovation could be relevant for 10,000 UK metal-cutting machines that make items from cars to kitchen equipment, lowering their power consumption and so reducing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel burning power stations.

Josh Dugdale, a technical expert at the Manufacturing Technologies Association, the main UK trade body for the machine tool industry, welcomed the energy saving idea, especially in light of the “huge pressure on the manufacturing industry to show greater green credentials and be more sustainable.” Another leading industry figure said implementing the improvement would be a “no brainer” for many machinery users.

The new technology’s main promoter is Chris Rea, who runs a big South Yorkshire-based engineering group and a strong advocate of greater environmental awareness in industry. Rea’s partner is Alex Mardapittas, managing director of energy equipment business Powerstar, which makes specialised electrical devices called amorphous core transformers (ACTs) that are central to the development.

Rea is managing director and owner of AESSEAL, one of the world's biggest makers of mechanical seals used in installations such as chemical works. He says the transformer innovation is just one of many ideas that if widely adopted in industry could help alleviate global warming by reducing carbon emissions. Rea has started a website, Betterworld Solutions, to encourage new thinking on sustainability across industry.

“Investment policy to prevent global warming…is essential not just to businesses but to species survival,” says Rea, who started his business in 1981. AESSEAL employs some 1,700 people, 40 per cent of them in the UK, and had sales in 2021 of £194m. It has a large apprentice programme and is a sponsor of Made Here Now.

Transformers are needed to change the voltages of many types of machine tools – the workhorses of manufacturing – used in UK factories. The need for this adaptation applies particularly to machines made in Asia, where local standards for power supply differ from those in Britain. Around half of the roughly 2,000 machine tools imported into the UK each year come from Asia, with Japan and China supplying the bulk, followed by South Korea and Taiwan.

Up to now most distributors and users have tackled the voltage issue by installing a relatively cheap conventional transformer based on non-amorphous, crystalline steel cores.

Powerstar says it is the only UK company making ACTs – which can reduce the energy losses experienced with conventional transformers by some 90 per cent but which are harder to make and cost more. Mardapittas says: “I think the machine tool industry will be receptive to what we are doing, so I anticipate getting a good stream of orders.”

The big machine tool maker DMG Mori has thrown its weight behind ideas to add a novel energy-saving accessory to factory machines.

Japan-based DMG Mori, one of the world's biggest machine tool producers, is a strong supporter of the innovation. Referring to Rea’s espousal of Powerstar’s devices, Steve Finn, managing director of DMG Mori’s UK operations, says: “Chris has opened our eyes to the advantages of using this sort of transformer in the power systems for those machine tools that require voltage adaptation. He is 100 per cent right to point out the energy saving benefits …using this technology could lead to significant reductions in CO2 emissions.”

DMG Mori says that from now on all its machine tools sold in Britain that need transformers will be fitted with the Powerstar products, as opposed to the old-style systems. “We expect a lot of our customers will be enthusiastic about using these types of transformers,” Finn says. In a typical year, DMG Mori could sell 100 machines to UK customers fitted with ACTs.

Highly adaptable - and expensive - metal cutting machines are the work horses of industry and big users of electricity.

Martin Doyle, managing director of Engineering Technology Group, a large machinery distributor in Warwickshire that sells mainly Asian equipment, says that while ACTs are at least twice the price of conventional ones, “the energy savings are such that a company can get its money back in about two years, and after this save substantial sums.” As a result, says Doyle, introducing the technology “is a no-brainer”.

Doyle’s company has agreed to sell Powerstar’s ACTs as accessories to all the machine tools it sells in the UK where voltage adaptation is required. It will also try to interest customers in Powerstar ACTs as substitutes for existing ferrite-core devices.

In recent years, ETG – which does not handle any DMG Mori hardware – has sold about 75 machine tools a year in the UK that need a transformer. This implies that Powerstar might expect to gain 70-80 new customers annually through the connection with Doyle.

Khalil Zouari, European sales engineering manager at Nakamura-Tome Precision Industry, a Japanese machine maker which uses ETG as a distributor, says two of Nakamura’s UK customers have switched to ACTs with “good results”.

One big machine tool business that has however decided not to back ACTs is Yamazaki Mazak. The Japanese company has instead decided that when selling Japanese-made machines in the UK, it will “design out” the need for transformers by making the necessary electrical adaptations in its Japanese factories.

A new website aims to encourage businesses in sectors from pharmaceuticals to pumps to publicise their own efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Engineering for a Betterworld

Chis Rea – managing director of AESSEAL – says he found out about the energy saving potential of an innovative transformer only by accident. This led him to launch a website, Betterworld Solutions, to promote environmental improvements in sectors from pumps to food processing plants.

The AESSEAL boss wants other businesses to join his efforts by publicising their own ideas on his platform and encouraging others to use them. “There has to be a collective effort across all industries to embed sustainability in the company ethos,” Rea says.

A chance conversation with a former MP led Rea to discover that Powerstar was the source of a technology that could save him and other machine tool users substantial sums, as well as doing something positive to address global warming. Powerstar is based in Sheffield, close to Rotherham where Rea’s own business is headquartered.

Powerstar makes electrical devices called amorphous core transformers (ACTs) that can help achieve big potential reductions in energy use in large sections of the UK machine tool industry. Betterworld Solutions, says Rea, followed on from his awakening to the potential of ACTs, as he realised there had to be other green-tech innovations that he and others were now aware of. “If I did not know [about Powerstar], others probably would not either. I wanted [related] opportunities to be brought to [people’s] attention.”

While in the past AESSEAL has used conventional transformers for voltage standardisation, Rea says from now on all its new machines that need adaptations will use Powerstar’s ACTs. It has also agreed to buy 40 Powerstar ACTs for some £180,000. These are being gradually installed at its Rotherham plant to replace the existing systems, many of these fitted to DMG Mori equipment.

Engineering boss Chris Rea believes virtually every area of manufacturing should accelerate moves to make their activities more environmentally sustainable.

Due to the cost disparity between the different types of transformer, it is easy to understand why many machine tool users have not thought about substitutes for existing devices. A typical conventional transformer for a machine tool costs around £3,000, a small fraction of the price of a modern machine tool which can cost £300,000 or more. An ACT, however, can be twice as expensive.

In line with his belief in the need for environmental improvements in industry, Rea’s company prioritises “sustainability projects” over any other capital investments with a similar likely return. In putting this concept into practice, AESSEAL announced in 2022 that it had achieved “net zero” emissions ahead of schedule across all its activities – adding no more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than it is taking out through offset projects such as tree planting. The company had previously announced a £29m plan to achieve “net zero” by 2029.

Betterworld Solutions features examples of pioneering ways in which energy and carbon emissions can be reduced. The handful of examples cover installations involving for instance the big pharmaceuticals group Glaxo Smith Kline , Japanese pump maker Torishima and the UK engineering company Pennine Pneumatic Services , as well as other instances where AESSEAL has been involved. However Rea, a pugnacious and determined operator, hopes that over time he will be able to persuade more businesses to join the effort.