Fl kt Woods has moved to a new factory, albeit at its Colchester home. There is a new team spirit among the workforce, it makes fans which are used in tunnels and metros across the world, and it is probably the biggest manufacturer of ahus in Europe - and that's only for starters. Paul Braithwaite reports
FLÄKT WOODS' new Colchester manufacturing facility definitely has the wow factor.
Cynical old trade journalists don't usually do wows but the directions I had been given were 'straight across two mini roundabouts, turn left at the third and you cannot miss it'.
And you can't! It is, I am told, the size of about four football pitches. But, even at 160,000ft2, it is 40% smaller than the previous factory complex. Nevertheless, it is far more efficient.
For instance, a typical standard fan unit in the old factory had to travel a total of 1.6km during the manufacturing process - being physically moved from one production process to another. Now that same unit travels only 30m during manufacture.
The factory is not the only thing to change.
Neil Yule, sales and marketing director, says there is a new team spirit among the 400-plus work force, something which was lacking as workers rattled around in the former massive, old fashioned complex.
The merger of Fläkt and Woods in 2002 proved how 'the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the separate parts'.
Woods had had an interesting life. It was founded as a family-run business in 1909 manufacturing specialised electric motors. It developed at a great pace after the Second World War and benefited through the introduction of axial fan technology, and through its continued production and use of electric motors became a wholly owned subsidiary of GEC (which turned into Marconi) in 1964.
Its current owner, Compass International Partners, put the merger with Fläkt (the Swedish word for fans) in place in 2002 - a year after it bought Woods - when it purchased Fläkt from ABB. The rest is history, albeit history with an exciting future.
Another of Fläkt Woods' claims to fame is that it is probably the biggest air handling unit manufacturer in Europe, producing an ahu every 15 minutes from its factory in Sweden.
Four years on from the merger, the companies are totally integrated.
'There is no duplication,' insists Paul Wenden, business development director. 'The group took the opportunity to reorganise the operations.'
For instance, while the Fläkt office selling ahus in Coventry was consolidated into the Woods Birmingham-based sales facility, the manufacture of ahus in the UK was moved to the far larger complex in Sweden. Equally, a small Woods sales office in France was absorbed into a nearby larger Fläkt factory site. In this way the group maintained expertise but concentrated manufacture into the most appropriate plants.
The Colchester site became the centre of excellence for axial fans.
This means, says Paul, although fans are made in a number of factories across the group, the Colchester site retains responsibility for the design, development and back office support across all manufacturing plants. In the same way, the Swedish plant is the centre of excellence for ahus.
There are other fan manufacturing plants in the US, India, Australia and China.
'We supply tunnel and metro fans to all of the major infrastructure systems across the world from Hong Kong to Brazil to Australia to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in London,' says Neil. 'We made the ventilation fan systems for the Channel Tunnel.'
However he adds that to make all such beasts in Colchester and then to ship them across the world would not make sense so there are local manufacturing plants, all owned and managed by Fläkt Woods.
'We provide them with the designs and specifications and in some cases relocate Colchester trained technicians to oversee the manufacture of the fans,' maintains Neil. Any safety-critical item such as impellers is supplied from Colchester as they undergo rigorous x-ray inspection to ensure the aluminium castings have no porosity.
'A fan required to extract hot fire smoke at 4000C cannot fail because of imperfections inside a casting - one not detectable by visible inspection,' Neil explains. 'These fans are there to save lives in the case of an emergency and we take this responsibility very seriously.'
However, only two plants have testing facilities for specific criteria for fire safety. One is in China and the other is in the UK where axial fans up to a 2.5metre diameter can be tested. The group though has the capability to manufacture fans up to an impressive 7metre diameter for wind tunnel applications.
'We have just started shipping fans to a major metro project in the Middle East. Because there are some specific criteria for fire safety - temperature time specifications which demonstrate the fans can be run at 2500C for an hour - representative engineers from the customer will visit the Colchester facility to witness the tests,' says Paul.
Virtually all the fans and accessories in tunnel and metro applications have to be bespoke because of the site restrictions of size, noise, fire safety, environmental, longevity and a lot else.
'Take fire safety, for instance. In Europe, it is no longer possible to demonstrate similar fans have previously been used in the same circumstances. Each new installation has to be proved to specified European standards.'
Probably the fastest growing sector is Jet Thrust fans for ventilating underground car parks.
'The industry has moved away from a fully ducted system where a fan sits in a room chugging away 24 hours a day. Traditionally, the fan is connected to an complex system of ductwork with grilles at high level and low level taking away the carbon monoxide and, if there is a fire, the high level grilles are expected to take away the smoke,' insists Paul. The installations are highly regulated with, for instance, an air change six times an hour for pollution control, and 10 air changes in fire mode.
'The problem is that, in the case of fire, the smoke gathers at high level so the effective extraction of smoke is halved because the low level grilles deal with only clean air.'
However, what car park owners have also realised is that car parks are not fully occupied all of the time. Why, then, have systems which work to full capacity all the time and use all that excess energy?
'In place of this ducted system, Fläkt Woods offers a simpler, on-demand system of jet thrust fans'. Paul says the concept has been developed using the experience gained from road tunnel applications.
The jet thrust fan moves the air, diluting it by maintaining improved air distribution (which covers the pollution aspect of the need for a fan). In the event of a fire, it controls the movement of smoke and can be used to protect escape routes for occupants.
'The jet thrust fan system is better at controlling fire smoke as it is able to contain the smoke movement, directing it towards the extraction points. The ducted system merely acts as an inefficient smoke extraction system,' adds Paul.
'And with CFD (computational fluid dynamics) Fläkt Woods is able to model where an architect should place the fans to give the desired pollution and fire control.'
Paul suggests that when these car parks are located within prestigious office or residential premises, then users who pay top-dollar expect enhanced levels of pollution and fire control along with the well-lit and decorated parking facilities.
Fläkt Woods insists that while it is able to offer the jet thrust fans as products only, its expertise is also in the air flow design and this expertise gives it a marketing edge over competitors.
'For enclosed car parks, Fläkt Woods offers everything from product only to design facility to controls to full installation and commissioning.'
Another of Fläkt Woods' offering is servicing. There are eight service engineers on the road. Some concentrate on warranty work and some carry out contracted service. This includes selling service contracts to end users.
And it is not just for its own fans.
'Because Woods is so well known for its fans, often end-users phone Colchester when a fan goes wrong even when they did not buy the fan from us', says Neil.
So the service engineers will fix anything that is fix-able and recommend a replacement if it is not.
There are plenty of fans which are coming up for refurbishment and this is good business. For instance, the early phases of the Canary Wharf systems are reaching the end of their natural life. Most of the air handling units were fitted into a central core and there is some extensive work to be done refurbishing these units in situ. Broadgate is another development where there is major refurbishment in waiting.
'This servicing is important to us. Customers expect a level of support from Fläkt Woods. It is all about perception. We are usually the first point of contact even for those who have not bought the product from us.'
There is also a substantial OEM business where Fläkt Woods adapts designs to suit specific customer requirements. This business relies on the engineering expertise in Colchester. Many solutions are developed in conjunction with the customer, and Fläkt Woods embarks on research projects jointly funded with government to extend the boundaries in terms of performance, reduced energy consumption or noise reduction.
Of the £50million turnover of Fläkt Woods in the UK, roughly 45% is for the domestic UK market and the other 55% is export.
Of the £23million of UK sales, £16million of which is fans, some £6million is OEM business.
There is also a big Ministry of Defence supply and service contract but I was not allowed to see this area, as I had not the necessary clearance. Not that I am too bothered by this as neither Neil nor Paul had clearance.
Seriously though, Fläkt Woods has already planned its growth and ongoing success into the next century. But, assures Paul, 'it will remain a landmark of excellence, worthwhile to its stakeholders and the regional economies in which it is active'.
Fans and a whole lot more
FLÄKT WOODS is split into five main business areas in the UK:
· fans and distribution;
· systems (AHUs, chillers, chilled beams etc);
· car parks;
· service (refurbishment);
· OEM supply;
· tunnels and metro;
and each area has its own segment leader.
Neil says it is his job to oversee sales of all these Fläkt Woods products in the UK plus the fans business worldwide.
In fact, he adds, putting the message across in the UK about the extended portfolio takes time.
'We have been known in the UK - and the rest of the world - for our fans. Now, our story is that we have a raft of air movement products such as air handling units, chillers and chilled beams and the accessories such as grilles and diffusers.'
Paul estimates there are a total of around 30 product lines, which all split into ranges etc.
Fläkt Woods has some 40 sales engineers in the UK. A back office comprising project managers, specialist estimators and customer service experts supports all the sales engineers.
There are two regional sales offices - in Birmingham and Manchester.
While many fans are bespoke or at least customised, much of the rest of the products are packaged products and come complete with controls such as air conditioning, chilled beams and chillers.
Mainly for the domestic market is the newly introduced iFan, a fit-and-forget fan with its own integral controller.