Don’t just make it, reinvent it

Blackburn-based Meltech has plenty of technical smarts, ranging from high-speed wire winding to pretty much everything about electric furnaces. It has customers all over the world. Then it had a big new idea that would make it an indisputable world leader in one of its specialist areas – all it needed was the funding to make it happen.

Finance for innovation

In industrial terms, continuous rotary extrusion (CRE) is a relatively new and unusually British technology. Initially developed by the Atomic Energy Authority in 1971, it can squeeze metals and extrude them into complex forms, or profiles, in a single, continuous operation. It’s often cheaper than traditional “rolling and drawing” as it requires less capital equipment and creates less scrap. For an industry such as cable-making, it is a highly effective solution.

But CRE also has a reputation for being complicated and temperamental. And over time, CRE machines have become even more complex as people have added more features to solve their particular problems. This has hampered the growth of CRE.  As the know-how proliferated it has also meant that Chinese manufacturers were able to enter the market and could sell on price because customers were prepared to live with the inefficiencies.

Major innovation was needed in order to change the market. As one of the few British companies in this field, Meltech saw the opportunity. “We had to make a machine that was less complex and slicker to use,” says sales director Peter Drever.

But research and development wasn’t going to be cheap. Meltech turned, for the first time, to Innovate UK.

“We did a proof of market study to see whether there was an appetite for our improved product, which there was,” says Drever. “We bypassed the proof of concept phase and went straight to prototype. We secured a funding contribution of £236,000 from Innovate UK to help us pay for the prototype. The whole process has taken about two years.

“We launched it at a major industry exhibition in Dusseldorf in April. It has had a great reaction. The machine is a lot easier to work with, it’s stronger and more flexible than current equipment. It takes us into new markets and strengthens our existing business. The first orders should appear this summer. This is the future of CRE; it reinvents it.

“It’s also opened up other possibilities for us. We’re now part of a consortium on a much bigger deal; we were able to join this consortium because of the prototype.

“I’m not sure that we could have done this without the support of Innovate UK. It certainly would have taken us a lot longer to work up the funding, energy and commitment. It was our first time working with Innovate UK and it has been a great experience. I have no complaints at all. It really is a great story.”

Export: from Blackburn to Brazil

From its early days, Meltech has been an international business. “We export anywhere between 60 to 80 per cent of our output,” says Drever. “Europe is one home market for us.”

The company is a regular customer of United Kingdom Trade and Investment (UKTI). “They have been more than helpful,” adds Drever. “We have been on the Passport to Export programme. We use overseas consulates to compile information for us.

“We have commissioned several Overseas Market Introduction Service (OMIS) reports to get vital local knowledge. If we are looking at a new market, one of the first things I would turn to is an OMIS report. It really is not a bad place to start. Look at it this way: one such report, containing comprehensive local information, typically costs the equivalent of half an airfare.”

Such an open, global approach explains why Meltech machinery can be found in factories from the US to Ukraine. Right now, one particularly interesting market is Brazil.

That’s because 40 per cent of the world’s offshore oil and gas discovery currently happens in Brazil; to be precise, 2,500m+ below sea level. To connect the engineering on the sea bed with the floating platform on the surface requires immense so-called umbilicals (the bundle of tubes that carry the data, not the oil). And those umbilicals need to be transported from shore to rig.

The physical and mechanical know-how required to load a cable drum with 2,500m of cable, weighing in at more than 450 tonnes, is pretty complex. And that’s another Meltech speciality. This expertise has enabled the company to break into the Brazilian market, despite the country’s high import tariffs. “It’s an exciting step forward,” says Drever. “It has been vital to demonstrate our uniqueness and the cutting edge nature of our technology. We are talking to a lot of people in Brazil about a lot of projects.”​

UKTI has helped businesses such as Meltech with advice and support in many aspects of exporting. Find export opportunities, events and practical guidance on the Exporting is GREAT site.

Visit Innovate UK to learn more about applying for funding.

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