A spell away from the automation sector has taught Rockwell Automation’s Martin Walder that clients don’t read product catalogues, they just want solutions.
A change is as good as a rest, or so they say. For Rockwell Automation UK Industries manager Martin Walder, spending some time away from the automation sector has both reinvigorated his passion for it and transformed how he views the products and services it offers.
Walder has spent the vast majority of his career in sales and management roles within the automation sector, having first worked for Rockwell Automation between 1989 and 2001 and then running ABB Robotics for the following eight years.
I don’t think people realise in a corporate how easy it is to get in and talk with major buyers. It’s bloody hard when you are a small company
Rockwell Automation UK industries manager Martin Walder
In between leaving ABB and returning to Rockwell Automation last year, Walder spent some time working in private equity. Working in the investment space during the late 2000s was “a difficult time”, says Walder, but the experience, however challenging, was one that he values dearly.
In particular, working with technology start-ups, including a telemetry firm that he became managing director of, made him realise the huge opportunities that big companies such as Rockwell Automation have and sometimes fail to make the most of.
“I don’t think people realise in a corporate how easy it is to get in and talk with major buyers,” says Walder. “It’s bloody hard when you are a small company.”
Despite the difficulties, one advantage smaller companies do have, says Walder, is the ability to progress ideas and innovation far more quickly than large corporates.
As a result, some of the start-ups Walder worked with not only managed to talk to major buyers, but had top executives from those major buyers come to see them.
“If you can see an opportunity you should not be afraid to take it to the top of any organisation,” he says. “[At the start-up] we had very senior people coming to see us and it should be easier for us [at Rockwell Automation].
But all too often sales people start the discussions with staff much further down the organisations.”
The most important lesson that Walder says he took from his experience in the world of private equity was that many of the small companies, because they don’t have long established relationships that can automatically open doors, work very closely and collaboratively with potential buyers.
He says buyers “never look at a catalogue” of your company’s products. Instead you need to know your products inside out and then go to “senior business people and talk about their problems” in order to find the best solution.
In the UK the opportunity for offering not only products but engineered services is particularly strong in the oil and gas sector. A relaxing of government tax rules has opened up many North Sea fields previously considered uneconomic and capital spending is set to hit a record £13.5 billion this year (see box).
This new surge of investment, says Walder, is creating a skills shortage. “All the people employed by major Engineering Procurement and Construction (EPC) contractors are at capacity and the costs are going up,” he says.
“Because the EPCs are maxed out and upping prices they tend to take bigger jobs, those worth around £10 million upwards. We have an Engineering Design Service capability which allows us to get in and help our users and do some of the design work that the EPCs may have done.”
Rockwell Automation is targeting work on smaller projects around the £5 million mark, and Walder says the firm’s engineering services capability has been particularly strengthened by its acquisition of the ICS Triplex safety systems business: ICS Triplex has brought with it its own team of engineers capable of carrying out oil and gas Front End Engineering and Design (FEED).
New lease of life
In addition to working on new schemes, a huge number of projects in the North Sea are looking at life extension, which typically means the upgrading of components.
Many of these projects will have technology owned by Rockwell Automation in the form of Allen Bradley PLCs, says Walder, while other components that need to be replaced were manufactured “by companies that no longer exist”.
As big as the opportunities are for working collaboratively within the UK oil and gas sector, Walder’s greatest prize is an automation revolution that can reinvigorate UK manufacturing.
He believes that significant investment in automation could stem the flow of manufacturing capacity away to countries such as China by making the UK just as competitive.
It was this belief that drove him to take up his position as chairman of the Engineering and Machinery Alliance (EAMA).
“If you have good products that you can manufacture in a highly automated way you can do it here as well as you can in China,” says Walder.
“After all, the cost of production in China is going up and up. If we don’t promote investment in automation then we will continue to lose our manufacturing.”
Factories on the seabed
When asked to choose the fastest growing area of the sectors he looks after for Rockwell, Walder is clear: “One of the markets that is ramping up is subsea oil and gas development.”
According to trade body Oil & Gas UK, a record £13.5 billion will be made in capital investments in north sea projects in 2013, and a key driver of this record level of spend is that projects are being developed in ever-deeper waters.
The higher costs associated with developing the new reserves has driven the industry and its supply chain to focus on the development of subsea technology, with Oil & Gas UK reporting that 55% of the fields approved in the last five years have been or will be developed as subsea tie-backs to existing infrastructure.
Traditionally, loss of pressure due to the extraction process made some hydrocarbons unrecoverable by normal methods as there is insufficient pressure to push oil and gas to sea level.
Moving production to the seabed reduces the pressure required, and estimates suggest this could lead to a 20% higher yield from producing fields.
Overcoming the engineering difficulties, not only in implementation of subsea solutions but also in reliability and safety, is challenging but possible due to advances in automation technology.
Rockwell Automation has taken one of its AADvance controllers used in top side oil and gas applications and ‘marinised’ it to make it fit for subsea environments in terms of robustness, redundancy and reliability.
The huge potential of the subsea market has led many suppliers to develop not only their products, but in at least one case an entirely new business: Cameron and Schlumberger have combined to create a company called OneSubsea.
Other noteworthy subsea developments include Tracerco this summer launching the world’s first subsea CT scanner for flowlines.
The Tracerco Discovery scans pipelines from the outside to gain an accurate picture of the condition in the pipe and the flow, with no need to remove the protective coating, and with no interruption to production.