Global manufacturer AkzoNobel opens new R&D facility with more in mind than just profits

Posted on 20 Jun 2011 by The Manufacturer

Chemicals group AkzoNobel has just opened a brand new R&D centre in Felling, Gateshead near Newcastle. George Archer talked to Graeme Armstong, director of research, development and innovation at AkzoNobel UK about the benefits that the company’s products will bring not just to the UK in terms of export growth, but the whole world in terms of protection from fire damage.

AkzoNobel is a global business – it has major laboratories in all the major continents. There are two large facilities in the US, two in the Netherlands, one in China and two in the United Kingdom. In the UK, our sites are in Felling, Gateshead and Slough, near London. The facility that has just been opened is in Felling.

AkzoNobel is a Eu16bn company. It has over 50,000 employees with 4,000 in R&D alone. It spends over Eu300m a year globally – a very big operation in coatings and speciality chemicals.

With regards to what the company is doing in the UK, there are several points to make. The first and foremost one is that the company has chosen Felling, in the North East of the UK as one of the big six laboratories.

Graeme Armstong is a chartered chemist, Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a member of their Science Policy Board. He is also Chairman of Chemistry Innovation PLC, and a former non-executive Director of the UK government Technology Strategy Board. Graduating from Newcastle University, Graeme makes it clear to me that he has a huge passion for manufacturing in the UK.

When asked about the new R&D facility in Felling, Graeme said: “In terms of actual funding and the number of people employed there, Felling is our biggest global laboratory.”

The new R&D facility at AkzoNobel in Felling.

“Of course we are investing in China and other parts of the world, but [the new facility in Felling] is a fairly good statement for the UK. The North East is one of the prime areas of competence for us, and we’ve chosen to make our investments in fire protection, some of our powder capabilities and in long term science relating to our specialities. We’ve done it because the people in this region are damn good at what they do.”

Graeme explained that AkzoNobel has the ability to recruit from some of the best universities in the UK, like Durham and Newcastle, so the area holds a lot of promise for improving innovation and further increasing capabilities at the company.

“Frankly, the North East region is good for AkzoNobel, because the whole technical infrastructure in the region is relatively good compared to rest of the UK. We made the investment because we have a really good business in Felling, and we are well able to hire and train people from the local area, if they are graduates or not. We’re not interested in government hand-outs; we want to grow the UK’s manufacturing economy and provide support to the local communities surrounding our Felling site.”

Graeme also said that the work done at AkzoNobel in Felling is resulting in benefits for people across the world: “cast your mind back to 9/11 and the twin towers. Arguably, the reason the towers came down so fast was because the internal girder work did not have the kind of fire protection that AkzoNobel offers as part of its product range.”

The fire protection that AkzoNobel sells and continues to develop is great for its business because more and more building standards around the world are requiring more fire protection, but also on the moral side of the argument, it means that if people are in a dangerous situation where a building is on fire they have more time to evacuate the premises. This can potentially decrease the number of fatalities in such an event.

“It’s good for people, because you want to keep them alive!” said Graeme.

Making what I thought was an extremely important point, Graeme said that while companies across the world are making weapons, military aircraft, gas-guzzling cars and luxury electronic goods like the latest Smartphone, AkzoNobel is manufacturing products that are actually able to go some way to prevent death or injury.

He explained: “People make business out of all sorts of things: cosmetics or new gadgets like the iPhone, but the fire protection capabilities we have at AkzoNobel are what I call good, earnest stuff. We’re trying to save lives here, while making good business out of it.”

Graeme talked about the fact that while the Felling site is based in the UK, which he described as a ‘relatively small island’ in the scheme of things, the products made at Felling are exported all over the world. With the UK exporting less and less every year and importing more and more each year, Felling provides strength for the UK manufacturing export market.

“As new buildings go up all over Asia and increasingly Africa, this is particularly important for new builds. AkzoNobel’s intellectual property provides a great deal for the other side of export – brains and talent.”

The internal laboratory at the facility – the huge testing furnace and a 25t girder.