Piping up

Posted on 6 Aug 2010 by The Manufacturer

Lorenzo Spoerry hears how a reputation for manufacturing excellence borne of 50 years’ experience is enabling BEL Valves to rise above the fray.

The core product

Next time you’re lamenting the pressures of your job, spare a thought for the people working at BEL Valves.

Everything they do involves extreme pressure – up to 16’500 psi to be exact. They manufacture bespoke valves for an extensive portfolio of installations to meet the most stringent fugitive emissions criteria as well as operating at depths of up to 3000m.

Founded in the 1950s, the company soon diversified.

After acquiring the licence from its partner ICI, the British chemical company, BEL began producing valves with working pressures of up to 4500 Bar for companies all over the world. Perfectly positioned to take advantage of the North Sea oil boom in the 1970s, the company used its expertise in petrochemicals to sell gate, globe and check valves to customers in the oil and gas sectors such as BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Total.

In the 1990s BEL sought to expand the business overseas and established significant growth in the subsea sector, rolling out a range of subsea gate valves and actuators. During this time the company also invested in computer assisted design techniques (CAD) and finite element analysis (FEA) software.

This software supports a proficient design process that produces surface actuator control systems, gate valves in bore sizes up to 40 inches and a high-integrity high-pressure system (HIPPS). Over the next ten years BEL Valves expanded its range further and began supplying the Deepwater Subsea sector.

With continued investment in equipment, technology, and best practice BEL Valves implemented a fully integrated business system 7 years ago. This allowed better control of an expanding portfolio of valves now encompassing subsea ball valves, subsea small bore gate valves and patented rotary disk valves.

Today, BEL Valves manufactures topside and deepwater subsea valves to customers such as BP, Agip, Conoco and Petrobras, a responsibility Mark Roddy, operations director for BEL Valves, takes extremely seriously: “If valves fail, it is currently very evident of the consequences. Our specifications limit that risk.” With a specific focus on high pressure and high integrity applications, the company manufactures bespoke valves in bore sizes from 1/2” to 42” to API 6A, 6D, 17D, ASME 16.34, ASME VIII and Norsok standards as required.

Roddy is in no doubt as to where his company’s strengths lie: “Our reputation for quality product, service and responsiveness is what really differentiates us.” BEL Valves has sought to position itself as the most reliable supplier of topside and subsea valves in the market and is keen to emphasize the pedigree of the company: “A lot of customers want that proven track record, they want the history and the life cycle, which is why there is a very high entry to market in this business. Our subsea valves are guaranteed for over 25 years” says Roddy.

BEL Valves pitches itself very much in the high-pressure, high-temperature, high-integrity range of market, with a particular focus on critical valve applications such as emergency shut-down valves and high integrity pressure protection systems. “Our lead times and technical ability would be where we are very competitive, and that has been built up over a number of years. In that aspect we are on par and probably a little bit ahead of our competitors. Unlike many of our competitors, we have a good reputation for being flexible and accommodating our customers when they want to make changes.

People do enjoy dealing with us.” To this end, BEL Valves ensures that their customers are closely involved with every stage of the manufacturing process. “The biggest influence in the last three to four years has been on specification within the supply chain.

We now see that on a majority of major projects. BP, Shell and all these companies want to witness every stage of the material procurementforging, heat treatment, processing and mechanical testing. This has become very common of late. Our ethos is to have all the necessary skills and equipment to perform all the necessary processes of manufacturing.” BEL Valves currently offers a full range of design, manufacturing, testing and after-market services, including deepwater testing and training. Their products can be found in the North Sea, West Africa, the Gulf of Mexico, Canada, the Far East, the Middle East, Russia, Kazakstan, Azerbaijan with operators like BP, Agip, Shell, Total, Chevron and Exxon Mobil.

Market share
BEL Valves is expecting a turnover of around £50m in 2010, up from around £35m five years ago. The company managed to weather the recession, but was forced to cut 10% of its workforce. There are long lead times involved in the projects BEL Valves support, with some of the industry’s larger projects having a five-year life cycle, allowing the company to ride out the worst of it: “There was enough inertia in those projects where the funding was in place that they continued to go ahead. The 12-month projects is where we really felt the recession hit home” says Roddy; “August to October of last year was a tough time for us.” Roddy also points to increased market pressure to drop prices shortly before the recession as another significant challenge the company had to overcome.

The company is banking that their experience in manufacturing for the deep-water, high pressure sector will allow them to succeed in the long term: “Ultimately, it is our reliability, our years of experience and the number of projects we have in service that will give us an advantage over the general valve manufacturers that are trying to compete in this market. I expect that we will benefit in the next three to five years, depending on how the industry reacts.

BEL Valves are privately owned and privately funded. The company’s funding and its good credit rating means that it has been able to make a very considerable investment in heavy machinery over the last 18 months.

Continuous improvement
The bespoke valve manufacturer takes a similarly bespoke approach to continuous improvement: “We’ve used a whole toolbox of techniques that are available and applied those to our company where we thought it was appropriate to a manufacturing company that doesn’t have a standard product.” To support their investment in continuous improvement the company has moved a quality manager out of the traditional quality side of the business and into a continuous improvement role and has additionally brought in three CI quality engineers.

To this end the company has sought to hire staff with a variety of skills from the automotive, aerospace and power generation sectors over the last five years. “We’ve got a very diverse set of skills in what has traditionally been a fairly traditional area of the oil and gas industry” says Roddy. As a consequence the company has been moved to roll in a number of continuous improvement processes such as six sigma and kaizen that have traditionally been in use in those industries. “We’ve adopted and modified them and use a Plan-Do-Check-Act process.” The company has adopted an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary approach to rolling out its continuous improvement initiatives, believing it to be the best way to ensure the support of the workforce. “It’s been a very challenging process inasmuch as we’re trying to change culture here. We’ve been doing it by involving everyone and by investing a lot in the people and the processes.” The company is taking a “it’s not another initiative” approach to continuous improvement.

“We want to have leaders that are responsible for their colleagues in that specific area of expertise. We’re using them to cascade the message and give them appropriate measures and coaching so that they can make development changes in their area,” says Roddy. “We also have a very successful apprenticeship programme.

Around 25 per cent of the current workforce went through the apprenticeship scheme and if you include those still studying this numbers around 80 people.” Around 10 people are hired direct from school every year and are normally offered jobs with the company after they complete a three to four year training programme. Apprentices are offered structured training which includes support for further studies up to degree level.

The key to ensuring broad support among the workforce for CI programmes, Roddy says, is to ensure that everyone in the company knows that continuous improvement is here to stay. “It really has taken 18 months to realise that continuous improvement is part of our DNA.

The message is still getting through to some people but great examples are evident in the work area and people can see that it’s much more enjoyable to be involved and realise the benefits of the processes like having a safe and clean working environment.” BEL Valves utilise basic tool to measure its performance in continuous improvement. The company aggregate the results back up the business measures and look at the aggregate contribution. It hasn’t always been easy. Realising it wasn’t capturing the data accurately enough, the company then improved its recording of where people’s time was spent only to find that the data became significantly less impressive than originally thought: “The results became worse but a lot more accurate and realistic. We’re now able to identify which areas we need to work upon, whether that’s a specific product range or whether it’s a specific process that isn’t delivering.” The company is now in a much better position to analyse its processes and reap the rewards.

Planning for the future
The tendency in the industry is for valves to get larger and larger. To that end BEL valves are investing in new machinery: “We have the capability to do up to 40- inch valves, but for these larger ones, some of the work has to subcontracted.

What we’re looking to do is increase our floor space and continue the investment in large machinery to support a focused drive in bidding and securing this sector of work. The subsea pipelines are now up to 42-inches wide and getting bigger and our intention is to do as much as possible on our own.” Thanks to its long-term projects, BEL Valves has bounced back quicker than many companies from the downturn. Its order book is now larger than it’s ever been, and the company is looking ahead with new technologies. “It is about excellence in engineering. We continue not only to invest in plant and processes but in product development. We are currently developing an electric actuator to replace expensive hydraulic equipment. Only a few electric actuators have ever been trialled and the technology is still in its infancy, but this is a massive development. This is the next generation.”