There are people outside trade associations who wonder what they are all about. There are some inside trade associations who ask the same question.
For Brian Huxley, chief executive of the British Pump Manufacturers Association, the answer is easy. The BPMA is a business which aims to increase the business activity of member companies.
An outsider might wonder that this is necessary. The pump industry is performing well. It has been a net exporter for years with manufacturing output worth in excess of £1bn. The association has more than 70 members and the UK’s strengths in industries where pumps are ubiquitous are self-evident.
So where’s the problem? The world market has been growing too and there is a general view that the UK’s position in pumps is slipping, and has been for 10 years. It is possible to identify some reasons: the strength of the pound, the decline of UK manufacturing and geography the further east you go from these shores, the worse the market penetration for UK pumps is.
Recognition of the problem has coincided with Department of Trade and Industry’s Sector Challenge initiative, part of the Helping Business to Win programme, established by John Major’s Government in 1996 and retained by the present one.
The Tories came to realise that trade associations were good for providing cost-effective business support. They could certainly help in improving a sector’s competitiveness. So the BPMA, which has been working with the DTI in various areas over the past few years, put in a bid called World Class Pumps and, last September, received funding of £136,000 for it.
How will such a tiny sum keep the UK pumps industry well honed? Point your Web browser to www. bpma.org.uk. It is not the most exciting or extensive site on the Web and, while some member companies have their own sites, others have no ‘net savvy’ whatsoever. But that is about to change.
‘There are only three of us here full time. We were under-resourced, and our IT was hopeless,’ says Huxley. ‘Some of the DTI money will be spent on employing an individual who can really develop the Internet for us, building links to other sites and so forth and helping our members do the same.’ Huxley is a great believer in the ‘electronic salesman’.
The BPMA has already produced a CD-rom buyers’ guide with which it is possible to define a pump duty and then find appropriate BPMA members which provide them.
But the DTI money isn’t entirely about transforming the trade association into an ‘e-business’.
The members want good market intelligence to forecast where new business should be coming from. Traditionally, the BPMA used Government data on pump production and trade.
Two years ago it decided to produce the data itself. This has required companies to submit their confidential order details each quarter. Analysing the data is a big job and Huxley buys this in as a service from European Industrial Forecasting.
BPMA members pay for this, but the association uses its buying power to get the best possible price just £300 for a report a company would normally pay £15,000 for if it bought it as an individual firm. Now pump manufacturers can see what the overall sales picture and demand is by pump type, in each market and in domestic and overseas sales.
According to Owen Shevlin, managing director of Sterling Fluid Systems and former BPMA president, the value of that market intelligence is immense. ‘We can determine very accurately what a potential customer’s capital expenditure announcement, such as the construction of new refinery, might mean for us in actual pump orders.’
Even before winning the DTI money, the BPMA was keen to enhance its role in promoting the British pump industry. It doubled membership fees and, last year, staged a technical conference and exhibition, Pumps and Systems ’97 in Telford. Though this flew in the face of what exhibition organisers prefer vertical market activity Huxley says it was a success: ‘BPMA made money on it and the exhibitors say it was good for them.’
What else does the BPMA hope to achieve with the money? An R&D forum is mentioned in the World Class Pumps proposal. This recognises that collaboration between pump manufacturers in research is not one of the industry’s strong points. Leslie Teasdale, BPMA technical director, is charged with bringing the findings and ideas of the Foresight initiative to members’ attention.
‘There are exciting ideas on the horizon,’ says Teasdale. Self-diagnostic material, which could indicate leaks in pumps and self-repairing materials resistant to corrosive agents, are examples.
But isn’t all this too futuristic for customers’ everyday needs? Teasdale insists such work is already taking place in other programmes. Through the National Physical Laboratory, the DTI is funding a programme on Aqueous Corrosion of Metallic Materials at the Centre for Materials Measurement and Technology. This is part of a larger programme on Materials Degradation in Aggressive Environments, which includes other work at NPL on the environmental degradation of polymeric materials and on material performance at high temperature.
‘This is just the kind of thing pump manufacturers need to tap into,’ he says. This is especially so for the demanding customers of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry who have pushed pump manufacturers hard to develop machines which can operate in these conditions.
A recent research and development discussion meeting held by the BPMA brought up a range of issues concerning pump manufacturers, such as improving hydraulic efficiency to cope with varying demands. ‘It’s possible to change vane angles in large axial flow pumps, but what could be done for smaller pumps?’ asks Teasdale.
The big buzzword, he says, is ‘smart’ but that means different things to different people. Customers demand pumps that won’t break down, but inevitably they do. So provision for the attachment of non-invasive sensors for temperature, pressure, vibration and stress has become an option for many manufacturers. But there are new sensing techniques which could measure changes in internal clearances which are just as likely to be indicative of impending failure as any vibrational analysis.
While the World Class Pumps initiative money is not meant to fund R&D per se, Huxley hopes he can connect those who want to move forward in these areas to the right kind of research organisations and more important, the funding.
Finally, how can the relative success or failure of the exercise be measured? Huxley says there are goals but won’t commit to them publicly until the members are informed. ‘In overall sales terms, even a half per cent rise in sales of British pumps abroad say, an extra £50m worth would be a terrific return on the input of taxpayers’ money,’ he says.
Whether it would be possible to demonstrate that such a rise was attributable to the activities of the trade association would be difficult. But Shevlin is unconcerned whether or not it is measurable. ‘The important thing here is perception. If our members believe their message is getting out faster to customers, and if the profile of British engineering is moved forward as a consequence, then that is a success in itself.’