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Gearing up for future growth

Fri, 11/16/2012 - 17:36 -- Ruth Williams

Perkins’ original diesel engine factory in Stafford, UK, established in 1870, is now an Indian restaurant. In 2013 the British company will inaugurate a new factory in Aurangabad, in the Indian state of Maharashtra. A sign of the times if ever there was one. 

Boosted by demand for prime and standby power in developing nations, Perkins is enjoying something of a boom. The Aurangabad facility will be their first plant outside the UK to build its 4000 series engines and it expects half of the 3 000 engines made there per year will be destined for China and half for India.

3-18aWhile Perkins is understandably excited about the prospects for growth in Asia, it is not neglecting its aging but modernised large engine manufacturing base in the rather non-descript Midlands town of Stafford. The 30-acre Tixall Road factory was established by WH Dorman in 1929, which had moved across town to a bigger site to cope with demand for diesel engines.

WH Dorman and the Stafford facility have a fascinating history. It was created to make equipment for the local shoe and linen industries. In 1903 the company produced its first internal combustion engine for the early motor car industry; subsequently this became the main activity of the company. 

During the First World War the company was made a Controlled Establishment under the Conditions of War Act and it made a notable contribution to the war effort. Particularly, it manufactured Constantinescu interrupter gear, a hydraulic machine-gun synchroniser that prevented fighter pilots from shooting their own propeller blade.

Following the move to Tixall Road, WH Dorman ramped up production of diesel engines, but it continued to develop military equipment. During the Second World War it developed radar equipment in a secretive, closed-off section of the factory and there are still bullet holes in the wall where machine-gun testing was conducted.

WH Dorman was eventually acquired by English Electric in 1961, which later became part of GEC. By the time GEC sold Dorman to genset OEM Broadcrown in 1987 the company was concentrating on producing diesel engines for power generation. In 1994 Perkins bought Dorman Diesels in a move to broaden its product range to include large power generation diesel engines; prior to the acquisition, Perkins largest engine was a 900 kVA Rolls?Royce designed unit made in Shrewsbury.

Immediate changes made

3-19aPerkins immediately made changes. The Power Range series was expanded up to 2 250 kVA with 16-cylinder engines and a new test centre was installed on the shop floor to ensure quality control. The last Dorman branded engine was produced in 1995. Perkins then began to streamline operations. Dorman machined virtually every component in their diesel engines themselves, right down to the steel pipes. Perkins now machines predominantly only the major components, such as the crank cases, cylinder heads and con rods. 

Yet the Stafford facility was truly reborn when Caterpillar acquired Perkins itself in 1998. In 1993, Dorman made 300, 4000 series engines a year at Stafford. By 2003, this figure had risen to 800.

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The Stafford site now has a total engine capacity of 25 000, employing a total of 800 people and manufacturing engines in the 200-2 500 kVA range, i.e. the 1300, 1600, 2000 and 4000 series. The factory works on a two-shift assembly, three-shift machining pattern.

Last year Perkins invested in a third production line on the surprisingly compact shop floor, primarily to increase capacity of the 4000 diesel series, which ranges between 700-2500 kVA and the smaller 4000 gas engine series, which ranges between 300-1000 kWe. Unlike other Perkins engines, the 4000 series is machined, manufactured and assembled virtually in its entirety in Stafford. The other engines produced are either derivatives of other engine families, like the 2000 series made by Caterpillar, or factored highway engines brought in to be ‘Perkins-ized’ for electric power applications.

3-20aThe $20 million expansion and recent upgrades mean Perkins has increased capacity by 40% for the 4000 series to 5 000 units. Some of the money has been spent on a new roof to abate noise pollution and ventilation to protect Tixall Road residents from the very strong whiff of paint.

Most of the money, however, has been spent on machining and test cells, of which the site now has five, with another due online as Critical Power went to press. 4000 series product manager Andrew Bradbury, who has worked at the Stafford site for 19 years, says a full power test for a new Perkins engine can be conducted in just an hour, as opposed to the 12 hours needed in his early days.

Such a quick power test can only be achieved if one can be very confident in build quality, says Richard Cotterell, General Manager of the Stafford site. “The main driver of the recent expansion is to ensure we have the highest levels of quality control,” he says. Our customers are not buying just an engine; they want reliability and long service life. We want to ensure that we build engines of the highest quality. We use the Caterpillar production system which is all about world-class manufacturing at velocity.”

Demand for engines

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Manufacturing lead times are now at around 4?6 weeks, which allows Perkins to meet rising demand. In Asia, Perkins is enjoying strong demand for prime power applications, particularly in India, as well as for standby applications for data centres in Europe. 

Out of Perkins’ entire Stafford-made product range, the 2506 and 2206 engines have the biggest sales volume, closely followed by the 1300 and 1600 series and the 4000. Some 40% of Perkins’ total volume of engines goes to their direct customers and 60% to third-party genset OEMs, says Cotterell.

Looking ahead a few years, Asia is likely to account for 40% to 50% of total sales, particularly in India and China, with the rest of the volume going to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The Middle East and Africa will likely comprise the largest chunk of the second 50%.

At present, gas engines comprise a small but growing portion of total volume. Of the 4000 series, gas engines account for 10% to 15% of sales, but future demand for gas engines will grow significantly. This growth will be mostly driven by demand for infrastructure, but Perkins is also developing engines and pilot projects to run on alternatives gases, such as anaerobic biogas, syngas and waste gas, to produce energy from waste. 

Developing new engines

Much of engine development at Stafford is focused on ensuring their products meet market needs for when emissions legislation changes. Emissions regulations, of course, vary around the world. India, for example, regulates stationary diesel engines up to 800 kWm, whereas the European Union (EU) only regulates engines up to 560 kWm. France, Germany and Switzerland and other European countries have their own regulations. 

3-21bShould the EU move to regulate engines above 560 kWm, says Bradbury, Perkins has engines in place that would meet any stricter legislation, having instigated three development programmes over the past 18 months for engines above 750 kVA. The last major product development for the 4000 series was the 16-cylinder TRG range, which extended Perkins power range up to 2500 kVA. 

This model was designed to perform at altitude and offer remote cooling for developing nations and data centres. Its predecessor de-rated at 38°C and sea level. All of the TRG range, says Bradbury, is able to run at full power at 50°C ambient or 40°C and 1 000 m altitude, particularly ideal for India, for example.

Perkins is currently working on a development programme for the eight-cylinder, 1100 kVA 4000 series to take it up to 1250 kVA, a key power node in growth regions of the developing world. The Stafford facility is also working on a refreshed range of six- and eight-cylinder 4000 series gas engines, which will uprate power from the existing engines. 

Quality control concerns?

Despite its focus on quality, is Perkins concerned that it may be selling its engines to genset OEMs who may not share their high standards? “We’ve had OEMs that we’ve worked with for a long time and others that have been brought on in the last few years in new markets,” says Cotterell. 

“But whether old or new the understanding we have with them adds to our brand. We have a worldwide dealer network to support our engines. Where it is an OEM in the process of gaining experience we have local people on the ground who can offer support until their capability has risen to the necessary level.

“For the OEMs with which we work directly, we have no concerns about their installation capability.“

Is Perkins concerned that Chinese diesel engine manufacturers will gradually eat their market share? “With the larger Chinese engine manufacturers and OEMs you can be quite surprised with the reality versus the perception,” says commercial manager Andrew Mahtani. “The new engines are of a high standard and in the longer term they will present a challenge in Asia. So it’s very important to have a local presence.”

Role of Stafford post-India?

Perkins’ new facility in Aurangabad will open in quarter three of 2013. Capacity of the Indian plant, which will employ 500 people, is 3 000 units per year, with a footprint for expansion to 5 000 units. For the moment Perkins will manufacture only 4000 series diesel engines in India, with gas engines at a later, unspecified date.

Does that mean fewer engines will be made in Stafford? “No,” says Cotterell. “India will be used to meet future demand in Asia and Asia-Pacific. We will continue to use Stafford as one of our main manufacturing sites to support Europe, Latin America, North America and Middle East and Africa. There may be some shifting of other engine series to India but our overall market strategy is to meet demand from both facilities.”

Mahtani notes Perkins is constrained by its existing site in Stafford, which is located in a highly residential area albeit adjacent to its own Sports & Social Club football pitch and newly-planted sensory garden. “There will always be a point in time where we could no longer manufacture sufficient engines here and so there was always a requirement to build additional capacity. With Asia being the main centre for growth it makes sense to have additional capacity there.”

3-22aPerkins will not be shipping engines made in India to Europe, adds Cotterell. “Although there are advantages of lower labour costs, this is really about getting closer to customers and serving their needs in their markets locally. Being able to serve customers locally also reduces freight costs and lead times; quick access to our products is very important.”

Stafford’s general manger says recent investment demonstrates their commitment to the site. “We’ve invested in our machining and test capability, but we also continue to invest in people,” he says. “We’ve increased employment by 30% in the last two years. We have our product development and product design centres here and we’re investing in state-of-the-art testing centres.”

Diesel engines have made in Tixall Road, Stafford for 83 years. Given rising demand for diesel and gas engines at home and across the world it seems unlikely that the site will share the same fate as its predecessor and become an Indian restaurant.