Saturday 14 December 2019

Dubliner's robot-making powerhouse is flying high

Jet engine giants fuel demand for high-tech laser robots

Jim Byrne of VA Tech
Jim Byrne of VA Tech

John Reynolds

Dubliner Jim Byrne's biggest customers are well-known industrial giants, but he's asked me not to name them. His company, VA Tech makes robots and manufacturing systems that make crucial parts for jet engines.

Other customers include makers of military aircraft, space rockets and car engines, and in Cork and Limerick, artificial hips and prosthetic knee joints. There's a top secret US customer as well, about which he's even more reticent.

If these companies are at the so-called "cutting edge" of high-tech manufacturing and engineering, then its robots are literally at the cutting edge too, physically cutting - using lasers - metals such as alloys of nickel, steel and titanium. Made in one piece, they are shaped to exact measurements, without the possibility of any human error. Even the smallest imperfection in an artificial knee or hip could prove awkward and painful, but one in a jet engine blade or a car engine part could be catastrophic.

"If it's flying, there's a good chance that parts we and our robots have made are in it," says Byrne. The aviation industry is booming, so business is too. Growth is in the "healthy double digits," and the firm is worth about €48m according to one newspaper's latest Rich List, although Byrne is reluctant to elaborate.

Deloitte estimates commercial aircraft production will grow by 25pc over the next decade, while one manufacturer values the market for jet engines and related services such as maintenance, at €1.1 trillion over the next 20 years.

Suitably enough, Byrne is mad about planes. A licensed pilot, he flies a twin-engine, four-seater Tecnam P2006. "I love the technology and engineering in aviation, and the training too. I fly to Ireland quite a bit," he enthuses.

We are meeting at the firm's thriving factory, which is tucked away anonymously on an industrial estate in Shropshire, in the heart of England. There are offices in China and Germany too.

A US factory, near Cleveland, Ohio is currently in expansion mode.

In various corners of the factory floor are pallets full of the various parts of the production systems and robots wrapped in plastic, waiting to be shipped out. Workers are busy assembling systems, methodically piecing together large components and their complicated inner electronics.

In the office next door, various employees - several of them Irish - are busy on computers, designing systems for customers in the US, China and Japan or studying complicated-looking printouts of them.

"We have 100 people working here in total, of various nationalities, which helps us in dealing with our customers around the world," he says. More than 90pc of what VA Tech makes is exported, to 32 countries, with sales split equally between the Americas, Asia, and the rest of the world.

Making these systems - and the robots that make complex shapes and materials using precision casting - requires expert knowledge of different types of engineering: mechatronic, software, robotic, drying system, shellroom system, control system and foundry process engineering, as well as process and project management.

"I think we could literally make anything really. The shapes and materials are designed on computer, then translated into a wax model. It's coated to make a shell that forms a mould into which we can pour metal. We make the self-contained shellroom systems that make those moulds in our customers' factories, and the ceramic shells from which those parts are made."

Byrne's love of flying has inspired how the robots work.

"When our robots laser-cut metal parts or grind down metal into various shapes, I designed them in such a way that they fly the parts around, so they can be cut in a particular way."

VA Tech buy in the base of the robots ready-made, customising them by adding various parts that make up about 60pc of a completed one. The robots are then integrated into a production system using highly advanced software, the original program for which Byrne wrote himself.

A new innovation uses Irish firm Kingspan's insulation panels. "We've recently adapted our systems so the self-contained production and assembly lines that are housed in the panels operate at a controlled temperature. Designing these could perhaps even be spun out as a separate business," he continues.

"We're acknowledged by many as the best at what we do, although we also have strong global competitors too. We try to stay one step ahead with R&D. That kind of anxiety is a fuel: it helps to drive us. It's perhaps an immigrant anxiety on my part. It's also something you find in very good engineers. We also reward that kind of can-do attitude in our staff."

When the company designs a system, it's set up, tested and signed off here. A team of engineers then travels out to the customer's factory and re-assembles it.

In one part of VA Tech's building, a long line of tall cabinets full of switchgear, electronic controls and server racks with flashing lights, all connected by numerous wires. It's essentially a large part of the company's brain. From here, it can monitor and maintain its customers' systems anywhere in the world.

"We do everything for the customer. We design, manufacture, install and service," says Byrne.

The company must have a lot of patents: have its products ever been copied?

"Yes. The very nature of being innovative puts you at risk all the time. We've had to defend ourselves twice against Chinese attempts at copying us. But the biggest global Chinese companies don't risk their reputation trying to copy processes. Their owners have been our greatest defenders."

He frequently declines offers to buy or invest in the company. Its success as an export powerhouse was rewarded in 2009 with a Queen's Enterprise Award - Britain's highest business accolade.

"We're hopeful of similar recognition in the future, perhaps for our technology," he adds.

He doesn't currently have any business interests in Ireland. "I'd certainly like to do something there. We have to really. Perhaps we've been too busy up until now."

He recalls a happy childhood in Dublin, growing up in James's Street and Ballyfermot, before moving to England with his parents in 1961.

After beginning his career with Chrysler, in 1975 he set up a factory in Kildare for toolmaker Black & Decker, where he began working with robotics.

On returning to England in 1980 he declined a VP role for a US firm that paid him not to work for anyone else for a while, and he used that cash to set up VA Tech in 1988. He started off supplying small pieces of equipment to aviation industry customers, and the business grew from there.

He's passionately concerned about the future of engineering, which has "largely become confused with software engineering. Society needs to get graduates back into manufacturing, which is today more about Formula One and aerospace than dirty factories," he concludes.

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