17. May 2014

Pig maker is bringing home the bacon

First published in Business: Spotlight On

Pig: noun – an omnivorous domesticated hoofed mammal with sparse bristly hair and a flat snout for rooting in the soil, kept for its meat.

Synonyms: hog, boar, sow, porker, swine, piglet…

THERE are five dictionary definitions for the word “pig”.

Skip past the aforementioned farm animal, derogatory terms for greedy individuals, law enforcement officers and oblong masses of smelted iron, and you’ll find, “a device which fits snugly inside an oil or gas pipeline and is sent through it to clean or test the inside”.

You may not have heard of these remarkable contraptions, but they have been an essential component for the oil and gas industry (and a number of others) for well over a century.

“They got their name because people used to clean pipelines with bundles of hay wrapped in wire and the noise produced as they were pushed through the pipes sounded like a squealing pig,” said IK-UK Chief Executive Richard Whadcoat, answering the obvious question.

These amazing products have been the stock and trade of Newton Aycliffe firm, IK-UK, part of the Norwegian IK Group, since the company was created four years ago.

Pipeline pigs come in a range of shapes and sizes and are made from a variety of materials such as steel, polyurethane and foam. IK-UK work primarily with oil and gas companies, but also make pigs to clean pipes across many industrial sectors.

“We are manufacturing engineers, but we’re also a service provider,” said Richard. “Our engineers and apprentices will travel to clients to make sure they are familiar with the equipment and we will show them not only how to operate it, but also how to maintain and get best use from our manufactured equipment.”

In early 2011 the IK-Group, Norway set about creating a team that would not only manufacture pigs, but break new ground in creating bespoke pigging products, putting the IK Group at the head of its field.

The Newton Aycliffe facility, which now employs 47 people including four North East Chamber of Commerce apprentices, serves markets across the globe and has increased IK’s worldwide penetration of their technology and isolation tools.

Serving key oil and gas markets, the firm has strong links with the Middle East, Far East and North America, but is opening up new markets all the time.

“When the company was first formed, the team knew that it had real potential to grow and develop quickly,” said Richard. “We enjoy a fantastic relationship with our parent company in Norway and they have backed us in everything we have set out to achieve at Newton Aycliffe.”

Starting with no customers, no orders and relatively little equipment, a small group of “pioneers” were tasked with building the company. These industry experts boasted decades of experience between them.

Richard came on board 18 months ago, bringing with him 25 years experience in the oil and gas industry, having worked extensively in many of the worlds major oil and gas producing countries.

“It was something of a leap into the unknown, but the company knew it had the skills, experience and contacts to build something really exciting,” he added.

“We are lean. We don’t buy any equipment that we don’t need, we are committed to training and everything we do is focused on customer satisfaction.

“Our apprentices are provided with experience at all levels of the business and work closely with customers. They are well aware that in other jobs when faulty or incorrect equipment is delivered it can cause problems, but in our sector it can cost lives.”

The firm is committed to the training agenda and recruited NECC apprentices Jack Pallister, 19, Adam Churm, 20, Jake Robinson, 19, and Andrew Knight, 20.

All four have gained valuable experience across the company’s range of services and Richard is delighted with their progress.

“The apprentices bring enthusiasm and are all eager to learn and develop. We genuinely value this not just at our UK plant, but in Norway too. We have hosted a group of Norwegian apprentices and our lads will also get to travel across to Stavangar to experience working life over there too. This helps share best practice and maintain the fantastic relationship we enjoy with our parent company.”

When challenged by NECC to come up with an “apprenticeship” for the Bishop of Durham during Apprenticeship Week, Richard encouraged his young workers to organise the events and they rose to the challenge.

“We knew the lads would deliver a comprehensive experience for the Bishop and they not only arranged a full afternoon of activities for the Bishop, the apprentices programmed the water jet cutting machine to carve an image of Durham Cathedral in copper plate and also presented him with a Rose Window coaster and pig that he assembled himself,” said Richard.

The opportunity to not only learn a trade, but also develop a career is something that attracted Jack Pallister to IK-UK. He said: “After my A-Levels I went to college and very quickly found that it was not the environment for me and I was keen to build some work experience. I feel really lucky to have secured an apprenticeship with IK-UK because we get to work closely with the clients and get support from everyone in the business.

“Because of the size of the company we get to work on some really interesting projects and we are encouraged to bring forward ideas as well as work closely with the lads who have been doing the job for years who pass on years of knowledge.”

Works Manager, Ian Short, is responsible for apprenticeship development. He said: “We have faith in the apprentices and they have repaid it in abundance.

“They learn all the basic skills of an engineering apprentice and must master traditional equipment like manual lathes before they can move onto the fully-automated machines. It’s really important to us that they learn all the traditional skills as well as improve their skills with developing technology.”

As well as standard pigging products, IK-UK provides isolation tools and AutoCad Inventor design technology services. It also operates a new hire fleet of fully certified weld testers, high pressure test plugs and isolation tools.

The workshop is equipped with a paint spraying booth, welding and fabrication bay, high definition plasma cutter, water jet cutter, drilling, turning and vertical borer facilities including a new CNC lathe.

Polyurethane Manager, Lee Galloway, said: “We can turn our hands to just about anything. We have built pigs that are probably some of the world’s largest polyurethane products that are 2.2mts in height, we build bespoke products that can navigate bends in pipelines, we can produce all sorts of equipment and just because we’ve never done it before that doesn’t mean we won’t try and build something new for the customer.

“We are a traditional company, using traditional methods, but we are also at the cutting edge of the industry using new technology.”

NECC Director of Policy, Ross Smith, said: “I was lucky enough to spend the afternoon at IK-UK during the Bishop of Durham’s apprenticeship and couldn’t fail to be impressed by the ambition of the company, its dedication to future-proofing its workforce and the groundbreaking work being carried out.

“IK-UK must be congratulated for refusing to rest on its laurels and is fueled by a desire to succeed and provide an excellent service to its clients. It is a thoroughly modern company with solid traditional values and its success in breaking into export markets as well as its commitment to apprenticeships is a great example to other North East SMEs.”