Saint-Gobain's quantum leap on innovation
Saint-Gobain PAM is establishing itself as a frontrunner in the innovation stakes, and as it continues to challenge the dominance of plastic pipes in the market place. And with AMP5 just around the corner, the company is already looking at other revolutionary ideas that will help the water industry improve efficiency.
David Smoker, business development director at Saint-Gobain PAM UK, explains: "There are some very good ideas out there. But some companies talk the talk and are not necessarily prepared to walk the walk." He adds: "We will not bring a product or service to market unless we can say what the benefits are to the customers."
Saint-Gobain has reviewed the way in which it develops products. Smoker says the company is carrying out "quantum developments", looking at the design of a product and how to get the maximum benefit from the materials available.
He says Saint-Gobain PAM's Bluetop ductile-iron pipe is a prime example of this. In designing Bluetop "we looked at where pipes are used, the materials that are robust. This is where Bluetop came from".
Bluetop is a small-diameter, lightweight, thin-walled ductile-iron pipe that combines the traditional values and long-term performance of ductile iron with the modern values of plastics. Launched in the UK earlier this year, it offers leak-free reliability, easy handling, reduced installation costs and high water quality.
Paul Hancock, water and sewer product manager at Saint-Gobain PAM UK, says Bluetop's inherent strength and material properties contribute several benefits, including reduced transportation and a reduction in carbon footprint. "It's using the right materials for the job to reduce the cost, to reduce the weight."
Another advantage of Bluetop is that ductile iron is recyclable. The pipe's Ductan lining can also be recycled.
Unlike cast iron, ductile iron has different properties "and is a different animal", says Hancock. "It is those properties that we want to promote."
Hancock says the properties of ductile iron have changed and the company is now at a point where the coatings used are providing an advantage to the life cycle of ductile iron.
Prior to Bluetop's launch Saint-Gobain spent a lot of time getting the product right. Its zinc aluminium coating alone - its designed to prolong the life of ductile iron - took 15 years to develop.
The company also offers Kameleo, a fitting designed to reduce the number of bends needed for certain situations. Hancock explains: "If there's a repair with different levels of pipe, for instance, a certain number of bends maybe needed in situations where they wouldn't necessarily work without using some other form of connection.
"Kameleo is designed to be fitted in place with a minimum number of bends, so it's reducing the need to stock a number of bends or connections."
Smoker says Saint-Gobain PAM's product and service developments "are very much geared towards making life easier for our customers".
Looking to the longer-term, the company is looking at RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology. So far the technology has been applied to manhole covers with the idea that the RFID tag can store any information that is required - the serial number, when it was installed, its location, what is underneath, for instance.
Smoker says the RFID technology will enable engineers to establish all the information they need before opening the manhole cover.
"This offers all sorts of possibilities."
The technology is currently being field-tested, and Smoker sees no reason why it could not be applied to pipes and valves. "A lot of informational can be stored and because it's passive it doesn't take any energy," he says.
In the water industry, understanding an asset - where it is and what is happening with it - is important, says Smoker. Once the technology is proven on the manhole covers the transition, in water industry terms, would be relatively quick to move over to pipes and valves.
The company is also looking at the possibility of developing "intelligent pipes and intelligent valves", although this will require integration with other technologies.
Smoker explains: "Inside a network, you've got pressure differences between different parts of the system, and there may also be temperature differences.
"But within the pipe itself, is it experiencing external stresses which might impact on the life of the pipe? We need to know that."
He continues: "Once you start blue-sky thinking there's all sorts of possibilities."
Saint-Gobain has two research and development facilities, one in France and the other in China. The company invests 2% of its revenue in research and development.
Smoker believes "there's a lot of innovation out there". However, the difficulty is getting it into the water companies.
"Some of this is down to the water companies and their approach to innovation, and some of it's down to Ofwat," he says.
He highlights Martin Cave's comments on innovation in his Cave report but feels there is no incentive provided in the periodic reviews and determinations for companies to take risk.
"There is no mechanism for incentivising innovation."
While Smoker is critical of the system he is quick to stress that there are some companies, such as Yorkshire Water, that are making efforts to innovate.
However, he says others are not prepared to see the possibility that a new technology or product could work.
"As suppliers we can come up with ideas and put things in to the market. But it's not until they get in to the market that the real benefits start to get real realised, and people start using them."
The economic climate is affecting the supply chain, with some water companies coming under fire for delaying or cancelling projects as they undertake spending cuts.
Smoker says he has "a great deal of sympathy"
with the water companies. "They've been hit by almost a perfect storm in terms of their non-regulated business where revenue is down.
"This is useful business for them but companies are using less water. Added to that it's been a wet summer so we're using less water than last year."
Despite this, Smoker says that when you look at the water companies business plans AMP5 "is going to be interesting".