The arts and crafts movement - welding and fabrication

Alan Robinson, Arc Energy & Apprentices

Alan Robinson, Arc Energy & Apprentices - Credit: NG

Welding is a skill, a craft and an art. Good welders are difficult to find and train according to Alan Robinson, managing director at Gloucestershire-based welding and fabrication specialist Arc Energy Resources. There aren’t enough cladders either, he adds, which could hamper his business’s growth ambitions.

Arc Energy - Alan Robinson

Arc Energy - Alan Robinson - Credit: NG

Lucky, then, that Alan has just been awarded the Best Welding Coordinator by the European Federation for Welding, Joining and Cutting (EWF), which will raise his profile within the engineering and welding community.

Alan is a senior member of The Welding Institute. He is also a certified European Welding Engineer and has a Masters Degree in welding, as well as being a Chartered Engineer.

Arc Energy sits in a niche area of engineering specialising in the supply of corrosion resistant weld overlay cladding and the manufacture of specialist fabrications for the oil, gas, nuclear, renewable, water, wastewater and naval industries. This £5.5 million turnover company, which celebrates 20 years in business this year, provides corrosion protection for heavy machinery in all sorts of tough natural environments. Take a submarine. Every opening that comes into contact with the sea will rust if it’s not treated properly. So every one, from the submariners’ entrance, the exit for the torpedoes to the periscope hatch must be welded and clad correctly. Oil pipelines in certain parts of the world where the oil is particularly corrosive (including North Sea oil, though apparently not Middle East oil), also need cladding to stop corrosion.

As these industries grow, so will the opportunities for Arc Energy which is now not only dealing with the companies which have been commissioned to build the heavy duty equipment, but also the end users.

“The big boys are now thinking strategically and recognising cladding as the critical path,” said Alan. “Everything we do has weld procedures and our clients won’t necessarily have a welding engineer but their clients will, so we make sure these people know about us.”

Alan predicts Arc Energy could increase its turnover by £1 million this year thanks to its increasingly recognised expertise. But the future wasn’t always so rosy. Alan, 61, started his career at Dowty in Cheltenham, doing a mechanical engineering degree at Loughborough on a sandwich course. “I worked at Dowty in its heyday.”

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He started specialising when he bought a welding set for his car, and moved to Dowty Mining making heavy welded parts for coalfaces. In the 1980s he went to work for Strachan and Henshaw in Bristol on mechanical handling equipment for coal trucks, torpedoes and other heavy-duty equipment. These were £80 million contracts that took months to plan and deliver. At the time, the oil industry was just getting going and a company approached Strachan and Henshaw for work, but they needed a much quicker response time. “I presented a proposal to the board to set up a separate faster-moving part of the company but they said it wasn’t part of their core activity, so I left.”

Together with a former Strachan and Henshaw colleague, Alan established Head Robinson Engineering. “The first real major oil field where cladding was used was Brae, run by Marathon Oil. I knew one of the welding engineers from when I did my MSc in welding engineering,” he said.

The Marathon guys were designing cladding into all their valves and this became Head Robinson’s first contract. From then on it was edge-of-seat stuff. Alan spent days with Woodchester-based McEvoy Valves engineers trying to work out how to clad the inside of huge valves and the contracts were coming thick and fast. “We were flying by the seat of our pants.”

Alan was enjoying the ride. But it was to come to a juddering halt when human relations got in the way and the business partnership had to be dissolved. Alan grimaces. “It was a difficult time and while I was waiting for my money to come through I dug a very big pond.”

However, as his pond got bigger so the world moved on and when he started again it was by necessity in a very small factory doing some work which was way outside his company’s capabilities.

Over the next four years there were many times when he though about packing up. “It wasn’t like the first time. I was more cynical. It was just my wife Rosemary and myself.” But in 1998, the business had grown and they moved to larger premises. Unfortunately, 1998 was also when the oil industry stopped thanks to mutterings about taxing oil exploration as well as oil production. Aberdeen shut for two years.

“We had just moved in and we were horrified,” said Alan. “Our new building was big and it echoes when it’s empty, we didn’t know what to use it for. So we spent time doing things like welding up rubbish skips. It was hard work and we also had to support 15-20 employees.” Fast forward 16 years and Alan’s business has not only recovered but grown, moving back into oil and diversifying into the water and nuclear industries.

His wife, Rosemary still works in the business and their 28-year old son has joined them.

For Alan, the job continues to challenge. “A major part of my day is technical and the specifications we are getting in are getting increasingly tight. We are seeking to increase our R&D and are currently interviewing. We are also advertising for a project manager and an estimator, and of course we always need good welders and cladders – although sometimes we have to go as far as Newcastle to recruit them.

Arc Energy, which has a workforce of 70, also takes on apprentices, though they had a surprising application recently.

“We interviewed a girl who had missed out on a hairdressing and beauty course, but said she wouldn’t mind learning how to fix cars. I left her with the team to try a bit of welding and she was very good at it. Now she wants to be a welder. Half a day of welding and she wants to be a welder! The point is young people seldom have the opportunity to discover new skills and learn what they are good at." n