Webster and Horsfall – the story continues

01 November 2023

While the global wire and cable industry is increasingly supplying new products with the aim of making our consumption of raw materials and emissions of greenhouse and other gases healthier […]

While the global wire and cable industry is increasingly supplying new products with the aim of making our consumption of raw materials and emissions of greenhouse and other gases healthier for the planet, not all the work is on an intercontinental scale.

In the UK, Webster and Horsfall – now in its 304th year – is making its own inroads into reducing industry’s energy needs and refining its products for ever more specialist uses, in tune with the demands of business survival and growth in the 21st Century.

At the end of 2019 we featured W&H prior to its 300th birthday in July 2020, and we have been catching up on the plans the company sketched out back then. Attendees of the IWMA’s November conference Energy Innovates will be able to hear the full scope of the growing success story as they tour the 17 acre site in Birmingham.

“We will give delegates a tour of the site,” explained director of the wire and cable operation, Jonathan Horsfall – the son of Charles Horsfall, MD at the time of the anniversary, now retired.

“We’ll show them our historical archive, the shop floor machinery and production techniques, Birmingham University’s energy innovation centre and give them a wider tour of our low-carbon operations.”

From being a major world manufacturer of wire ropes and similar products 50 years ago, W&H fell on harder times with the loss of the UK coal-mining industry. As a result, the company has refined its business and now concentrates mainly on new, short-run specialist drawing-operations, becoming a leader once again in the process.

“We seek out small niche markets looking for specially-shaped profiles, flat, ground or polished wires, even straight lengths. It doesn’t hurt that we have a truly gifted engineer who can modify machines to produce exactly what the customer wants,” explained Jonathan.

“We could always do much of this, but needed orders for larger quantities to keep the machines running. A team of workers would light the furnace for heat treatment on Sunday and it would run until Friday, which was incredibly wasteful and expensive without sufficient work for it.

“Now we use mainly induction heating for heat treatment; we can pretty much turn the machines on and away they go, for whatever quantity has been ordered. All that, plus the experience of 300 years of wire working…”

When the big makers stop producing items in the millions – in the former market for combustion engine valve springs, for example – Webster and Horsfall can supply the smaller quantities needed for the fewer engines now being produced. Electric vehicles aren’t beyond their reach either: they might not make the quantities needed for motors and batteries, but they are the ideal supplier of springs for seating, braking systems, door latches and so on.

The company has tried to “reinvent” wire-drawing with new techniques that offer specialist production at the highest quality for auto, motorsport, maritime diesels, aerospace, medical and many other applications.

Jonathan and his colleagues also constantly seek new markets around the world, as well as finding new ways of working with the surrounding Tyseley Energy Park facilities to make production more efficient.

Which is the other main reason why companies around the world are talking to W&H: its second leadership role is in small-scale energy generation.

Representatives of concerns in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Mexico and others have all visited Hay Mills to see the site’s energy production facilities, known as the Tyseley Energy Park, situated on the once-vast former Webster and Horsfall site and a model for similar industrial sites.

“Any country with a developing industrial base but without the infrastructure to keep plants running all day, every day, can learn things here about biomass fuels, small-scale electricity generation and so on,” Jonathan explained.

The company’s net-zero lead on low-carbon and energy matters is Tommy Allsopp, who is excited by the plans for Tyseley.

Spurred on by the Birmingham local authority’s waste incinerator on the site next to Hay Mills, W&H became landlord to a biomass waste energy plant on its own site in 2013 – which now supplies lower-cost energy to all the Tyseley business units with capacity to spare.

The plant can burn up to 70,000 tonnes of waste wood a year, producing up to 10MW of electricity – only 10 per cent of which is currently used by the businesses in the park. The green-energy facility has acted as an anchor attraction for the business park, and there are plans to expand coverage over a much wider area.

When Birmingham City Council declared parts of the city a “green zone” in 2018 to encourage the development of cleaner-operating businesses, it backed its intentions by buying a fleet of 20 hydrogen-powered buses.

The hydrogen is produced and the buses fuelled by Motive Fuels based at Tyseley Energy Park, and there are now plans for the council to buy another 120 similar buses for local routes, all of which will be fuelled at Hay Mills.

Tyseley is also developing a 350Kw EV truck-charging stand (complete with cafes and other facilities) and has bunkered hydrogenated vegetable oil functioning as a transition fuel for fleets looking to decarbonised. Users can fill up with hydrogen, biofuels, and ,soon, electricity at unmanned stations on the site, 24 hours a day.

“We’re trying the make the energy park an exemplar for fuel creation and distribution, and how these work with local industry,” said Jonathan Horsfall.

A big piece of the low-carbon jigsaw fell into place when the University of Birmingham moved its energy research centre to the TEP in 2019, opening in 2021. This gave the site increased credibility as a centre for cutting-edge research into thermal storage, hydrogen fuel cells, even AI-driven robots for recycling old batteries.

The university is also undertaking a joint project with W&H to reduce the impact of hydrogen creation by cracking ammonia rather than the electrolysis water.

“Traditionally, water is the raw fuel,” explained Tommy Allsopp, “but its electrolysis into hydrogen and oxygen uses a lot of electricity, and it’s harder to transport once it is made. Ammonia holds more hydrogen per molecule and can be “cracked” into its constituent nitrogen and hydrogen with less energy. It can also be transported more safely.

“Our plans for the energy park are steadily falling into place,” he said. “Only two of the park’s business units are now vacant, we have plans to extend to a wider field of operations in a strategic partnership with the university and the local council, and within five years TEP should be at full capacity, producing green energy in the forms we will need to use it for years to come.

“The company was struggling 15 years ago, but It’s not too outlandish to think now that we will still be here, and thriving, when our 400th anniversary comes round!”


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