BEP Surface Technologies – Celebrating 50 Years of Innovation

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BEP Surface Technologies – Celebrating 50 Years of Innovation

50 years on and still going strong!

The super star of the copper plating world, BEP Surface Technologies, an engineering firm in the finest traditions of British industry, is celebrating 50 years of innovation.

From the day the company first opened its doors, innovation has been part of the business plan. Working at the cutting edge of what they do, they harness new ideas, techniques and technologies to find a new answer to an old problem.

We talk to founder Steve Howard and CEO Andrew McClusky on what BEP has achieved over the last 50 years and how it has literally become a company of national strategic importance.

BEP Surface Technologies dates back to 1970 when Bury Electroplating Company first opened for business above a small Co-Op butcher and grocer’s shop.

The business was founded by Steve Howard and Bob Oates who, with £350 capital each, started the business to provide copper plating solely for the printing industry.

Steve, now semi-retired but still a director, picks up the story.

When we first opened we weren’t even sure there was a market for copper plating. There were lots of much larger electroplating companies, but none were copper plating for the print industry.

But a deal with Mount Engraving to chrome plate their engraved rolls and a contract with Storey Brothers in Lancaster to copper plate their gravure cylinders got the business going, and we were delighted that in our first year, the company turned over the princely sum of £7,500.

Over the next 10 years, we added new services such as turning, polishing, grinding, superfinishing, grit/shot blasting and nickel plating. We also began to process rolls for many other industries including glass, steel, plastics calendering and laminating, film casting and photographic paper, all of which required a move to new, larger premises.

I didn’t in my wildest dreams imagine that the entire industry we were serving would fold under the pressure of new technology or that we would wind up being the premier electroplating and machining company in the UK, exporting worldwide and serving a widely diverse range of industries from defence, nuclear, steel, packaging, plastics, water, oil, power generation and more.”

How has the UK electroplating industry changed in the last 50 years?

Going back 70 years most towns had at least one electroplating company and there were many operators. Today, there is just a handful left.

The reasons are several.

The first I would say was the lack of investment in UK manufacturing. Back In the 70’s & 80’s, as a nation we were encouraged to buy cheaper abroad, this coupled with a lack of apprenticeship programs for the next generation of engineers, seriously diminished UK skill base.

Secondly, legislation has changed dramatically to encourage a cleaner environment.

The IPPC license (Integrated Pollution Prevention & Control) was introduced for any site that had more than 30,000L of toxic solutions on site. This brought in a much greater duty of care with your solutions, discharges, emissions that was then monitored by the Environment Agency.

As a result a lot of small operators chose to take tanks out of operation and hence not have to comply with IPPC. This limited their growth, profitability and was actually the death knell to those businesses.

European legislation has attempted to tighten this all again with the REACH legislation. Europe tried to ban chrome and very nearly succeeded. They also tried to ban nickel plating until literally at the last minute they realised all manufacturing plants would literally grind to a halt as the manufacturing equipment couldn’t be repaired.

Those of us that have survived are much more responsible operators both to environment and staff. “

Why has BEP survived when so many haven’t?

From the beginning we decided to do the job properly and concentrate on quality. We re-invested when a lot didn’t. We designed and built a lot of our own specialist equipment, particularly in the plating department, and we adapted to changing industries.

50 years on we still do copper and chrome plating, but the processes have developed over the years. Textured chromium surfaces with much higher peak counts than could ever be obtained by grit/shot blasting alone were developed for demanding roll applications. Then after two years of development work our ground-breaking copper shelled cooling roll technology was introduced in 2003.

In 2004, we renamed the company BEP Surface Technologies as investment in new technology, continued development of unique skills, precision engineering and surface technologies, expanded our customer base to companies of all sizes located in the UK and overseas.”

Looking to the future, what does the next 50 years hold for BEP?

Today, BEP’s mission is to be the number one plating and grinding shop in the UK. In fact, it is fast becoming the last man standing in this area, as no other company can electroplate in copper, chrome and nickel the size of components that BEP can which it does all under one roof, making BEP literally a company of national strategic importance.

BEP’s focus on innovation and its scientific approach means BEP is always looking to push the boundaries with new techniques, new components and new materials, as Andrew McClusky, BEP’s CEO explains.

BEP is the only company that is doing anything experimental with copper and looking at other ways you can use copper.

For example, using our expertise at grinding, plating and finishing huge metal cylinders – vast tonnage with tiny tolerances – we developed coatings to improve the performance of vital defence equipment and supported ‘strategically important’ projects for the Defence industry.

We also developed a long term storage solution for the nuclear industry. It took us 6 years to develop the very high purity copper needed to coat high level nuclear waste canisters. I can guarantee no one else in the world has achieved this making us truly world experts in copper plating.”

So where will BEP’s next innovation come from?

Achieving ever-higher tolerances means working at an ever-smaller scale, essentially engineering at the microscopic level. The advent of nanotechnology offers a wealth of avenues for plating and finishing, which is a new frontier to explore.

Then, there’s innovative materials like Graphene.

Working with the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) we successfully integrated graphene into copper. Combining copper and graphene takes conductivity to next level creating a huge potential leap in conductivity and the potential for massive cost savings.

GEIC are also looking at Graphene plating steel plates used in buildings, but to do it they need to copper plate the steel plates first, which fits perfectly with our existing operations.

Although we can’t be certain of what the future will bring, there’s no doubt BEP will continue to push the boundaries to harness the next innovation; plus we have a passion for UK manufacturing that we believe is essential to the prosperity of UK plc, and we fully intend to play our part.”

Happy 50th Anniversary BEP Surface Finishing!