University partnership generates renewable energy expansion in Argyll
7 Jan 2019
Change is in the wind when it comes to energy generation in Scotland. Wind turbines generated 98% of the country’s power in October 2018, and Scottish Power now generates all its power from wind, having recently sold off its last coal power station.
Green as the product might be, the instruments of this clean energy revolution are still subject to wear and tear. The turbines at the UK’s largest windfarm in Whitelee, Scotland measure 300ft to the tip of the blade and make 17 revolutions per minute, at a speed of 150mph. With an estimated lifecycle of 25 years, a considerable amount of upkeep goes into keeping the lights on at home.
Helping to minimise this impact is Renewable Parts Ltd. (RPL), a small-to-medium enterprise established in Lochgilphead, Argyll in 2011. Founder Ewan Anderson started the business, now the UK’s largest independent supply chain specialist, with an ethos of reducing the sector’s carbon footprint and getting new use out of parts once considered unserviceable.
Dealing with nearly 400 active suppliers and more than 4500 line items from their Glasgow inventory, RPL position themselves as a one-stop supply shop for customers dealing in everything from whole turbines to consumables like oils and circuit boards. However, Chief Executive James Barry says “there’s no added value in just selling on price”.
“Our drive is innovation and partnership – investing in people, software, analytics and refurbishment capability. We ask ourselves how we can add value to our customer’s business and we’re asking our customers to think harder about what they’re doing, to see where they can improve.”
Seeking to expand their business in the repair and remanufacture of wind turbine parts, RPL came to Interface, an SFC-funded organisation set up to connect businesses with world-leading Scottish academic expertise.
Interface was able to successfully match RPL with relevant experts at the University of Strathclyde’s Electronic and Electrical Engineering department, the Strathclyde Institute for Operations Management, and the Scottish Institute for Remanufacture – to investigate the new business models RPL wanted to pursue.
David McMillan, Senior Lecturer and Project Leader at the University of Strathclyde says the project offered the University the opportunity to apply its expertise in turbine reliability and operations management “in a new way, which really made us think about how we process and present this kind of data.”
Beyond shaping RPL’s future service offerings, McMillan says the project has led to multiple further collaborations with experts at Strathclyde.
“The local supply chain will be crucial to keep wind turbines running and we are happy to have played a part in facilitating that, in partnership with RPL and Interface.”
A major outcome from RPL’s Interface partnership, together with funding it secured through the Energy Technology Partnership, is its new manufacturing base in Lochgilphead’s old ambulance station. The Renewable Parts Refurbishment Centre was opened by Strathclyde Vice-Chancellor Sir Jim McDonald in October. RPL now refurbishes and manufacturers parts in Scotland that might have otherwise been sourced from overseas. The result is a more responsive, more agile supply chain that reduces customer cost of ownership. The component fixes provided are of high quality and fully warranted. But critically, this development is also creating much needed employment in the local economy, says Barry.
“By the end of next year we expect to have four more people working there and we’ve just started our apprenticeship scheme as well. People are very positive about it. I think it’s refreshing to see a small business expanding in a rural area, providing high-quality skilled jobs.”
Another example of the added value RPL can offer following its Interface partnership is in its remote warehousing capability. Using new software, he says the company can advise customers using data analytics it collects on turbine trends and stock and parts consumption.
“We work with a range of people like Scottish Power, E.ON and Innogy who see the importance of the insight we provide and as a result we’re seeing continued sales growth – more people want to do business with us because they can see the value we add.”
To other businesses looking at the benefits of an Interface partnership, Barry says “we can’t say enough good things. Strathclyde is a leading institution when it comes to renewables but they also have strong ties with industry, especially when it comes to applied knowledge”.
“The whole nature of research and development is that you must anticipate the occasional misfire; this is the essence of innovation and pushing boundaries. It’s all part of the learning process of pursuing a higher tech route, investing in skills and knowledge, to create long term value.”
“Innovation takes a lot of belief and resilience but I think the Scottish Government has the right policies and funding to support those businesses willing to take the step. RPLs’ recent award from Zero Waste Scotland is a huge vote of confidence in the business and our pioneering work in the wind industry. We’re hugely proud to be the first SME in the sector to receive this level of support.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently announced a new £5 million investment into the national Interface programme, to continue its work matching businesses with Scotland’s world-leading academic expertise.
“Scotland is home to some of the most highly-rated research institutions in the world and we continue to invest to ensure this leads to practical industry innovation. This further investment from the Scottish Funding Council and the enterprise agencies in Interface will help to amplify our talent and expertise by connecting national and international industry with all of Scotland’s universities, research institutes and colleges,” the First Minister said.
“This boosts productivity, profits and exports and creates jobs, and many companies that have benefited from Interface funding say their project would not have happened without its support.”
Dr Siobhán Jordan, Director of Interface, said: “Businesses don’t always know how to tap into academic expertise; this funding will ensure that Interface can continue to make valuable connections leading to transformational collaborative research and development.”
John Kemp, Interim Chief Executive of the Scottish Funding Council, said: “RPL’s story is a great example of the role Interface plays in supporting innovation in the Scottish economy, creating jobs and prosperity. I’m delighted SFC and its partners are able to make this investment and look forward to seeing the benefits it will bring to Scotland.”