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Compressed air: Worthy of greater respect

27 July 2015

In a competitive global economic market, the importance of compressed air has never been more apparent. Here, Chris Dee gives his annual BCAS executive director’s report.

Compressed air is an essential utility recourse for virtually every industrial, manufacturing, mining, assembly and processing facility. It can have a direct and often significant impact on manufacturing productivity, process and efficiency. But too often it is not taken seriously enough either within industry or government.


UK manufacturing boost

Every month the Office of National Statistics (ONS) presents estimates for the Index of Production (IoP) across the United Kingdom’s production industries. The IoP is one of the earliest indicators for growth, measuring output in the manufacturing sectors, such as; mining, quarrying, energy supply, water supply and waste management industries, all of which are significant end-users of compressed air.

As of May 2015 the combined production industries account for 14.6% of the output approach to the measurement of gross domestic product (GDP). IoP values are referenced to 2011 so that the average for 2011 is equal to 100. The current index value is 99 as of March 2015, this would indicate that output is 1% lower than average so far for 2015, however, care should be taken when using month-on-month growth rates due to their volatile nature. The index estimates are mainly based on a monthly business survey (MBS) of approximately 6000 businesses, covering the entire UK. 

Total production output is estimated to have increased by 0.1% between Quarter 4 (October to December) 2014 and Quarter 1 (January to March) 2015. Manufacturing, the largest component of production, is also estimated to have increased by 0.1% between these periods. The largest contribution to the quarterly growth came from electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning output, which increased by 2.7%

Between March 2015 and March 2014 total production output is estimated to have increased by 0.7%. Of the four main sectors, manufacturing was the largest one to rise, increasing by 1.1%.

Manufacturing output is estimated to have increased by 0.4% between February 2015 and March 2015. The main subsector contributing to the increase was the mining and quarrying industry, which increased by roughly 2.6%.

David Kern, chief economist at the British Chamber of Commerce, said: "While year-on-year growth for manufacturing is satisfactory, there is a clear slowdown in the pace of growth both quarterly and year-on-year. This provides further confirmation that expansion of the UK economy has gradually eased in recent times.”

Rob Wood, chief economist at Berenberg bank, commented that the outlook for the UK remained positive: "UK employment rose in the three months to September 2014, close to consensus expectations as a softer few months of job gains seems to have passed. While unemployment held steady in September, compared to consensus forecasts for a drop, there is every sign of jobless queues continuing to fall rapidly in the months ahead, with jobless claims down again in October, it shows that companies are continuing to hire.”

Apprenticeships help businesses to grow

Throughout 2014, BCAS members formed several working groups to address key issues facing the industry. At the 2014 Autumn Conference the society presented its vision for apprenticeships in the compressed air industry with presentations from members of the BCAS board and from academia. 

The key points from the Autumn Conference were:

•  Almost every employer that takes on an apprentice (96%) reports benefits to their business

•  72% of businesses report improved productivity as a result of employing an apprentice

•  Other benefits reported by apprentice employers include improved product or service, the introduction of new ideas to the organisation, improved staff morale and better staff retention, each mentioned by around two-thirds of employers

With these benefits in mind BCAS challenged member companies to set up apprenticeships and contact their local schools and colleges to tell students about the jobs and opportunities in the compressed air industry, and is encouraging members to put apprentices through various training courses. 

It’s clear that businesses offering apprenticeships view them as beneficial to their long-term development. According to the British Chamber of Commerce, most employ an apprentice to improve the skills base within their business.

Instead of bemoaning the lack of qualified youngsters, businesses must help train up the next generation of workers.

Businesses have a moral and long-term economic imperative to train people. Apprenticeships must be held in the same esteem as A-level and promoted positively to young people. We are at a watershed moment in the history of our education system. The economy is improving, jobs are available and there is cross-party agreement on the need for more high quality apprenticeships. Employers have never had a better opportunity to seize the moment and play their part. 

Safety in the workplace

Another key issue facing the industry is making sure all BCAS members have enough protection to ensure their customers are using compressed air in the safest environment possible. 

At the Autumn Conference there were proposed changes to the BCAS code of conduct and membership conditions to introduce a minimum standard of accreditation, giving end-users security and safety through using a BCAS member, as they, in particular, may not be aware of the hazards associated with the equipment.

This message was also delivered at the 2015 Spring Conference, through the ‘Be Compliant and Safe’ campaign. Guest speakers used the latest statistics and research to emphasise how costly accidents can be in the workplace and highlighted how a variety of training products and services can help keep BCAS members and their customers protected.

The end-user needs to ensure that any of their employees who have a responsibility to maintain compressed air equipment have some traceable competency training through BCAS. UK health & safety laws place duties of care on organisations and employers, and company directors can be personally liable when these duties are breached. 

The end-user also needs to ensure that their compressed air service company is competent both technically and from a health & safety perspective, ensuring pressurised systems are operated and maintained correctly. 

BCAS statistics scheme

The society has for many years run monthly statistics schemes for the BCAS membership covering categories such as industrial compressors, portable compressors, dryers, tools and distributor activity.

The statistics schemes are confidential and run under strict rules to ensure total security, with no member being able to identify any other member’s contribution. This range of schemes is unique and not only provides members with an industry benchmark against which they can compare their monthly performance but also allows BCAS to provide European legislators an accurate overview of the compressed air market.

The distributor statistics scheme records the trend in the compressed air related activity as a total figure. The other BCAS statistics schemes (for the manufacturers of equipment) record the number and value of monthly sales for each category. For example, the total sales of industrial air compressors as an index for the period October 2010 to October 2014 shows a steady rise for the four years.

Members can then see the trends not only in terms of sales but also for the type of industrial compressor and the size of each unit over a given time period.

The BCAS scheme also plots the trend of more than 20 different sizes of industrial compressor (as agreed by the membership) so that changes in the orders for different sizes of compressor can be tracked.