Revealing the secret to engineering success

Katie Jones project manager at SPP Pumps.
Katie Jones project manager at SPP Pumps.

Staying competitive is not easy, particularly in the oil & gas industry where big customers are few and suppliers are in fierce competition with each other. Here, Katie Jones, project manager at SPP Pumps discusses the company's approach to growing business and meeting customer needs. Centrifugal pumps and systems manufacturer SPP has been in business for more than 130 years. Until the company was bought by Kirloskar Brothers in 2003 it underwent some years of uncertainty, but has since undergone something of a renaissance. Worldwide turnover in 2012 was an impressive £69 million, with 60% of SPP's global trade being outside of the UK.

Oil & gas is one of SPP's key areas of expertise. In the 1970's SPP brought the very first UK North Sea oil ashore. Today its product portfolio includes niche non-hydrocarbon applications such as seawater lift, intake, cooling water, ballast water and fire water systems, as well as a full API product range for hydrocarbon pumping applications.

Costly operation  

Lost oil or gas production, even in a small facility, could cost an operation millions of pounds per day. Understanding the critical nature of these projects, SPP is committed to designing and manufacturing high performance pump solutions for both onshore and offshore applications, boasting more than 50 engineers dedicated to getting it right for customers, where it really matters.

SPP pump solution, design engineered to meet customer specifications. SPP Pumps designs and manufactures pumping equipment for both onshore and offshore applications. A project manager within SPP's oil & gas division, Katie Jones is responsible for managing oil and gas projects, but also some of the more complex projects that come through the different business units…

“We deal with very specific customer needs and bespoke requirements, and we pride ourselves on being able to react to our customers’ needs and satisfy them with a great solution - not just provide them with our standard products.

“Let's face it – every oil & gas plant is different, and so every project solution has to be different – whether in terms of materials or design, to meet customer-specific standards.

Typically, Katie will deal with two types of customer. These are usually either the EPC contractor for new build projects or the maintenance personnel for existing plants. The EPC contractor will be looking to fulfil the initial requirements to specification and will be open to discussion for suitability. In after-market supply, the supplier will be dealing with the maintenance personnel. They could well have a pump that has been in service for perhaps 15 years. Here, the supplier can give them the option for the same type of pump or explain why an upgrade to the latest specification may be a better option.

Customer's real needs  

Understanding the customer's real needs and answering them is at the heart of SPP's approach. And to get a better understanding of what those needs are, SPP sees the value of both project managers and design engineers meeting the customer together where possible.

Katie says that quite often, once the order has been received, there may be an initial handover and kick-off meeting with the customer. If it is early in the project, the project and sales teams may attend. Sometimes the kick-off meetings might be offset by a few weeks, giving the engineering team a chance to get fully up to speed with the project and this is when it is often advantageous to bring the engineers along. As she says, “When the engineers begin the design process, there are more relevant questions, more relevant discussions. We might already have had a general arrangement in, so we've got a real discussion point, and that's when it's best to reach out for the engineering team.”

Getting down to the nitty-gritty of the project at this stage will save much work and costs as time goes on. Here the client and supplier can discuss and refine the details and will, in the process, learn a lot from each other. SPP acquires a better understanding of the customer's needs and the customer gains a better understanding of the supplier and their approach to the project – it's a win win situation for both parties.

Katie says that this is vital in gaining the customers’ confidence. “Clients have commented on how they like working with SPP because we can accommodate changes, do not add variations or concessions and make fewer deviations from the initial specification than other suppliers. I understand why changes happen to the specification, and whilst it would make life easier if we didn't do them, that is not what SPP is about.”

“These early stages are a useful time, in helping the whole SPP team to get to know the project and the customer. Agreeing the technicalities and building relationships is fundamental to success.”

And of course there is a certain amount of education on both sides. Getting it right and knowing what is possible and what is not, is vital for a project to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Returning to the customer saying ‘this’ or ‘that’ is now no longer possible after it was agreed in the final specification does not make for a happy relationship and brings mistrust. Katie stresses the importance of communication all round before final specifications are agreed.

But even when both sides have agreed on what is being provided, this does not mean that further changes will not be needed as the project moves forward. However, far from being a negative, this presents SPP with a positive opportunity to demonstrate to the customer its can-do approach to accommodate necessary changes. Katie says: “Customers are aware that we are providing them with a solution. As a projects progresses they see how we handle solutions, and how we discuss matters with them. When a situation does arise, we help work it out, because quite often there is some scope change within a project that is customer-driven. It might be quite difficult, but we have to try and accommodate the change, that's when we become an engineering solution.”

Whole system approach  

Oil and gas is only one of SPPs divisions, the others being water & wastewater, fire, transformer oil, industry, autoprime, energy and standard products. Teams of engineers with relevant expertise and experience are nominally allocated to work within those divisions because they all have slight differences.

The requirements of sewerage and water customers is different to oil and gas customers, and contractors’ pumps. Asked if she thought that having different design teams allocated to different applications caused any competition between them or duplication of work, Katie replied, “I think it often does throw up healthy competition. At SPP, I think a lot of us are very passionate about what we do because we want SPP to be very successful. We are all experts in our own fields, which means there are often heated discussions, which I think is good and at the end of it we have the best solution.”

Katie makes the point that SPP's aim is not to provide a pump, but rather a whole packaged solution, “It is important to remember that none of the divisions sell pumps. That may sound slightly strange, but each of the divisions sells a package. The same pumps might be used in different divisions, but they would be packaged very differently.”

Katie went on to give the example whereby an SPP BM08 pump would be used in water, fire and potentially oil and gas applications. However, it would be a very different driver, engine or motor that would be coupled to it. If the pump was to be used in a fire application, it would have to comply with NFPA20. If it was an oil and gas application to consider, then the system might be more governed by customer specifications. “So we are a pump company, but actually we are more than pumps. We bring the whole system together, and it's a solution to a problem, rather than just a pump” concluded Katie.

SPP's product portfolio includes niche non-hydrocarbon applications such as seawater lift, intake, cooling water, ballast water and fire pump systems.

Competitive edge  

Yet SPP, like most manufacturers, is aware that its customers do have options and there are other players in the market ready to step in to take its hard-won business. So why do major players return to SPP for repeat business and what gives SPP gives the edge over its competitors?

Katie reaffirms the point that time spent with the customer and getting to know their needs pays dividends. “We offer our customer interaction. We don't just take the order and just run with it, and say, ‘yes, this is what the customer wants and we don't need to discuss it any further’. We attend an initial kick-off meeting, where we visit the customer or they come to us. We discuss the projects and go over some of the clarifications to ensure this is definitely what the customer wants. Often after we've submitted some documents, the customer will review them and think, ‘we actually want something different there’, and they'd come back and talk to us, and then we can then discuss if we can do it, looking at the impact, costs and so forth. So often, designs can evolve throughout the project.”

Katie cites repeat business as proof that this approach is validated, “I think a key thing that we see from this end is repeat customers. We also see repeat specifications and if that can be a sign of how we are perceived, then we are perceived very well. Our parts market and our after-sales market do well from that, and people do come back time and time again.”

Material specification  

One of the biggest challenges for any supplier to the oil & gas industry is keeping abreast of the latest changes in material development. This is vitally important in the specifications of any piece of plant, especially when it would be responsible for saving lives.

Katie Jones gives an example with fire protection systems, “This is the most expensive piece of kit you will buy that you hope you never have to use. These systems have to work, no matter what happens. If there's an explosion, fire protection systems are there to save lives and equipment, so if they fail, people could die and high-value equipment is lost, so it has to work.”

Naturally customers are very specific about the materials they need. For example a valve could be a standard, off-the-shelf product, until the customer requires specific materials for highly saline environments, high temperatures and sea water. This requires not only finding the specific materials, but often these have to be fully-tested, which demands traceability from the pouring of the materials at the casting stage, right the way through into the valve being on SSP's own site.

Katie says: “Material development is ever-evolving. The demand is to extend the life of the equipment which has a life sat in sea water. We're now aiming and achieving 25 years life in highly corrosive environments, and I don't think people often realise how corrosive sea water can be. It's a major success for SPP. After all, when it really matters, the material is just as important as the design of the system.”

SPP has encouraged a personal pride and accountability in its workforce which is so important in going that extra mile for the customer and is another step to ensure that not only will they win the business, but the business stays with them as Katie demonstrates: “We have a vested interest in making sure that when this equipment has to be used it works, because reputation is everything. If something happened, and our pumps failed, it would be headlines within the pumping world and that's why we always ensure that our equipment exceeds what it needs to.”

2017 Pump Industry Awards

World Pumps is keen to encourage nominations for young engineers at the 2017 Pump Industry Awards.

Please contact Editor Alan Burrows for further information.

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