Whale….3D Technology Brings New Direction
Bangor-based Whale has been a leading manufacturer of pumps for the marine and caravan industries for many years, but the US-owned company is branching out in an entirely new direction.
Whilst many of us will have watched the rapid rise of 3D printing technology with a passing interest, Whale was one of a small band of innovative companies ready to invest in the industrial potential of the technology.
It bought its first 3D printer five years ago, established a business case and went on to purchase a couple of the very latest 3D print units in more recent years, setting up a dedicated Whale 3D division based in one of two buildings Whale occupies on the outskirts of Bangor.
“Why did we get into 3D print technology? Because we could see it was a way for us to produce prototypes for seals, diaphragms, casings and other components for the R&D side of our own business,” says Whale’s Technical Services Manager, Jim Sergeant.
“Before this technology was available, a prototype might take two or three weeks through design and production. On a 3D printer, we can produce what we need in 24 hours.
“That’s a major advantage when it comes to speeding up the whole development process, and it can also reduce tooling costs.” From a starting point of printing component prototypes in house, Whale 3D soon found that there was a substantial demand out in the wider marketplace.
“Some of our customers in the marine and caravan industries started to ask us about producing components and it all spiralled from there,” adds Jim.
“Nowadays, we have well over 100 different customers in the aerospace, automotive, toy and even jewellery sectors in the UK, North America, China and Australia.”
Whale 3D also works closely with Stratasys, the US-based world leader in the production of large-scale 3D printing machines, and has partnered with Stratasys at exhibitions and shows to showcase the application of the technology within industry.
In a corner of Whale 3D’s Technology & Polymer Centre are a collection of models – a human hand, a fully-armed soldier, and a complex working set of gears – produced on the company’s printers and used to demonstrate 3D print capabilities at shows and events.
As yet, this isn’t a competitive industry at least here in Northern Ireland. Only one other local company is reckoned to have the 3D printing capability of Whale. Whale’s Engineering Director Richard Bovill talks about a change of mindset at the company five or six years ago when 3D print technology was very definitely in its infancy.
“We saw it as a way of producing small prototypes and of testing products before tooling up for production in our main plant,” he says. “But we couldn’t have foreseen how it would develop once we got started down this road.”
The Northern Ireland firm has an interesting history dating back to the early 1800s and its origins as Munster Simms in the fuel distribution business. Munster Simms branched into engineering and started producing bilge pumps for the Royal Navy during the Second World War, transferring that expertise post-war to the leisure boat marketplace. Most recently, it has produced a range of pumps for use in boats, caravans and recreational vehicles.
The company was the subject of an MBO back in 2008, led by former Managing Director Patrick Hurst, and went on to be acquired by the Brunswick Corporation two years ago. Headquartered in Illinois, Brunswick owns some of the world’s leading leisure boat and boat engine brands. Whale forms part of the division which also includes Mercury, the outboard engine manufacturers.
But Richard Bovill stresses that the Northern Ireland operation is given a largely free rein by its American parent company. Now based at twin purpose-built sites in Bangor, Whale is now a £19.4 million turnover operation with a staff of 170, almost all of whom are based in Northern Ireland.
“We’re very proud of the fact that we do everything – design, R&D, manufacture, sales and administration – here in Bangor,” says Richard Bovill. “And we’re sending our products out from here to 52 countries worldwide.”
The firm’s core customers are still in the leisure marine (38%) and caravan/RV (32%) sectors, but it also produces pumps and accessories for the healthcare and drainage sectors. Within those sectors, Whale produces a larger than expected number of different products.
In the marine sphere, for example, Whale’s trademark bilge pumps are joined by marine plumbing systems, fresh water pumps, toilet pumps and water heaters. Gas water heaters are added to the range for the caravan sector, and Whale has tapped into a new market producing pumps to help power domestic showers. “New product innovation is the key to our business,” says Richard Bovill.
“We’ve got a team of 40 engineers here in Bangor. We even have our own software development unit. So we’re well placed to come up with new product applications to keep our 12 injection moulding machines in our main plant busy.”
The firm’s Engineering Director says that any skills shortage isn’t an issue for the company. “Largely, we’ll recruit and train our own people, and we haven’t had any problems doing that as yet. Our only difficulty, to be honest, is that there just aren’t enough hours in the day.”
Whale estimates an annual research and development spend of £1.5 million annually and that’s unlikely to change. The Bangor operation also lays a strong emphasis on product quality. “It’s what we are all about and it is absolutely central to what we do here,” says Bovill.
“We aren’t the cheapest manufacturer in our marketplace, but we think that we are the highest quality manufacturer around. Continuous improvement is part of the culture here.”
Certainly, there are plenty of boat owners around who’ll testify to the reliability – season after season – of Whale pumps, whether they’re bringing fresh water up to their sinks, pumping dirty seawater out of the bilges, or flushing the heads (as toilets are called on board).
It’s a testament to the firm’s attention to detail that a former employee still runs a small business providing spares for the original brass bilge pumps made by the company based in the 1940s and 50s.