Chris Holland looks at the story behind major investment which has turned the BASF Bradford chemical manufacturing site into a world class operation

FROM boffins poking around in the drains outside their laboratory has emerged

world-class technology right here in Bradford.

The origins of the recently opened multi-million pound bio-acrylamide plant at chemical giant BASF in Low Moor was bacteria discovered in samples taken from the drains outside the works in the days when it was Allied Colloids.

In the 1990s research chemists at the company worked with Huddersfield University to see if the bacteria could provide the raw material for a cleaner, safer and more cost effective and efficient way of making products in which the Bradford site specialises for water treatment and the oil, minerals and paper making industries.

After being put on the back burner for several years after Allied Colloids was taken over by Ciba, the research was revived when BASF acquired the business in 2009.

Subsequent work by scientists from Britain, Germany, South Africa and the United States, made significant improvements to the performance of the technology at the heart of the new Bradford plant.

It was a crucial development as the shiny new plant has secured the long-term future of the Low Moor site where around 600 people work.

It marked the biggest ever investment at the site as it underwent a three year transformation programme to restore its competitiveness.

Peter Wormald, site director, said: “This is a major milestone, giving us a world class operation. It confirms BASF’s belief in the site and its product range and is a key moment in our journey towards profitable growth.

“Three years ago we faced the stark reality that the site was uncompetitive and this led to a major restructuring programme involving new technology, better health and safety, reliability improvements and increasing capacity. It also involved around 170 redundancies which were necessary to ensure Bradford was globally competitive.

“The complete organisational restructure of the site has followed more than a year’s negotiation with unions and today there are no jobs the same as they were three years ago. This major development is based on knowledge developed here in Bradford,which BASF invested in and which has culminated in this very significant development.”

Peter, who came to Bradford in 2013 after winding down BASF's Paisley plant in Scotland, is retiring at the end of the month after more than 30 years with Ciba and BASF, said the turnaround plan seemed impossible at first.

It involved not just major technical challenges but also a major change of working practices and culture at the site, achieved through a structured and open two-way communications programme.

In fact, the new plant has been completed under budget and ahead of time - and the workforce is committed and flexible - which has impressed BASF's top bosses in both the UK and Germany.

Last year Bradford won a BASF divisional award for collaboration and teamwork and this year one for operational and efficiency and productivity improvements. .

A group of night shift workers were also flown the BASF's Ludwigshafen base to receive a special commendation in its Extra Mile award for an initiative which has improved safety at Low Moor.

On their own initiative they devised a colour coding scheme ensure operators know the correct operating positions for control valves. They also carried out the painting themselves and their system has now become best practice within BASF.

Peter said: "That was an excellent example of the spirit that has developed here. As a result of all the changes we have people now doing jobs they not have chosen to do.

But they are committed to the site and see BASF investing here and in return, after hard bargaining, they voted 80 per cent in favour of the new terms and conditions, including 365 day working from January1 this year."

Development of the new plant was a challenging project as the area is riddled with old mine shafts, underwater aquafers. voids and loose ground.

The man with day-to-day responsibility for project was Dave Calder, who will become site manager when Peter retires, working with Andy Weatherall, BASF EU vice-president for paper and water chemicals, who will assume the legal role of site director. Both have worked for the company since the Allied Colloids days.

The new plant was built mainly using local contractors, including Skipton-based J.N. Bentley and West Yorkshire firms F.J. Booth and Richard Allen Engineering.

To ensure sound footing for the giant structure 880 tonnes of grout material was used to fill voids in the coal seam before piling. Also, 112 tonnes of high yield reinforcement steel was used- enough to cover 26 miles if laid end-to-end.

Andy Weatherall said: " The old plant was using Japanese technology dating back to the 1950s which ran at high temperatures and pressure and created a lot of heavy metal waste which needed to be recycled before disposal.

"By today's standards this was an ancient industrial process and it was felt that there must be a better way of achieving the same product without the levels of energy required to do the chemical reaction.

"The process was kicked off again when BASF took over. BASF always wants to look at the new chemistry and processes it has bought, It has spent a considerable amount of money on this project over the past five years, including the two years it took to build. where a key driver was using local contractors wherever possible.

"BASF provided extensive expertise and research to achieve a much improved process and plant. It has been a circular process with the initial bugs from from Low Moor resulting in a world class production plant here."

The Bradford site is one of the largest and most productive single site chemical plants in the UK with an annual output of more than 250,000 tonnes, of which 84 per cent is exported.

A public statement of commitment to Bradford by BASF's top brass came from

Richard J Carter, UK managing director, at the plant opening when he described it as a flagship operation.

He praised the flexibility of the workforce and the quality of research, saying: “In Bradford, great people are doing great things.The new plant is a shining example of the capabilities of the site.”

Bradford South MP Judith Cummins , whose constituency includes BASF, said: “I particularly welcome BASF’s commitment to this site in a community where the company has a long history and strong relationships.

“The plant itself is remarkable but I have also been particularly impressed by the partnership working the GMB trade union and the company’s strong advocacy of apprenticeships and training. Bradford is a place that makes things and with investments like this, will continue to do so for many years to come.

”It’s really encouraging to know that ideas from this part of the world have developed into a technology of global significance.”

Peter Wormald said the opening of the plant had shone a spotlight on the Bradford site and the workforce and highlighted a much improved operation.

"Reputation is a huge factor in a global organisation and ours has been greatly enhanced by what has been achieved here through a real team effort.

"For me personally this part of the journey for the site is has finished but the journey carries on. What is really good is that we are emerging from this process in a much better place than we thought we would be. "