Hemel Hempstead-based company Atlas Copco celebrated a century of UK operations in November. A few months on – and during the UK lockdown over Coronavirus – OE spoke to Alexander Pavlov, general manager at Atlas Copco Compressors UK & Ireland, to find out what the compressors division has planned over the next 100 years

The Atlas Copco Group marked a century of UK operations in November last year with a celebratory event at The Shard in London. Guests and the media heard how the UK was Atlas Copco’s first successful overseas expansion from its native Sweden with a single sales office established to sell diesel engines at the end of World War I.

Fast forward 100 years and Atlas Copco UK has now grown to become a large organisation that employs more than 2,500 people at six production centres and 15 sales offices across the UK. It has also expanded through acquisitions, including the purchase of UK-based vacuum product and abatement solutions Edwards Group in 2014 (www.is.gd/ahuten).

Today, its UK and Ireland compressors division is headed by Alexander Pavlov, who graduated as a software engineer from St. Petersburg Marine Technical University. He joined Atlas Copco Compressors in Antwerp in 2003 and has held a variety of roles throughout his Atlas Copco career, including information systems project manager and product marketing manager. Between 2011 and 2015, Pavlov also worked as regional business line manager for South East Europe, based in Greece, followed by an assignment as country manager in Ireland, before taking on his current role in 2017 (www.is.gd/qupuxo).

Operations Engineer caught up with Pavlov via video chat during the UK lockdown over Coronavirus to talk about the company and the next 100 years.

Q: Congratulations to the Atlas Copco group for celebrating 100 years of UK operations. Why do you think the company and the compressors division have been so successful in the UK?

A: Atlas Copco, from the very beginning, had a diversified model; a sort of specialty in compressors because compressed air is required in every industry. It’s a product; if you look around yourself now everything is made with air and that has supported us through the decades. The second aspect is [around being] international. Atlas Copco decided to expand very early, firstly in Europe and then globally, and much earlier than many other companies.

Having a presence in all the industries provides balance and makes sure the business grows all of the time. Some industries may be down now but at the same time others, [such as] micro-electronics and semi-conductors, are booming, and all those things balance each other out. The same can be said about international presence.

Q: You have now been a part of the Atlas Copco group for 17 years. How has the company developed in that time?

A: The major change is the development of the remote monitoring of equipment. Today we have approximately 3,700 compressors in the UK that are connected. It allows us to monitor remotely, plan services and prevent breakdowns, and we get notifications when things are not going right. All of the new units from the factory are now coming with built-in communication. We can also retrofit some of the older machines, so connectivity and digitalisation have been the major change for the company.

Q: Staying on the topic of digital, the centenary event in London heard about some of the megatrends Atlas Copco is exploring, such as digitalisation and artificial intelligence (AI). How are they impacting the compressor market?

A: Our whole sales process is digital, and of course we have our SmartLink remote monitoring, which we are always improving (see box). I hope that we will be able to log system performance soon, which we do at the moment by installing loggers on to the machine for a week and then collect and analyse the data. That would change the way our sales engineers work a lot [and] make us more efficient because you won’t need to travel to install/collect the loggers.

AI is more around R&D and analysing performance of machines in the field and different atmospheric conditions. Units are running all around the world, so you analyse the same product in a very cold and a very hot and humid climate, for example. More and more algorithms are taking place and being implemented to identify certain trends and behaviours of the machines based on all the data that we collect. Then of course we are also developing algorithms these days for the sales leads, based on understanding and logging how a compressor performs.

Q: You often talk about compressed air as being the fourth utility. Do you think it’s taken seriously within wider UK industry?

A: The focus has been very strong over the last decade or two. Certainly customers realise these days, and it’s been like this for quite some time, that air is not free – it costs. And then of course all of the green aspects associated with that as well. For many factories, when they analyse their energy bills, they will realise a big part of it is compressor use. It’s one of the utilities, although the only difference with things like water and electricity is that you don’t import it. But certainly it’s a fourth utility and it’s in the minds, I believe, of all manufacturers these days.

Q: Operations Engineer recently featured case studies involving energy audits and system upgrades. Are you seeing more customer demand and enquiries around energy savings and the environment?

A: I wouldn’t say that there is more focus on energy these days; it’s always been strong, especially around compressors, because often we represent 10-20% of total industrial energy consumption. That is why when we carry out audits, discuss improvements and optimisations and more energy efficient products, it normally attracts attention because it’s very tangible.

What we are trying to promote this year is energy recovery. Compressors generate a lot of heat in the process of compressing air and we have systems that can capture that heat in the shape of hot water (up to about 90C). In Holland, we have a case where a factory provides hot water to heat up a swimming pool across the road. We also have a case in Italy where a school is heated by the heat from a factory, which otherwise would all have been wasted. The challenges are always with integration, because if it needs to travel a long distance, you need to invest in the insulation of the pipes so that the heat is not lost during transportation. It requires ingenuity and investment, but the benefits are massive.

Q: What about other customer demands, such as servitisation models (selling outcomes instead of strictly selling products)?

A: It’s all about flexibility [and] we have all different options. Some customers prefer to invest while others choose leasing options or pay per use of running time, but the majority still invest in their equipment.

I would also say that we are seeing a stronger focus on air quality and oil filter technology. We’ve carried out some projects converting factories from oil-injected units to oil-free units to improve the quality of air (read about the two different technologies at www.is.gd/ifuzel). There is a stronger focus on oil-free and it’s good to see more competition coming from oil-free products.

Q: We are chatting during the UK lockdown over Coronavirus, which has seen UK industry rally together. Has Atlas Copco Compressors been involved at all?

A: Very much so. I can’t bring up the names because we don’t have an agreement yet, but I can tell you that in some hospitals oxygen generation systems from Atlas Copco have had direct involvement. The oxygen we produce with our system from compressed air is delivered to the lungs of the patients. We have [also] worked with companies who produce ventilators in the UK. We had some very urgent demands and orders for aiding capacity to some of the factories, which are directly related to the production of the ventilators.

Q: Operations Engineer also ran a comment piece on its website in April, penned by you, around the importance of compressor care during the lockdown. Is this an issue that has arisen more recently?

A: From a service perspective, the main issue is access to the sites that are running. What we are hearing from a lot of companies is ‘our policy is no contractors or visitors on site’. So a preventative service is not an emergency and the engineers cannot access the site. There were a lot of planned service jobs in April, for example, which we couldn’t really execute, but we know that if the factory is running, the compressors are running, and if you don’t do the service on time then you increase the risk of a breakdown.

We are trying to convince some customers to let people visit, because we offer a completely contact free service. Our people can go through the formal procedures and go to the compressor rooms to work on the machines. And everything is digital; we don’t ask people to sign these days, so the engineers would sign the report and send a digital copy to the customer.

Q: Once we’re out of lockdown and start getting back to some form of normality, what near future plans does Atlas Copco Compressors have?

A: It’s very difficult to talk about plans [at the moment]. Firstly, we need to come back to some [form of] stability, to bring back all of our people and go back to full capacity. Having said that, Atlas Copco is releasing a new version of its SmartLink remote monitoring system − SmartLink 2.0 (see box).

Q: If you could send one final message to the rest of industry, what would you say?

A: I would really stress again the importance of preventative maintenance. Companies should not underestimate the importance of preventative maintenance because we all want to avoid any sort of breakdowns and emergencies. So companies really need to take this seriously. I speak about compressors mainly but it applies to many other machinery. So I would again bring this call to the industry that preventative maintenance, especially planned service contracts, need to be done.

BOX OUT: Atlas Copco introduces SmartLink 2.0

SmartLink 2.0 is a remote monitoring system that claims to give air users, IoT- driven insights, not just data, and early warnings from their compressed air system. Launched in May, it offers compressor users insights derived from actionable dashboards, customised views, proactive advice and alerts. It enables interaction and assessment of a compressed air system’s performance that aims to avoid the costs of unplanned downtime and repair.

In keeping with Atlas Copco’s original SmartLink 1.0 concept, compressor system users can choose from three levels of remote data monitoring to determine the amount of interactive information they receive:

1: SmartLink Service – users have complete insight into current and future maintenance needs of the compressor.

2: SmartLink Uptime – this includes the Service package features but in addition, provides event warning notification.

3: SmartLink Energy - this embraces the benefits of both the Service and Uptime programmes, but also provides information on energy and performance KPI. It also reveals insights into energy consumption and evolution, as well as energy efficiency and achieved savings, machine usage and productive times.