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Factory visit: The secret of Siderise’s Innovation Centre

How does Siderise maintain its position in the passive fire solutions market? It’s huge new 1000° test furnace is key to its product development, and its global ambitions

Built by Manchester-based specialist Furnace Construction, the new gas-fired furnace reaches 600ºC in five minutes and temperatures in excess of 1000ºC after 1.5 hours. It will take about seven hours to return to ambient temperature.
Built by Manchester-based specialist Furnace Construction, the new gas-fired furnace reaches 600ºC in five minutes and temperatures in excess of 1000ºC after 1.5 hours. It will take about seven hours to return to ambient temperature.

What: Siderise production facility
Where: Maesteg, Mid-Glamorgan

You can feel the wave of heat the minute you walk into Siderise’s £1m Innovation Centre. The latest addition to the company’s Maesteg production plant, its showpiece, is the state-of-the-art test furnace. This allows Siderise to develop and fire test its own products, evidence of its intention to remain the UK’s pre-eminent manufacturer of passive fire protection systems and products.

‘We finished a test about an hour ago and it’s still cooling down,’ says test centre manager Matt Purbrick, adding that there will be another seven to go. He explains that the sizeable cube-shaped furnace was built by a UK firm whose founder had worked with NASA, helping deliver facilities that would test their technology under extremes of temperature. ‘It took a team of engineers months to build and commission it,’ continues Purbrick, ‘and they designed all the specialist software linking to the air and gas valve actuators that control the furnace, so that the results of any fire test here should be identical to any of the same done on the other side of the world.’

That is important to Siderise, because this is a company with big ambitions. With a £50 million turnover, not content with being market leader in passive fire solutions for the building envelope in the UK (the firm’s products were installed at Canary Wharf over 40 years ago) it has now also become so in the UAE. But with offices in Mumbai and Singapore, it is also forming strategic partnerships in the Far East, with work in the USA too. Most of the firm’s 200+ employees work out of the Welsh valleys, but the agenda is clearly a global one.

Siderise’s new Innovation Centre at its Maesteg production plant.
Siderise’s new Innovation Centre at its Maesteg production plant.

CEO Adam Turk, who has worked in construction for decades, wishes to ensure Siderise is at the vanguard of passive fire safety, hoping the Grenfell tragedy will be the spur to ensure such events never happen again. ‘I’ve never felt as much momentum for change in the industry,’ he says, ‘and everything we do is about raising the bar to improve the safety of buildings we live and work in.’

So how is the firm evidencing that? The new furnace – rare outside a dedicated fire testing facility – is key, allowing Siderise to carry out in-house R&D to ensure its products are ready for third-party fire testing. Not content to test the performance of any product just once, the firm now regularly pulls items off the line to randomly test them and make sure they meet requirements every time. Able to carry out fire resistance tests to BS, EN, ISO, UL and ASTM standards, the aim is to become a UK Accreditation Service (UKAS) lab, allowing tests to be signed-off on-site by accredited, independent fire engineers.

Beyond the product itself, the other aspect of the firm’s safety matrix is what Turk calls its ‘technical wrapper’ – its comprehensive, free, technical support function. At its most fundamental, this is a technical team not only offering design, specification, installation and compliance advice, but promoting use of Siderise’s inspection app, which allows fire-stopping installations to be photographed, sent through and checked for compliance, and form part of a digital record of the building. Nearly a third of the company’s people are technically qualified; still more engaged is its team of on-the-road technical experts who criss-cross the UK, both training installers and checking installations in person. Turk adds that Siderise’s partnering with a distributor in Israel highlighted safety flaws in its tall buildings policy and resulted in changes to local regulation; the firm’s commitment to safety, he implies, goes beyond national borders.

Everything we do is about raising the bar to improve safety

But Siderise’s drive for expansion seems tempered by caveats. ‘One of our golden rules is that any market we’d consider entering must be legislation driven,’ explains marketing director Richard Bishop. ‘Our ideal would be to feel a real desire to use high-performance solutions and if this wasn’t the case, we’d think twice about engaging.’

In the meantime, there are plenty of challenges closer to home, for it’s not just about volume but typology. Turk highlights the firm’s continuing R&D work, not only with volumetric housing but structural timber frame and masonry buildings too, to ensure both compliance and confidence for specifiers to innovate in these sectors. He adds: ‘Industry is shifting to low embodied carbon products and we’re working with trade bodies and our supply chain to achieve that.’ He thinks the firm’s new 1000ºC furnace, and what it can facilitate, sets it firmly in that white heat: ‘because our vision is to be the global leader in passive fire solutions for the building envelope – on all building types.’

1. SLAB LOADING

Siderise’s base product is a special formulation stonewool, modified on the production line to realise its properties of passive fire stopping in curtain wall, masonry facade, and cladding systems. The firm uses Taguchi experiment and statistical methods to monitor production by testing, changing temperature, speed or compression levels to optimise product quality. Operations is looking to move supply of the stonewool from single to different slab sizes to reduce factory waste from 7% to 4%. All ‘waste’ material is reprocessed at source.

2. STEEL BRACKETS

The simplicity of the manufacturing process belies the product’s complexity when exposed to fire. With little intrinsic strength in its ‘raw’ state, this stonewool fibre allows compression and resilience – fire-integrity enhancing qualities capitalized upon in Siderise fire stopping. To help this integrity, finished products will soon be mechanically held in with pre-bent stainless or galvanised steel brackets. Typically bent and installed manually on site, Siderise’s unique simple bracket innovation will facilitate better, and safer, installation of fire stops and cavity barriers.

3. STRIPS CUT AND ROTATED

Siderise gives fire stopping intrinsic strength by rotating strips cut from the base slab. Rotation exposes the cut heads of the stonewool fibres which densify and bond well with the finishing foil, which is yet to be applied. Meanwhile,  vertical fibre orientation generates the fire stopping lamella’s compressive component, whose ability to repeatedly expand and contract under stress is critical to the performance of the finished fire protection. Capacity of the production line’s ‘cut and turn’ capacity is 6m/min, although the new £1.8m line is able to run at 8m/min.  

4. FOIL HEAT FUSED TO 'COMPRESSED' SLAB

The foil layer is critical to the mechanics of fire stopping. Once the lamella strips have been lined up side by side, they are mechanically compressed laterally into panel form before a thin mesh, scrim-impregnated, aluminium foil is heat-adhered directly to the lamellas’ ‘cut’ face. This foil is sacrificial – when exposed to fire it delaminates and latent expansion potential of the product is released – expanding to ensure integrity of the cavity barrier or fire stop. The foil’s brand name and cutting instructions help the tech team confirm correct installation visually via the inspection app. 

5. EDGE TRIMMING AND INTUMESCENT TAPE

Compressed panels can be made into different products; if they are to be open state cavity barriers pieces are cut down and intumescent tape (colours denote fire performance credentials) applied to the edge of panels. The ‘EI’ number relates to fire integrity (E) where joints may start to fail and fire insulation (I) where the non-fire side reaches 180°C above ambient temperature. The highest performing open state cavity barrier has an EI120 attribution. They intumesce once the tape is triggered by heat from the fire to help close an open cavity.

6. QUALITY CONTROL LAB

Siderise’s £100,000 in-plant Quality Lab allows the firm to constantly monitor its product lines. Here the firm carries out its own dimensional, compression and ignition testing. The Taguchi experiment and statistical method helps ensure the line turns out products with the correct specification every time. The product is also tested to ensure it can withstand handling and installation on site without its integrity being affected. Needing, as it does, to be ‘speared’ by the galvanised bracket to be secured on to the building, the thinnest section being manufactured is 75mm.

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