As a key brand within Schneider Electric, this milestone anniversary shows how the combination of a premium instrumentation portfolio and talented workforce has resulted in trusted, longstanding partnerships with a global reach.
Eurotherm by Schneider Electric is celebrating 50 years in business, a journey from a modest UK start-up company with offices above a small shop, to a globally recognised brand known for its specialist instrumentation, systems and services. Product development started in one of the founders garages in 1965 and resulted in the birth of the MK1 Temperature Controller. This first solid state control product exploited the rapidly expanding high-technology electronics of the 1960’s to solve difficulties in the silicon crystal manufacturing process, providing the crucial level of temperature control accuracy required for what at the time was a new and fast growing industry.
Solving customer problems is key at Eurotherm and their engineers talk with passion about how many of the technical leaps and creative ideas came from having this goal in mind. Employees have always had strong relationships with their customers, feeling responsible for products throughout their entire lifetime (which can span decades), and understanding the impact of problems that can slow down manufacturing. Faced with a tricky customer problem, Eurotherm engineers often apply an innovative solution based on a creative mix of process control and industrial application expertise, to get a process running as quickly as possible.
On one occasion, an R&D engineer needed to prove a theory to help solve a problem which he thought was being caused by excess static electricity in a plant. The regular test equipment didn’t have the right effect so he used a novel idea to create a simple Van de Graaff electro-static generator, using a standard soft drinks can and a rubber band. This nicely reproduced the kind of static charge that was causing the fault and also enabled him to make test modifications to the customer’s product. His simple generator was so effective at illustrating the theory of static that it became one of the key attractions at engineering and science fairs attended by Eurotherm STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) ambassadors, to demonstrate complex engineering problems in a simple and easy to understand way. Expert knowledge and determination to find the solution to a customer problem is typical and remains a key driver at the company, sometimes breaking convention to solve them and by doing so, powering industrial technology forward at a greater pace.
Eurotherm built on the early successes after the first control product and expanded by recognizing the growth potential of industrial electronics. Independent companies were setup to develop and manufacture Data Recorders (Chessell), Control Automation Systems (TCS Turnbull Control Systems) and Variable Speed Industrial Drives (SSD Shackleton System Drives). All four companies achieved international success and in 1974 were brought under a single international holding company, Eurotherm International, later to become part of Invensys in 1999 through the merger of Siebe plc with BTR plc. Most recently, Eurotherm was acquired by Schneider Electric in January 2014. Eurotherm became Eurotherm by Schneider Electric, and notably, were placed in the ‘Best in Class’
specialist division within the Schneider Electric Industry business group.
In a recent interview reflecting on Eurotherm history and in particular the birth of TCS, its founder George Turnbull recalled his first visit in 1974 to one of the largest glass manufacturers in the UK, to see first-hand the problems they were encountering in the manufacture of ophthalmic glass. Understanding very well that the process requires extremely high precision temperature control for long periods of time, this visit became the backdrop to his development of the ‘MATRIC’ System, resolving the glass quality processing problems the customer was experiencing, and bringing system architecture to the Eurotherm product range for the very first time. Turnbull Control Systems (TCS) was born and soon had operations crossing every continent. Shackleton System Drives (SSD) also expanded global operations and at one time was the largest British manufacturer of variable speed drives and controls.
A longstanding Eurotherm engineer, John Townsend, (over 45 years’ service, and still retained as a consultant engineer today) remembers developing the 211 controller/programmer in 1982. It is still considered by control engineers of that era as a key technology milestone in industry. He says, “It was easy to use and no other controller at the time had both its programmer and controller output contained within one small box, a big advantage. Previously, this combination was achieved by connecting multiple small boxes together with a nest of wiring. The 211 was also one of the first units to be based around a microprocessor chip. These were still rather simple devices and were programmed in ’machine‘ code. Jim Hall was responsible for this highly detailed work.” To show ‘at a glance’ readings, John’s team looked beyond normal convention and used elastic. It was a simple idea to use this stretched across metal pins to visually illustrate the temperature profile in a graph style, against time. Two television-tuner switches were used to mechanically set up the individual segment times and temperatures. The 211 revolutionised many temperature related processes that require high stability and accuracy such as semiconductor manufacturing and heat treatment of metals, and was much quicker to program and simpler to manage than previous models. It proved a huge success with a variety of customers for more than two decades. Recently a customer in Frankfurt proudly sent in a photograph of his 211 controller, installed in 1982 and still being used more than 30 years later, sitting alongside the much newer nanodac™ recorder/controller for the manufacture of modern superconductor crystals and materials.
The success of Eurotherm continued, with world firsts and ground-breaking developments, such as the first single loop stand-alone microprocessor, the 6350 process controller, and the 810 microprocessor PID controller, which won the 1984 Design Council Award for being the first control product to use surface mount technology. In 1985 MaxiVis emerged as an innovative proprietary distributed control system (DCS) offering a solution for much larger systems and bigger applications such as oil refineries, this system was to dominate for over a decade. Alongside these, Chessell launched another world first, the 4001 programmable data recorder, the first paper, programmable, multi-channel recorder with a digital display. Nothing like it had been seen before and demand was so high that there was a 48 week lead time.
At the 25th anniversary, Jack Leonard, one of the founder members recalled how many Eurotherm worldwide operations came about through like-minded engineers and leading industry experts combining their knowledge to create partnerships that still exist today. The New Scientist, in its February 1987 edition, described Jack himself as “an entrepreneur in technology, responsible for sometimes brilliant technical advances and who pays attention to the important details of running their business.”
In the mid-nineties a Eurotherm sales director recalls how he once turned an unforeseen disaster into a successful customer visit he made with a 4180G chart recorder. On the way to the customer, the boot of the car flew open and the recorder not only fell out but was also hit by a passing lorry. After dusting the product off, he continued his journey, not wanting to let the customer down and crossing his fingers he may not need to demonstrate this particular model. Of course, the customer wanted to see it in action and the good news is that it still worked, at which point he let on what had happened, illustrating perfectly just how robust these recorders were! In fact the charts and pens still sell on the Eurotherm website for units still in use today.
Over the next 25 years, the innovations and world firsts continued. The first networked, multi loop controller, the T640 process controller, was one of the most enduring products, along with the TC3000 power controller, both of which dominated for two decades. TC3000 was an industry first microprocessor based thyristor and a forerunner to the award winning EPower™ power controller of 2007. More design awards followed in 1993 for the 4200 recorder with its ‘secret until lit’ keyboard, a design first, and in the same year the launch of the world beating first hybrid graphic recorder, the 4250G. It had a graphic display and built in memory for recording the data in a secure digital format but also had the reassurance of a paper chart back up behind the screen. It was the first step in moving the regulated industries from paper records to digital which is now a well-accepted data collection method in most industries. More recently, the nanodac™ recorder/controller, the first hybrid recorder with PID control won Les Mesures Measurement Technology award in 2011, and finally EcoStruxure Manufacturing Compliance Advisor, EcoStruxure Manufacturing Compliance Advisor bring us up to date with mobile friendly plant views and offsite secure data storage.
So why do customers continue to choose Eurotherm? “The unique difference is that we strive to understand what our customers are dealing with and adapt ourselves to solve their process problems”, says Business Development Manager, Dick Van der Geest. Solutions Director Tom Scheck adds, “We only sell two things, our brand equity, and our application know how and I think that’s why people buy Eurotherm.” According to Chris Ashworth, Vice President, “Fifty years is an impressive milestone for any business. The success we have had over the last 50 years is really about two things, our innovation as a company and our people. We have a talented and knowledgeable employee base globally that includes segment and application experts, who support both our sales organisation and our customers.”
In answer to what lies ahead, Chris adds, “We have an innovative research and product development group implementing new technologies for our focus industries, alongside world class manufacturing operations. Since 2014, we also have the global powerhouse of Schneider Electric to further strengthen our offerings. In turn, the quality of our instrumentation, specialist knowledge within the industry and the integrity of our intellectual property, strengthens the industrial offering of Schneider Electric”.
Eurotherm products touch nearly every aspect of modern life, from the safer car you drive, the electronic circuitry in your phone, to the prescription pills that aid quality of life, even your early morning bottle of milk. It’s no coincidence that Heat Treatment, Life Sciences, Glass, Plastics, Food and Beverage are the focus industries and where Eurotherm application expertise lies. Looking forward, graduate engineers are joining Eurotherm, attracted by its proven capability for innovation and world firsts, enabling the business to continue its development of new industrial solutions that will not only maintain its longstanding relationships with its global customers but also bring further growth through solving those challenging industrial process problems of the future.