Has the chain industry lost its innovative touch?

Having worked in the industry for many years, I have developed a genuine passion for chain. I get very excited about new applications and really enjoy collaborating with customers to further enhance the performance of our products. I have even been known to take pictures of equipment using chains while on holiday! However, not everyone finds chain as fascinating as I do and between the many articles on shiny new actuators and invertors in power transmission magazines, chains so rarely get a mention, you could almost forget they even exist.

I recently read an interesting piece on the Renold website by the company’s communications manager for chain, David Turner, in which he discussed technical development in the chain industry and how a number of manufacturers had falsely laid claim to certain key innovations. For example, one transmission chain manufacturer had claimed it was the first in the world to develop chain with solid bushes and rollers in the late 1980s. However, with evidence from his company’s archives, David believes that Renold can claim bragging rights from the 1960s. Perhaps the reason for these debates over who invented what and the fact that our industry as a whole doesn’t get much press is that it has changed so very little – from Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th-century drawings of what appear to be the first steel chain or Hans Renold’s original 1880 patent for bush roller chain to today.

Most chain companies nowadays offer some great alternatives to the basic types which greatly extend operating life. At FB, we too have been developing some higher-performing alternatives but like many of our competitors, we struggle to make these small and incremental improvements exciting to customers. How to make as simple and traditional product as chain sexy to those outside of our industry is a difficult marketing question. I do not have an easy answer, but if you have any ideas, please give me a call!

Another concern in the UK chain industry is the manufacturing shift to Asia over the last 20 years. Are we not just struggling to market our innovations but losing our ability to innovate at all? The BSI working group for chain’s members are all semi-retired. Our own Jim Cameron who is a member of group and regularly represents the UK chain industry at ISO standard meetings now works only two days a week. Jim learnt his trade at Morse Chain when they had a factory in Letchworth but now with the closure of Renold’s Manchester factory, large-scale chain production no longer exists in the UK. I worry how the UK can produce a new generation of chain experts without them having spent any time on the shop floor.

The outlook is not entirely grim, however. As I mentioned in my last blog post, in 2013 FB Chain achieved the highest turnover in our 29-year history, growing sales both geographically and in new market sectors. There is clearly a demand for quality British products and if our competitors can follow suit, then perhaps there is hope for innovation in the UK chain industry yet.

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