An air of excellence

Dating back as far as 1857, Howden and its many subsidiaries have a long history of innovation in the air and gas handling field.

The company is perhaps best known for its custom designed variable flow fans and its compressor technology though, having been the first in the world to commercialise the screw compressor back in the 1930s. Now a worldwide organisation with over 4200 employees and a presence in 17 countries, Howden equipment can be found in virtually every industry, particularly oil and gas, power generation, mining, steelmaking and cement manufacture.

These sectors are often where the most arduous air and gas handling duties are to be found. In oil and gas for example, equipment has to deal with a wide range of challenges such as extremes of temperature, high humidity,remote locations, and a saline atmosphere.Typical products include screw compressor packages for gas handling on offshore platforms and FPSOs, gas gathering and flare gas recovery, and gas turbine fuel compression; cooling and ventilation fans; turbo-compressors and fans for sulphur recovery; and piston compressors for various gas applications.

Howden’s extensive experience has allowed it to accumulate an in-depth knowledge of the markets in which it operates. By understanding the varying needs of each, the company can provide the best possible solution from both a technical and economic perspective.

“Compressors remain core to the Howden business,” states Jim Fairbairn, executive director. “These are high integrity, process critical pieces of equipment that go into refineries or offshore oil rigs. As such they have to be very robust and reliable because of the arduous duties they undertake, and require minimal maintenance. We work at the very top end of oil and gas specifications, supplying to American Petroleum Institute (API) standards, which are the highest in the world. On top of this some of our customers also apply their own specifications that we have to meet.

“Most recently we have been working to broaden our compressor range so that it is the widest in the market and we can offer the best customised solution to the client. We work hard to continuously improve our understanding of our customers’ applications and the way that our products interact with their processes to give them the best possible results. I’m really proud of the fact that we have hundreds of engineers who are always thinking about how we can improve our offering to the customer. We believe this is a big differentiator in the market.”

On a more personal level Jim has recently been made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. This follows his award of an OBE a few years earlier. Describing what that accolade means to him, Jim says: “It’s an organisation that tries to promote engineering, and I was nominated by industry leaders in Scotland, so it was quite nice to know that some of your peers think you can contribute to the wider engineering community. Of a membership of around 1500 of the top engineers in the UK, I am one of the youngest to be elected a Fellow, and that is only possible because of the type and quality of company I work for.”

At the core of the business is Howden Technology in the UK, which works at the forefront of engineering with unique expertise in aerodynamics, acoustics, stress and vibration analysis, and rotor dynamics. Each of the company’s technology entities within Europe maintains their own design departments, which are focused on improving Howden’s product range and enhancing its competitiveness in the market. The company’s goal is always to deliver some level of differentiation in its products from, for example, expanding the types of seals that can be used on compressors to its overall reliability, and this is for both new and existing developments.

“It’s always the markets and applications that come first, and then we look at the possibilities of what we can supply and adapt systems accordingly,” explains Jim. “Our aftersales services are also a very critical element of our business, as we strive to support the customer for the lifetime of our products. Particularly within the process critical sector, clients demand instant response and technical back-up, and we are to be structured to deliver that.”

In order to branch into new areas and offer the best possible equipment, over the years Howden has made a number of acquisitions of well-known brands and technologies. Most recently this has included Thomassen Compression Systems (now Howden Thomassen Compressors), which is a high specification producer of piston compressors. In particular Howden Thomassen excels in hydrogen compression for refineries, which gave Howden a foothold in this market. Both companies’ sales and service networks have now been fully integrated, delivering benefits to both the Thomassen range and the rest of Howden.

“Howden Thomassen has just sold the largest API 618 piston compressor in the world to Russia with a power rating of 16 megawatts,” highlights Jim. “This is for use in Russia’s upgrade of its refineries to comply with EU standards and emission controls. A lot of the demand for equipment at present is off the back of environmental specifications becoming more stringent, which means plants have to be modernised and retrofitted with different processes to allow them to reach those standards. One of the key elements of this is the desulphurisation of fuels, because as oil and gas becomes harder to extract so we find there is a higher concentration of nasties like sulphides. So processes have to be changed and improved to deal with this, and that is a good market driver for some of the compressors we supply.”

Closer to home Howden is also finding itself carrying out more work within the North Sea, where the market appears to be undergoing something of a renaissance with large volumes of modernisation work. With good opportunities in all of its markets, Jim describes how Howden is preparing itself for the future: “There are two facets to our vision for the business.

“Internally we will continue to become more effective at what we do, in terms of quality, delivery and how we interact with customers. Getting that right is crucial to being the best in the industry. The other aspect is around looking to further understand growth markets and how we can compete effectively in these markets. This may be in niches such as unconventional gas or gas to liquids, or through the environmental legislation and the changes there, which create a market for our products,” he concludes.

Products: High integrity compression equipment