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The fabulous Bentley Works boys


A long on-site tradition of collecting and collating has allowed Skanska to assemble a unique piling wonderworld. Emma Forrest heads to Doncaster to visit the Bentley boys

THE ONCE thriving industrial heartland of South Yorkshire is now little known for manufacturing expertise. But at a site in Doncaster, famous for its railway and mining heritage, sits a pocket of manufacturing skill.

The Bentley Works yard is 6.5 ha of piling heaven. It houses fitting, metal machining and fabrication shops. These join plant and store sheds and a yard full of enough kit to pile half of London. It is like being at a giant geotechnical supermarket. This piling paradise is all at the hands of one firm: ground engineering specialist Cementation Foundations Skanska.

The scale of the work carried out at the yard is vast. Put briefly, Bentley contains 57 major drilling units, 26 crawler cranes, six hydraulic rigs and an extensive selection of stores and equipment.

Every piece of plant equipment owned or hired out by the firm returns to Doncaster to be cleaned and checked before going out to its next job. Ten field technicians also work nationwide to repair kit when it is away from the yard.

The collection alone is impressive, but what makes the site really stand out is its ability to rebuild and modify plant. The yard is a one-stop shop of piling expertise. A team of 75 welders, fitters and electricians, including three apprentices, regularly produces bespoke plant components and equipment that have been worked up by in-house design engineers.

'A lot of the work we do here you can't buy off the shelf, ' says Cementation Foundations plant director John Rooke, who runs the yard. He claims that of the firm's competitors, only one has anything comparable. He believes that what Bentley has is unique:

'It is about the expertise we have here. I can't stress this enough.'

Mr Rooke cites the modification of a 150-tonne Bauer BG40/BC33 rig, constructed from a Bauer base and cutter with a Japanese power pack, that was built at the Bentley fitting shop.

The same shop also recently modified a Bauer BG30 for lowheadroom rotary operations on a site where work had to take place underneath power lines.

'On a typical day we will be refurbishing plant for jobs and manufacturing stock, but every day is different. We are not a production unit, we are a bespoke unit, ' says Mr Rooke. 'If we bring anything in, the first thing we do is modify it. We will make anything for anybody. What man can make, we can mend.'

This statement could act as the official Bentley motto. Mr Rooke claims that almost anything needed for a ground engineering job is contained at the yard, and what they don't already have, they can make. A tour of the site appears to confirm this. Piles of spare materials, each piece audited on computer, are kept outdoors, like the scattered remains of a giant Meccano set.

'It might look like a mess but everything here is important, ' says Mr Rooke, gesturing towards rows of auger pins and cutters.

'It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say we have got millions of bits of material here.'

Meanwhile, storage sheds contain shelf upon shelf of anything that might be used on site, from steel rope and gloves to boxes of rags for workers to wipe their hands on. Spare parts are also manufactured in the fabricating shop. It is estimated that the stock at Bentley is worth around £1 million.

The Bentley Works yard follows a long on-site tradition. It originally housed Foundation's forerunner, Francois Cementation Co, founded by Belgian engineer Albert Francois, after he patented a cementation technique used in the trenches during World War I.

Its history is evident. Details and drawings of every job the yard has supplied kit for have their own storage area, along with priceless details of UK-wide soil investigations and a full-time archivist to look after it all. A makeshift poster proclaims the archive team as 'paper-folders to the Queen', and shows the kind of mammoth task this is - although the firm is currently in the process of computerising all the records. Mr Rooke is keen that the yard moves with the times, and compares photographs of the old cluttered workshops with their new streamlined look.

He also wants to move into other areas. An on-site garage which maintains the yard's company cars has started to take in the public's cars, and has recently expanded into MOT inspections.

Elsewhere, a workshop that once serviced the mining industry has been closed down and will be changed into a training centre - centralising the yard's training, which is currently done at a variety of locations.

With the exception of the Stockton garage, everything is contained on site. Mr Rooke says he intends to make the yard an autonomous operation to smooth the production process. Indeed, ease is needed to tackle some of the jobs that have been put Bentley's way recently. The biggest job tackled at the yard 'by far' was a series of bespoke jobs for Stratford Box at the vast CTRL scheme. Three major rigs had to be designed, put together and then taken apart again to be transported to the site on a series of lorries. In addition to producing 1,000 m of walling stop-ends, the fabrication shop is currently manufacturing movements joints that consist of rubber sections between 15 m lengths of steel for Stratford's diaphragm walls.

'In the past we have taken jobs as low as £20,000 or £30,000, but we have to be selective. It is about taking on value added jobs, ' says Mr Rooke.

Management of the delivery of the kit rests with the resource centre, which deals with all equipment requests. Five days is the expected delivery time, although resource staff claim they have turned around orders in under 24 hours, despite receiving, on average, a dozen queries a day. While around 60 per cent of the firm's work is for Cementation, work done for Skanska Construction, classed as an external client, and a variety of other clients now accounts for up to a third of Bentley's work.

When pressed on which job he is particularly proud of, Mr Rookes admits to being exceptionally pleased with the kit produced for CTRL, but his pride in the whole operation is evident. He insists that Bentley's success relies on the retention of skills and expertise long since gone from many areas of manufacturing, and the close-knit community it is drawn from.

'Apprentices start at 17 or 18 and work their way through the business before taking on a speciality. There are people who have been with us for up to 50 years. Their expertise is key, ' he says.

With several father and son teams, a social club on site, and all employees drawn from a 10-mile radius of the yard, Bentley appears to carry on many old industrial traditions. But while keeping the yard when most have long since been abandoned is a noble gesture, it is clear that Skanska's reasons for doing so are far from misty eyed. Although the yard does not make a profit, it makes a significant contribution to the Skanska group.

'Doncaster saves Skanska money, ' says Mr Rooke. 'If a crane breaks down we bring it here - we don't have to send it back to the manufacturer. A major rebuild will ensure that a rig lasts another four or five years. That will save some major capital outlay. We give Skanska an advantage over competitors.'

The fitting workshop at Bentley Works yard is a unique bespoke unit for rebuilding and modifying plant