The EJ story in Birr, Co Offaly is one of renewal and rebirth. From a point where manufacturing was hit hard with the closure of the company’ foundry operations as a result of the economic crash in Ireland, the facility is now producing a highly innovative, Irish developed range of access covers using the very latest composite materials.
The tale has its beginnings in 1883 or a century earlier, depending on how it’s told. The 1883 date refers to the year when the Malpass family set up EJ’s first manufacturing facility in East Jordan, Michigan, USA. In subsequent years – and now under the stewardship of fifth-generation family members – EJ grew to become the world leader in the design, manufacture and distribution of access solutions for water, sewer, drainage, telecommunications and utility networks worldwide.
The company’s products include manhole covers and frames; catch basin and curb inlet grates and frames, trench grates, and tree grates. EJ also provides products for water supply systems including fire hydrants and valves; valve and service boxes; and various other water supply products. EJ also supplies products to many of the world’s largest telecom utilities and to infrastructure projects in six of the seven continents.
EJ’s first overseas foray only came in 2000 when the company acquired Cavanagh Foundry in Birr, a business with an even longer pedigree than its own. The Cavanagh family had operated an iron foundry in Birr for over 200 years. By the time of the EJ acquisition, it had become a leading manufacturer and supplier of high-quality manhole covers and drainage gratings for the construction, water, civil engineering, telecommunications, cable TV and energy industries.
“We had moved from the old iron foundry in High Street, Birr out to a new modern foundry facility on the Roscrea Road in the early 1980s,” said Padraig Freeman, vice-president of product and market strategy at EJ.
“Our focus in Ireland throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s was mainly on the construction sector as well as utilities such as Eircom, ESB and so on. In the 2000s we had a major boom with huge increases in residential construction coupled with the construction of many of our motorways. We also had the roll-out of high-speed broadband infrastructure across many of the largest towns in Ireland.”
The Irish operation continued to prosper under its new ownership until the advent of the recession in 2008.
“Back in 2010 and 2011, we had more than 60 people working here in the foundry,” Freeman recalled. “Then the construction sector crashed very hard and our turnover halved in just a couple of years.”
The Paris foundry
The viability of the Birr facility was naturally called into question, as Freeman explained. “We are part of the wider EJ group, and the company had continued to expand internationally following its move into Ireland in 2000. EJ purchased one of the largest foundries in Europe just outside Paris back in 2004. This became the company’s European headquarters with supporting offices and manufacturing throughout the EU.”
The economies of scale offered by the Paris foundry coupled with the near collapse of construction activity in Ireland meant tough decisions had to be taken and it was decided to close the Birr foundry in 2011.
“The foundry here closed in 2014 with 32 redundancies,” Freeman said. “But we still had one of the largest foundries in Europe to supply us and we continued selling product into the Irish market. We transferred the product tools from Birr to France and our products continued to be available to our customers base here.”
But the team in Birr were not content to let things rest there. “We had already decided to focus on other things and focused on expanding our metal fabrication,” Freeman pointed out. “We moved into fairly sophisticated fabrication work for wastewater treatment works and so on. We constructed a new building to house that work in 2010. We did this with the support of our parent company in Michigan – they’ve been fantastic to work with.”
That support was critically important to the revival of manufacturing at the Birr facility. With the help from Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and the Irish Composites Centre (IComp) based at the University of Limerick, EJ had commenced an extensive research programme in 2012 to devise how best to manufacture composite access covers using best in class materials and processes. The result was the industry’s first independently certified range of composite products which meets the latest European product standards and complements the wider range of cast and fabricated steel access covers by EJ.
Dr Vincent Cooper, composite product manager at EJ, takes up the story. He had already done his PhD in materials and polymer science at the University College Dublin before joining the company in 2014.
“Our traditional product ranges were made of heavy metal and the company decided to look at composite materials as an alternative some years ago”, he explained.
Composite materials offer numerous advantages over their metal counterparts, Cooper added. To begin with, they are much lighter. This makes transport and handling both easier and cheaper. It also has health and safety benefits for the people who have to work with the products.
Being a fibre reinforced plastic, they are also non-conductive which offers many benefits in power and data transmission applications. Another plus is their weather-resistance performance and durability in extreme conditions which is at least equal to that of traditional products.
Finally, with no metal content the products have no resale value and therefore are of little attraction to thieves.
“We were able to create a product with the same durability and performance at one third the weight for particular applications”, Cooper pointed out. “We put a proposal to our owners, the Malpass family, and they approved it. It was a two-year project to take the research from the iComp lab, commercialise it and put it into production here in Birr.”
There were still challenges to be met, however. “We are making a high performance product,” Cooper explained. “The manufacturing technology we selected is very high end and is typically used in the aerospace industry.”
Day of celebration
This made cycle time an issue. The much shorter production runs involved in the aerospace industry meant that the technology operated at a much slower speed than that required by EJ. “We selected it because it was the best performing technology”, Cooper points out. “It was slower initially but got that nailed and can now make parts in 10 minutes in a semi-automated process. We moved fabrication into the original foundry building and we are manufacturing the composite products in the fabrication building that we constructed on site in 2010.”
Very importantly, the new products meet the latest European standards. “The product standard was updated in 2015”, said Cooper. “A much higher standard is now required. The old standard was a 22-page document, the new one is over 240 pages. Our products are fully compliant with the new standard and are certified by NSAI.”
“We started supplying composite access covers to customers back in June 2018,” said Padraig Freeman.
“During the first 12 months we were more or less finding our feet, but we are at full tilt now supplying customers throughout Ireland, the UK and Europe. Back in 2014 when the old foundry moved to France, that was bad news for Birr with more than 30 jobs lost. Even though we were still doing a lot of steel fabrication on site as well as distributing EJ products a lot of people in the midlands thought the Cavanagh Foundry was gone. But we have now made Birr a manufacturing base again and we have more than 40 people working for us here.”
The rebirth was celebrated at a special opening event in October 2019. “That was a very special day for all of us here,” said Freeman. “Birr is now an international manufacturing base for EJ and we are now capable of producing all of the composite covers meeting the latest European specifications to serve our local and neighbouring markets from here.”