Featured Article 09 Jan 2020
Image: © Optibelt Urethane Belting
Image: © Optibelt Urethane Belting

Optibelt Urethane Belting products can be found in the inner workings of some of the world’s leading power transmission and industrial machinery brands. The German company’s Letterkenny, Co Donegal facility produces a range of high quality drive belts for a variety of applications from ATM machines right the way up to heavy drilling equipment for the mining industry.

The company’s presence in Donegal dates back to 1990 when it began life as a joint venture between the Arntz Optibelt Group of Germany and a company from Japan. Arntz Optibelt was a world leader in rubber drive belts at the time, but it had little knowledge or experience of the new and rapidly growing polyurethane technology, leading to the partnership.

The company already had a facility in Derry at the time and a different operation in Letterkenny carried finishing operations, such as vulcanising rubber products made in Derry, for the US market.
That US market access was key to the decision to locate the original rubber production plant in Letterkenny.

“Ireland was one of only a few countries in Europe with access to the US market for these products at the time”, recalled general manager Trevor Henderson. “The joint venture partners looked at Letterkenny and decided it was a good location for manufacturing polyurethane (PU) belts. I went out with my previous manager to Japan for three months training in 1990 and the production machines were built while I was out there. Japanese engineers spent six months in Letterkenny after that.”

Start of the journey
The Letterkenny company was originally known as A&M Belting.
“I had already worked in the production of the rubber products in Derry and my manager was also studying for his masters’ degree in polymer science, so that helped. We set up the Letterkenny plant based on what we had learned in Japan, how they worked and how the Germans worked,” Henderson continued.

“We found the quality of workers available to us in Donegal was tremendous. The people here have a great work ethic. We have been successful here ever since.We’ve never had any issues or HR problems; we’ve never had an insurance claim and there is a great relationship between the company and the workforce.”

Ownership changed in 2000 when Arntz Optibelt bought out the Japanese joint venture partner. “Arntz Optibelt is family-run company, founded in 1872”, Henderson said. “It has 2,500 employees around the world. The headquarters is in Höxter in North Rhine-Westphalia and the group has eight production sites for various products in six countries, including Ireland.”

The Letterkenny facility continued to play a key role in the company’s global operations in subsequent years and that was reflected in the development of a new Delta Chain Carbon high performance timing belt. The belt offers considerably higher performance characteristics when compared with traditional rubber or PU belts while the carbon fibre cords’ reinforcement is also superior to standard steel cords.
“A high torque PU belt for the Optibelt portfolio didn’t exist up until then,” Henderson pointed out.

“We developed it using the same chemistry as our other belts, but using new materials and processing techniques. The majority of the machines were designed and manufactured by Optibelt, so are bespoke in nature. Carbon is the new technology, it’s stronger and lighter than steel but not as flexible. Aramid cord can be used as well. The carbon means the belts can be much narrower but still as strong.”

New premises
Manufacturing the new product presented issues, however, not least the ownership position of the premises. “There were two owners and two separate leases,” said Henderson. “That was one problem. The other was that we needed more space.”

Those were the key factors which drove the decision to invest in new purpose-built premises in the IDA Business Park on the outskirts of Letterkenny.

“We carried out a feasibility study and made a presentation to our board in relation to the move,” said Henderson. “The IDA and IBEC also made presentations about the benefits of Donegal and Ireland and they were a big help.

“We got the backing of the board and our shareholders and we bought the building outright [in 2018]. That was another big milestone for us and a great vote of confidence in the team here.”

Looking to the future, he said the focus will remain on innovation and product development. “We have 34 people employed here, four of them in product development. We gain a lot of knowledge through our experience of working with suppliers and customers.

“We will continue to develop existing products like the Optibelt Delta Chain Carbon and work with new materials to improve the range. We have introduced lean manufacturing on the site, and we will continue to optimise our processes to stay ahead of the competition. We have a young team here and now that we own our premises, we are very much in control of our destiny.”

Barry McCall

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