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Sunday, 21 September 2014

Acrastyle: the bright sparks behind some clever switches

WAITING in the reception at Acrastyle, two things immediately grab your attention.

One is the idyllic view overlooking the canal and the other is the two clocks mounted to the wall, displaying local times in Ulverston and Chennai in India.

“We’re owned by an Indian parent company,” Acrastyle’s managing director, David Brands, explains.

Asking David to explain exactly what it is that Acrastyle does provokes a smile.

“In your house you have lots of switches to turn lights on and off,” he says, happily settling into what can only be described as storytime mode.

“Light switches make and break a circuit. But at high voltage levels you can’t use a simple switch. The current would simply ‘jump across’ and you’d get a big spark.

“To make or break a circuit on, say, an electricity substation, if there was a fault, for example, the switch uses other technology, and we design and make those systems.”

Systems designed by electrical engineers at Acrastyle can be found on upwards of 90 per cent of all electricity substations across the UK.

In a matter of milliseconds, Acrastyle’s automated systems can identify if a fault is indeed a fault, isolate and fix it, and prevent the fault affecting the electricity supply to homes and businesses.

“We design systems that can make a decision in 10 milliseconds. They can tell the difference between a fault which will need correcting and something which will clear itself given the chance,” David explains.

Acrastyle started life 50 years ago making light fittings from its base in North Lonsdale Road in Ulverston. Now the company’s 70 employees undertake work for windfarm developers – monitoring the flow of electricity from the turbines to the mainland – and design systems which provide and monitor power to electric trains across the UK’s rail network.

Acrastyle has installed control and monitoring systems for nine UK windfarms to date, protecting their connections to the National Grid, including two off the coast of Barrow.

And David’s expertise in train power networks led to him penning an article for Railway Strategies – a trade magazine aimed at senior railway executives.

Looking at his career path reveals why David is seen as an industry expert. He spent 19 years with GEC – a world leader in the field, bought and then sold his own company and then became a management consultant before being head-hunted to take the helm at Acrastyle.

“I got a phone call from someone who knew about me and asked if I would come up here,” David says.

“I was here initially as a consultant and, in the end, I became the managing director.”

Originally from Greenock in Scotland, David now splits his time between Ulverston and Stafford. He tells us one of his hobbies is F1 Racing, the origins of which are apparently self-explanatory.

“1968 Scalextric – Jim Clark. That’s all I need to say,” David says smiling.

When David joined Acrastyle, the company was struggling, the economic downturn having resulted in a 40 per cent drop in business over two years. But ongoing investment in electrical infrastructure across the UK and, although he is reluctant to admit it, David’s management skills have turned things around and Acrastyle is expecting growth of up to 30 per cent during 2012.

“Our success is down to the team we have here in Ulverston,” he stresses. “Our design engineers, our wiremen, our testers.

“They are the reason we are doing so well, I don’t want to take the credit for that.”

Acrastyle’s monitors are housed inside large metal panels which give little away about the technology within but David is once more quick to highlight his workers’ skills.

“There are some people in this industry who are known as panel bashers,” he says. “They don’t know anything about the technology inside the panels, they literally just source the components and put them together. One of the things we try to sell is our engineering capabilities.

“We design the systems from scratch, get all the components and wire them up and then test them. Some customers think of us as panel bashers but, ultimately, we are an engineering company – that is our USP, we are bloody good engineers.”

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