From the nugget of an idea to a multi-million-pound finished product – DavyMarkham is one of Sheffield’s biggest engineering works specialising in some of the world’s most exciting projects. The Star’s reporter Rachael Clegg paid the firm a visit
PERUVIAN silver mine turbines, the Millennium Bridge spanning the River Tyne and Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 tower all have something very special in common...
All were masterminded or made in Sheffield – just off Prince of Wales Road, to be precise.
In a colossal factory, next to a row of semi-detached houses and a railway bridge, DavyMarkham’s 200-plus workforce is busy transforming ambitious engineering concepts into reality.
And with a 175,000 square foot manufacturing area, plus a staggering 17 metres of height capacity, the company has the resources to do it.
The shop floor is lined with enormous hydraulic pumps, a 60-tonne overhead crane, stacks of huge sheets of steel, welding booths, colossal semi-circlular drums and a railway line running through the entire factory.
John Watson is the director of production and has been working at DavyMarkham for 22 years, since he was a 16-year-old apprentice.
The scale of the projects DavyMarkham takes on still fascinates him.
“We have the space to work on huge projects and we shift such heavy loads of steel – up to several hundred tonnes – that we need a locomotive to move it around,” he said.
Originally two firms – Markham, which was founded in Chesterfield in 1838, and Davy, which was founded in Sheffield in 1830 – DavyMarkham combined in 1997.
Since then the company has gone from strength to strength, after a huge dip in business during the 1980s when South Yorkshire’s steel and coal mining industries collapsed.
Today the company has an annual turnover of £20.6 million, there are 205 members of staff, 21 of whom are apprentices – all part of a training scheme the company developed itself. Mike Robotham, director of engineering, says the scheme was designed to equip apprentices with core skills such as maths as well as preparing them for a progressive career at the company.
It’s also key to the company’s future success – new blood means new ideas, and new solutions, which is what DavyMarkham does.
The company provides ‘solutions’ to engineering requirements, be it for bridges, mine hoists, terminal towers. DavyMarkham doesn’t just manufacture the product, either – it plans, produces, delivers and instals its commissions.
“We are designing things from scratch – that’s what moves you up the supply chain,” said Mike. “We start with a concept and we put everything in place to make it happen.
“Our consultant engineers look at the project and how it can be done, we design it, manufacture it and instal it. It is incredibly rewarding to be able to touch the finished product and see it put in place. It’s more than just making a part for a machine.”
Perhaps one of the most exciting and striking projects DavyMarkham has worked on was the Millennium Bridge over the River Tyne linking Newcastle and Gateshead.
The 600-tonne steel bridge, commissioned by Gateshead Council, was completed in 2002. Its instalment was an event of national pride – it was officially unveiled by the Queen, who pressed the button to open the ‘winking eye’ bridge, which opens and closes in the same manner as an eyelid opening and shutting.
The technical nature of the project required electronic engineers and the collaboration of companies specialising in the sorts of components required to enable the bridge to move.
The complex nature of the job meant numerous checks had to be put in place at every stage – nothing was left to chance.
“The Queen pressed the button to move the bridge but in reality we had actually checked it about 23 times already!” said Mike. “There was no way we wouldn’t make sure it was going to work when the Queen opened it.”
Scrupulous checks and tests are essential to DavyMarkham’s work. As key manufacturers in the nuclear power generation and mining industry there is no room for error.
The latest project is a huge drum hoist for the Goldcorp Éléonore gold mine in Quebec, Canada. The Sheffield firm is set to create two double drum hoists, which will be used to extract gold.
Gordon Scott, sales director at DavyMarkham, said: “The contract builds on our experience within the mining market, which is opening up more export opportunities within the Americas and other continents as explorations yield undiscovered mineral resources.”
The energy industry is proving to be a vital part of DavyMarkham’s work. The company has built nuclear shield doors, wind turbines and hoists for a silver mine in Peru.
But it’s not all energy and mineral extraction. DavyMarkham has also made the control tower for Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5, the lifting machinery for Snowdonia’s hydro-electric power station, and huge valves for Drax power station.
DavyMarkham’s expertise is in its non-expertise. “We are not a brand name,” said Mike. “We provide end solutions to engineering requirements and the entire staff – from the cleaners to the top floor – have pride and enthusiasm about what we do.
“There is no greater satisfaction than looking at something that’s been designed, manufactured and installed from scratch standing at 15 metres wide. To go and touch it and feel it is really satisfying.”
But it’s a stressful business, with a lot of competition. “We have to keep our reputation – quality and delivering on time are key. We are competing on a global level and we’re not the cheapest so we have to get it right,” said Mike.
Winning projects comes at a cost, however, as Gordon explains. “It can cost up to around £20,000 just to pitch for a project and we probably win one out of every three but that’s a risk we have to take and we build it in to our expenditure.”
Clearly, it’s worth it.
DavyMarkham’s shop floor is bursting with activity, with more exciting projects on the way.
“Engineering is exciting,” said Mike. “Everything we use has been designed and engineered by somebody.”