David Dunbar, President of Valves & Controls, Tyco Flow Control, describes the valve industry using the phrase “stubborn complexity.”
Dunbar, who presented some of his views on where the industry is headed at the Valve World conference last November, explains what he means by that phrase.
“We have a very rich and interesting industry,” Dunbar says. “On the one hand, we produce a product that may operate 30 to 80 years. We still make versions of valves that are very similar to earlier generations of the product. On the other hand, however, product offerings in our business today are tremendously varied—we may have SKUs that number in the millions.”
The mix of long lifecycle together with the diversity of a wide range of products/technology/designs makes life in the valve world fascinating, Dunbar adds.
“We work in an industry that touches the most important infrastructures of the world, that gives us access to the most important resources,” Dunbar says. The innovations that occur “do not happen at the rate they happen in information technology, but they’ve contributed to the globalization and improvement of business and manufacturing at all levels.”
And one of the reasons innovations don’t occur as quickly is because the product service life is so long.
“When I review my own past, I realize that I really started to appreciate this industry at the time I began to understood that, when all is said and done—when the plant is designed, construction complete, the units are running, the control system is in place and a signal is sent—it all comes down to the valve. Does it open and close when it’s supposed to; does it control or direct the flow like it needs to? It is the last link in the chain, which makes it critical to carefully match it to the application,” Dunbar says.
Dunbar speaks from experience. After getting an electrical engineering degree, he spent a decade with Honeywell in the computer software/instrumentation side of process control before moving to Emerson for 12 years. He came to Tyco in 2009.
How He Sees the Industry Now
Dunbar says that rather than rapid changes in the product itself, more change is taking place in the structure of the companies—both customers and suppliers. One trend in many international companies today is that they are learning to align their businesses vertically by market served as opposed to geographically to enable them to create consistency across the world’s shrinking borders. The trend is occurring in response to increasing globalization of customers.
“Look at the power companies as an example. Just 10 years ago, power companies operated mostly within their own countries. Very few operated across the borders. Today, you see European power companies operating across all of Europe and some have moved to North America.
“Global customers want to buy the same product at the same quality no matter where they make a purchase,” he explains.
At the same time, those global customers, especially in remote areas of the world, need more local services to supplement the lack of internal skilled resources.
“Large global businesses such as the large energy companies are asking for commitments to provide consistent service on similar products around the world,” he explains. Many valve companies are now in the process of looking at locating offices where those services are needed.
As far as the biggest changes Dunbar says he’s seen in 20 years in the valve business, he points to the last decade and the increased use of smart technology in manufacturing.
“As technology becomes less expensive and easier to integrate, more and more pieces of equipment in plants will have on-board intelligence, whether it’s a simple status indicator, a smart asset tag or a more advanced diagnostic device,” he says.
Meanwhile, the valves themselves face a new set of challenges as customers ask for materials that can withstand higher/lower temperatures and higher pressures than ever before, which means new machining and work processes as well as new tools, Dunbar adds.
Still, because change in the valve product itself is a slow, continuous process, Dunbar says “the more dramatic changes in the valve business will have to do with the companies that deliver the valve, support the infrastructure and supply global chains.”
One challenge in dealing with that global reach is keeping up with standards around the world, and Dunbar says there is an area where he has some concerns: emerging markets.
“Companies are being asked for variations on what has been accepted already in other parts of the world, a trend that threatens the harmonization that gained momentum in the late 80s and 90s,” Dunbar says.
“The challenge for us is to work with our customers, work with the standards bodies and work with other manufacturers in organizations such as VMA to get the industry aligned around how much we need standards for the good of the entire industry,” he concludes.