X-ray vision spurs Bruker’s global success

Bruker JV UK

Policy: Durham-based Bruker JV UK is a prime example of the importance of going the extra mile in order to secure business in new export markets – and its success in China is a case in point, as Mark Lane discovers

From the business’s original incarnation going into administration to a buyout by an Israeli company to being purchased again by a major US outfit – it probably wasn’t quite what Paul Ryan was expecting when he joined what was then Bede Scientific 18 years ago.

As we talked at length at the company’s offices, it became clear at once that Bruker in Durham – which primarily specialises in the design and manufacture of non-destructive X-ray equipment – is now on an altogether different footing, having established deep ties within a number of global markets on the back of its best-in-class technology. Export has played a pivotal role in this transformation – which we will come to later.

To begin with, however, I was keen to find out about how Bruker has, in a relatively short time frame, become one of the North East’s genuine manufacturing export success stories.

Paul himself began working at Bede House in 2001 for Bede Scientific, a name which will ring a bell for a lot of Contact readers. He joined on the back of his physics background, working his way from the scientific to the technology side of the business. “I was not just doing X-ray measurements but looking at the nature of the technology itself and how that linked to what the customer needed,” he recalls.

In 2008, Bede Scientific went bust at a time when Paul was vice president of technology. “In many ways, the business was too early to the market,” Paul explains. “It had some fantastic technology and won some key customers. The management ramped up the business in the anticipation of expansion, but it didn’t expand fast enough. Essentially, it ran out of money.”

Despite the early setback, the seeds of a viable business were always there, with good people who knew and understood the technology and recognised its potential applications.

Bede Scientific was bought by Israeli X-ray company, Jordan Valley, with the higher management team all made redundant.

Paul was left in charge of a company, “in administration with no money and no products”, as he wryly puts it. The Israeli’s kept the core of the staff in order to service existing clients.

“I ended up being the general manager and put in place a management team,” he recalls. “I looked at business areas where I knew we could do something. A big emerging one at that time was LEDs. [For the uninitiated, an LED – a light-emitting diode – is a semiconductor light source that emits light when current flows through it. It has applications in a huge range of electronics].

“Manufacturers of LEDs at that time used X-rays to ascertain the quality their products. We could design and build them here to go into their manufacturing lines.”

Paul also spotted another opportunity at that time. The Government of China was moving heavily into LED production as part of its five-year plan and this offered huge opportunities in terms of X-ray testing equipment. “Around 2012 we couldn’t build equipment fast enough here,” he says. “Our Israeli owner kept the business at arm’s length as we were performing well. We also developed more products for adjacent markets, moving into high value areas such as 49the silicon sector.”

While the backing from Israel was vital, credit for the success of the business in this period must go to Paul and his colleagues
in Durham, many of whom are still with the company. It was on the back of this success that Bruker came calling in 2015. Jordan Valley had by that time become recognised as the leading X-ray business in the semiconductor market.

“But China is challenging. There are long lead times for sales and you don’t just walk in, show your wares and walk away with an order. You are often head to head with a competitor, proving your value and then closing the deal. It can take months or even years. But it has to be face to face.”

“All chip manufacturers looked at us for their X-ray requirements,” Paul says. “Bruker realised that every time they put their X-ray products against ours in the semiconductor industry, they lost – so they bought us.”

Bruker’s entry is very much a completely new chapter in the history of the UK company. While the business always had potential, it has since gone on to deliver on that – and in spades, heading into a host of new markets and territories.

Bruker is a global company with a huge portfolio of products. In Durham, the focus areas include the manufacture and design of non-destructive X-ray equipment for materials characterisation and monitoring of thin film growth in semiconductor production. The facility includes full design and manufacturing capabilities as well as a demonstration facility.

“We sell mainly to the compound semiconductor sector – LEDs – and advanced power such as the latest fast chargers which use X-ray to qualify quality parameters,” Paul says.

“The next emerging thing for us is 5G – this is a huge driver for our business. 5G is the future for lots of components in devices, these being either base stations or in phones which have a lot of very thin, complicated layers and X-ray is the standard way of measuring them. People making the very early parts of components will use our equipment for both R&D and quality control.”

As well as high class products, the team at Bruker have other USPs. One of these is their industry focus. Explains Paul: “All our rivals in the industry X-ray space take the equipment they sell to R&D labs and push it into industry labs. We specifically design for industry then it may roll down to R&D.

He adds: “This means making sure it is easy to use, offering high productivity, and only putting on what the customer needs. When quoting a contract, a competitor might have a long list of options they need to configure, whereas we go the other way and say for a particular application for a client they will need ‘this, this and this,’ and give a short list of options.”

I was surprised to find that the team at Durham is only 30 people, made up of designers, electrical engineers, software programmers, applications scientists plus other support staff. It’s a lean operation, and so it has to be, competing in hugely competitive international markets.

Paul (pictured below right) believes that, in actual fact, the North East manufacturing scene generally is lean and efficient, offering a hugely compelling proposition for buyers globally. He says: “When you look at the North East it is a low-cost region for high tech manufacturing. For us, there is always a push from senior management for our manufacturing to be competitive in terms of pricing, but we get that naturally in this region. In terms of lean, high value, high tech manufacturing, I don’t think there is a better place in the world to be than the North East.”

A major strength of UK manufacturing in its current guise is its international outlook, and Bruker is an excellent case in point. The company has a global focus, which is very much by necessity – the UK semiconductor industry, much of which once resided in this region, is very much slimmed down these days. Hence to grow, and grow fast, Bruker has looked abroad.

“Exports represent at least 95 per cent of our turnover,” Paul says, indicating that in a good year, only one to two orders will go into the UK. Key markets include South Korea, Taiwan, the US, Germany, Singapore and, of course, China.

The last one, while initially a tough nut to crack, has proved extremely rewarding. “We went in there quite early and ensured we had a good sales agent on the ground,” Paul says.

“But China is challenging. There are long lead times for sales and you don’t just walk in, show your wares and walk away with an order. You are often head to head with a competitor, proving your value and then closing the deal. It can take months or even years. But it has to be face to face. With the best will in the world, if you aren’t based there you can’t build a relationship with a Chinese manager.”

The focus on far-away markets means Brexit isn’t the issue that it is for many of the region’s exporters, but that doesn’t mean Bruker is immune from global events. There is, at the present time, a huge trade war going on between China and the US, with neither side showing any sign of blinking first. President Trump has slapped tariffs on hundreds of Chinese goods, China has reciprocated and trading relations between the two remain frosty.

“As a US-owned company, we have to somehow work through that and make it clear to clients that we actually export from
the UK, which means we are not bound or impacted by this tit for tat situation,” Paul says. “But we can’t be sure what is going to happen in terms of tariffs and so on, and that uncertainty is a concern.”

Going back to the North East, Paul has nothing but high hopes for the region despite the challenges of Brexit. As an almost exclusively export-focused business in a region which has a high propensity to sell abroad, he feels this is an area where economic development and other agencies should look to develop.

“The region has always led on export and, while this has obviously been hugely influenced by Nissan, there are a lot of smaller companies selling all sorts of goods and services globally,” he says. “In the North East and the UK as a whole there is a huge opportunity in terms of leading innovation. I still don’t think there are many better places in the world at high value, high tech manufacturing than the UK. We innovate, we find ways to get things done. If one looks at other countries, there is a lot of looking around to see how others do it, whereas we lead.”

Despite this, Paul still thinks there is room for a helping hand from Government, and he would like to see some tax breaks and other incentives for manufacturers both in the North East and other regions which manufacture, innovate and export. “We have to make it attractive to build and ship things from here,” he says. There are few who would disagree which such sentiments.

Such issues, obviously, need to be taken up by the region’s business development agencies who continue to lobby to make the region’s voice heard in what often seems to be the London- centric corridors of power.

The North East England Chamber of Commerce is one such agency, and it is one which Paul has worked with on many occasions. “They are a strong Chamber and they represent very well the views of the business community,” he says. “They were, I believe, the only chamber to take a stance on Brexit and they are generally not afraid to make their voice heard and promote the interests of the North East.”

Paul has been there and worn the t-shirt in terms of international trade, having been thrown in at the deep end many years ago when Bede Scientific went bust. He is well placed to advise would-be exporters and has some solid advice for those considering selling abroad. “If you are thinking about it, just do it,” he says. “Look around your networks and find others who are also exporting. The best advice you will ever receive is the war stories, not the shiny brochures.

“Also, you need to understand that you can’t export from your computer. You have to be out there in the field, banging on doors. It is hard work but it will definitely be worth it for your business.”

Bruker JV UK