Tracing the history of B&W through to the formation of Samson Materials Handling
Samson Materials Handling Ltd. can trace its recent history directly to the formative company of B&W Mechanical handling Ltd. including the birth of its core products such as the Samson feeder and mobile shiploaders and stackers. However, its earlier history dates back to a partnership between Tom Brown and Raymond Woodbine, B&W Engineering, trading in premises rented from a local produce company.
Back in 1966 both partners put in £100 each to start the business. The owner of the original premises in Ely, Cambridgeshire, agreed a rent holiday, giving the business a chance to start trading and earning money without enormous overheads. The premises were basic, just ‘Nissen’ huts originally erected during WW II as temporary shelters — rusted to the point where there were more holes than roof and water ingress was a perennial problem.
In these early days B&W would do almost anything to earn money and this often included repairing elderly commercial vehicles and trailers and rebuilding the truck body or even making a new body if required. Of course, being in an agricultural area and working next door to a produce company brought B&W into close contact with the farming industry and potato haulage in particular where farmers were moving from bags to bulk and required suitable bulk trailers. For this operation, it was established practice by then to use a belt discharge bulk container comprising a fabricated steel body lined in timber with floors sloping to a central conveyor. B&W made many of these and the ‘Potato Bulker’ soon became B&W’s first established product.
Bulk potato machinery became ever larger business as public taste for the potato crisp exploded and companies such as Golden Wonder and Smiths rapidly developed their production facilities. For some time, the Corby factory of Golden Wonder was the largest in the world with a storage capacity of around 250,000 tonnes. Potatoes have a short harvest season and the whole crop must be taken into storage within hours of lifting.
B&W’s established connection with this trade opened many new doors both in the farming sector, to intake the crop to on- farm storage but also at the processor to intake very large volumes on an industrial scale... For Golden Wonder specifically B&W designed a new radial boom stacking system with integral intake soil extractor to receive material from the Potato Bulkers. The B&W Bulker had a belt width of 450mm (18”) which was 50% wider than the norm at that time allowing a 50% increase in output rate which flooded the standard storage conveyors hence driving demand for larger, more professional solutions which, naturally, B&W offered.
Of course Ely is in the fens and close by to the richest farmland in the UK where speciality crops such as lettuce and celery may be grown in vast quantity. Celery must be handled very gently to avoid breaking and the loose soil washed off for presentation in the fast developing supermarket business. B&W worked alongside local growers, such as G’s Growers (G S Shropshire & Sons) and Greens of Soham, to develop celery handling, washing and packing systems. At one point it was attempted to mount a complete celery washing and packing line on a field rig, dirty celery in one end and boxed clean celery out the back... but the weight of water required defeated the project and the prototypes literally got stuck in the mud.
By 1975, B&W purchased land in Lisle Lane which at that time was outside the town and in an area zoned for industrial development. New premises were built on this freehold site. The site was subsequently developed with new offices and a new production hall. By 1990, the business had again outgrown the site. In 1991 B&W acquired the lease of the old hanger at Lancaster Way and moved to this new site during 1992 from which it traded till moving to the present premises.
It was John Green of Greens of Soham that put B&W on the road to develop the SamsonTM feeder that became the backbone of the business many years later. It was in 1976, when the rest of the UK suffered a prolonged drought, in the fens water remained readily available and root crop growers flourished with potatoes and onions reaching record prices; this generated cash and encouraged the development of new machinery designs.
Greens were very large in celery, potatoes and onions, with some 7,000 acres under cultivation, and in particular their farm storage systems were extensive and elaborate but none more so that the Lark Engine Farm storage facility built near Prickwillow with machinery by B&W based on the concept of John Green — a visionary farmer, engineer and inventor. Even today this system is revolutionary but, back in 1978, it was truly futuristic using an overhead gantry system with variable angle decline conveyor and travelling, reversing, raising and lowering stacking out system.
All of this was mounted to a scissor lift integral to the travelling gantry that supported the whole mechanism and, along with a travelling shuttle conveyor, allowed the gantry to traverse the full building footprint without any ground mounted equipment, working automatically and unattended. Onions must be dried, often using heated and dehumidified air blown through the ventilated floor, to avoid rapid deterioration. Using this new loading system, with the gantry moving up and down the 120m building, the stockpile could be built up in layers such that only one layer at a time need be dried and therefore the drying system could be scaled back often requiring only ambient air with considerable savings in energy input.
Whilst the Lark Engine project represented the pinnacle of the market B&W realized there was an opportunity to spread this concept to a wider audience using conventional ground based equipment and the Stormatic system was born. This comprised an intake hopper, known as the Stormatic, (now rebranded the SamsonTM) to receive the crop from farm tipping trailers, a soil extraction system to clean the crop and a line of Pick-a-Back conveyors (now called Link Conveyors) to deliver the crop to a radial boom elevator (now migrated to the Stormajor) located within the storage building.
The elevator had a long cantilevered radial boom such that the boom stacker plus the line of Pick-a-Back conveyors could be moved in and out to create the stockpile in layers mimicking the philosophy of the Lark Engine project but on a smaller scale and without the need for a dedicated building or any other fixed equipment. The core of the present Samson-MH product range may be traced back to these components in concept.
Having gained a reputation for innovative solutions B&W was approached by several companies to build specialized mobile equipment and in particular mobile harvesting rigs. At that time Iceberg Lettuce was becoming popular in the UK and Marks and Spencer (M&S) needed an alternative to the hugely expensive imports from California. It found a UK grower and approached B&W to design and manufacture the harvesting rigs, and variants of these may be seen still working in the fens, in Lancashire and in Scotland where the lettuces are now grown. All of these were bespoke products designed to suit the application and client demands but B&W was ambitious to manufacture a standardized product that could be ‘stock-built’ and sold through agents.
After a chance meeting with David Dowler, a Cotswold farmer with revolutionary ideas for land management, B&W pursued Dowler’s prototype ‘gantry’ crop sprayer and tool carrier. Regrettably the market was not ready; a salutary lesson for all involved.
At around this time the root crop price bubble burst and B&W was looking around for another market to develop. It was approached by Sure Equipment, at that time a Finlay Screen distributor for the UK, to produce a range of mobile stackers to complement the Finlay mobile screener products. Finlay was independent and suffered competition from other Irish manufacturers with a product range including a swivel boom conveyor. B&W offered to build for Sure a range of mobile conveyors and stackers based on conventional designs plus a ‘Swivel Boom’ stacker with a 15m-long base boom with a 6m radial boom allowing 180° rotation. The products would be exclusive to Sure, branded as Sure Equipment products and marketed under the Sure Equipment name with product codes such as SEO Series, SET Series, SEM and so on.
This arrangement continued for a few years but never really developed into serious production as the product cost became prohibitive. The same story applied to the Link Conveyor products for face crushing in mines and quarries which, at that time, although developed alongside Lokomo (now Metso) again proved to be too expensive manufactured in the UK. B&W only produced two more sets of Link Conveyors for a Tarmac quarry in the UK and a large mining operation in Spain but these were bespoke projects.
One notable order was taken for a bespoke stacker for the National Coal Board which, at that time, was the largest user of materials handling systems in the UK. This unit was supplied to the Climpy opencast mine near Glasgow and comprised a variable angle conveyor with a variable angle declining head mounted to a sub chassis carried on powered wheels set for radial travel and mounted at the tail to a slew ring.
In parallel, B&W had re-branded the agricultural Stormatic Hopper into the SamsonTM Surface Feeder for industry and started the diversification of the SamsonTM into many other sectors including clay, coal, minerals, stone and most importantly cereals. However, it was the cereals market was to be in the 1980s what the root crop industry had been in the previous decade. Thanks to the European Union Intervention Pricing Scheme UK growers were paid high prices for cereals and very soon production considerably exceeded demand, creating an immediate and extensive need for storage and eventually exports facilities. B&W reacted fast, and brought to the market the Loadmaster Series of mobile stackers plus the Stormajor formed out of mating a SamsonTM feeder section with a Loadmaster conveyor boom onto a common chassis with slew ring allowing radial travel. With a design handling rate of 360tph (tonnes per hour) and a buffer holding capacity within the SamsonTM trucks could be easily discharged in three minutes and with a truck total turnaround of about five minutes a single machine could average 2,500 tonnes per day. This was at a level way beyond anything else in the market and the Stormajor rapidly became the industry standard adopted by professional merchants, traders and the government controlled Intervention Grain Board.
Since there was no market for this grain in the UK the excess capacity could only be exported and for this level of surplus the existing port facilities were inadequate and capacity at the few permanent facilities such as Tilbury and Southampton was soon exhausted. What was needed was a mobile shiploader that could be used in any existing port without dedicated port infrastructure and, whilst the B&W Loadmaster Series could be used to load smaller vessels, it was clear larger equipment would be required.
With its experience handling cereals and with the expertise developed with large mobile conveyors in the quarry industry B&W was ideally placed to fill this gap in the market. Another local man, Joe Brand of Anglia Agricultural Merchants (AAM), had the vision to see where the market was moving and the courage to commission a bespoke mobile shiploader able to load ships at the port of Kings Lynn, the closest deep water port. B&W designed and manufactured the new unit incorporating twin feeder conveyors, to receive from two trucks simultaneously, plus powered travel and trimming systems to speed the vessel loading. The success resulted in the first order for the cement industry for RAK Cement (UAE) to export clinker, based on the AAM design but upgraded for the heavier and more aggressive material.
The mobile shiploader concept was then broadened to incorporate SamsonTM feeders both to speed the average handling rate and to enable the equipment to load a range of materials including minerals and ores. The first machine was delivered to Aberdeen for cereals export rapidly followed by a unit to English China Clays of St Austell to export kaolin. So the connection with the minerals market began and the truck-to-ship concept was born — suitable for almost any type of dry bulk cargo extending loading rates to 2,000tph and vessel sizes to Panamax.
The 1980s were pivotal for B&W with the diversification in cereals and minerals plus the expansion of the SamsonTM concept along with the development of a range of belt conveyor products allowing a package to be brought together incorporating a SamsonTM plus the associated belt conveyors, including the ‘Steep- Angle’ and ‘Kleen-Line’ designs. B&W offered a semi-turnkey service and by maximizing the surface mounting benefits of the SamsonTM was generally able to offer an alternative package, invariably at significantly less cost compared to traditional
competition. This was the business model that sustained B&W through to the millennium; based on the uniqueness of the SamsonTM to add flexibility combined with traditional bulk handling solutions at a reduced the project cost without impinging on B&W’s margins too much.
By year 2000 the SamsonTM product had developed from the original 67kN conveyor chain handling carrots though to the latest 1,600kN versions able to intake iron ore and other heavy minerals from large mining dump trucks.
Notably in this period the first delivery of the new SamsonTM 800 Series was to Heckett Multiserv handling slag at its Sheerness Steel operation but the critical order came from British Steel, now Tata, for the main coke intake to its South Bank coke ovens.
The surface-mounted SamsonTM feeder replaced the whole of the existing underground hoppers and feeders and in total 13 belt conveyors were made redundant. In 2012 Tata purchased two more Samson feeders for the Port Talbot steel works the largest of which being the 1600 Series receiving iron or from large dump trucks.
Similarly the shiploader range had grown into a sophisticated product able to load vessels to Capesize and including many integral refinements such as powered travel and steering, integral trimming systems, integrated twin SamsonTM feeders, dust control systems and on-board diesel gen-set plus complex automated control systems allowing truly autonomous operation. This on- going development culminated with the ‘Sterling’ series concept including vertical elevation and radial outloading boom and the first unit of this type was commissioned in 2002 at the port of Immingham.
In parallel the StormajorTM radial boom stacker with integral SamsonTM surface feeder was also developed into the industrial handling market both for stockpiling and barge loading heavy minerals, aggregates and crushed stone.
By the millennium the UK market for materials handling equipment had significantly reduced with the demise of British Coal and the consequent closure of practically all of the UK deep mines. In 1979, 130mt (million tonnes) of coal was being produced annually from 170 underground mines, but by 2010 the three remaining mines produced only 17mt. Whilst this in itself did not affect B&W, it did release a great deal of engineering capacity into the bulk materials handling business sector increasing the competition in a rapidly dwindling market. By this time also the European Union had dismantled its intervention purchase schemes and as a result the demand for export wheat evaporated releasing many mobile stackers and shiploaders into the second-hand market naturally depressing new sales.
B&W developed a marketing plan to develop export markets
to replace the lost UK business and effective agents were appointed in Denmark, Israel and Spain particularly.
In 2002 AUMUND approached B&W to discuss first a marketing co-operation and ultimately the purchase of the company to be integrated to the AUMUND Group forming a UK division. With its penetration of the cement industry globally and sales/service centres in the core resource centred economies worldwide this was a heaven-sent match. In addition, the SamsonTM fitted well into the AUMUND product range with considerable synergies not only in cement but also in mining and minerals opening enormous opportunities.
Before the AUMUND acquisition B&W had floundered with its attempts to expand international sales of its shiploader and Stormajor projects with the exception of a handful of projects. Overseas contracts are difficult to finance and with the shiploaders in particular becoming larger and more complex, with values in proportion, such equipment became very difficult to sell outside our home market in a harsh financial world. Here the strength of a truly international group opens doors that would be firmly closed to a small UK manufacturer.
So up to the present day B&W has become rebranded as Samson Materials Handling Ltd and the product range now extended to tracked machines plus telescopic systems for stacking and shiploading offered through a range of distributors and local agents.
Finally... it is interesting to see old machines such as the Loadmaster coming back to life for shiploading of wood pellets in Invergordon. Wood pellets, as carbon neutral fuel, are being imported into Europe, particularly the UK, for coal substitution in power plant and this market is likely to dwarf the cereals market that spawned the Loadmaster in the beginning. Luckily wood pellets behave very much like wheat and will flow through the ‘Grain-Door’ of standard tipping vehicles and as such do not require any special feeding device in this situation; adding considerably to the flexibility of this solution for barge and small shiploading.
It is important to say that throughout the formative development of B&W, particularly in the early days, it was usual to do business on a handshake and the philosophy was ‘my word is my bond’ and with trust on both sides contracts flowed smoothly. Whilst some key clients are mentioned herein it is certain without the support of all customers the business would have perished, a debt of gratitude is due to all.
In conclusion the history of Samson Materials Handling née B&W is an interesting evolution of a very small family business moving with the market and developing products that match the changing demands of the bulk materials handling industry it serves.