THE world of work is changing for many people in Wales and computing and engineering skills have never been in more demand. One Swansea company embracing the new landscape is making state-of-the-art air quality sensors for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Vortex IoT is less than two years old but has an office in Singapore and expects to double its workforce over the next 12 months. The stakes are high, as developing nations simply make most stuff more cheaply than we do. That risks making countries like Wales increasingly less productive.
In fact Wales is the least productive of the UK’s regions, notwithstanding some manufacturing success stories like Airbus and Tata Steel.
The city deal for the Swansea Bay City Region aims to make Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire a more productive unit with better paid jobs.
The deal focuses on smart manufacturing, life sciences, low-carbon energy and greater all-round productivity – underpinned by a better digital infrastructure and a local workforce with relevant skills.
Professor Johann Sienz, of Swansea University – one of the city deal partners – said manufacturing was still a major contributor to the Welsh economy but was undergoing “transformational change”.
“As developing economies have transformed into efficient mass-production nations with inexpensive labour costs, Western economies have reacted by starting to embrace industrial automation and robotics with industrial digitalisation to improve productivity.”
Asked what products manufacturing companies in Wales should create, Professor Sienz gave a list including artificial intelligence, cyber security, big data, and sensors and devices.
Even if you lump them into an industrial digital technology bracket, these products and concepts can be hard to grasp, disconcerting, even. On the other hand most people integrate seamlessly with their smartphone, download music and movies and order all manner of products and services online.
In this article we speak to four companies in the Swansea Bay City Region which are straddling the manufacturing and digital technology spectrum.
The private sector is expected to contribute £637 million to the £1.27 billion city deal, with the rest coming from central Government, councils, health boards and universities. Little is known at this stage, from the outside at least, about where this private investment will come from.
But for entrepreneurs like Adrian Sutton the city deal – combined with the graduate skills available at Swansea’s two universities – made Wales’s second city “the obvious choice” to set up shop.
Mr Sutton, the managing director of Vortex IoT, is from Carmarthenshire, lives in Pembrokeshire and hopes to manufacture sensors in Neath Port Talbot. So that’s all the city deal boxes ticked, then.
He said the air quality sensors for Qatar would be located at eight football stadiums being used for the World Cup, plus 32 fan zones and the wider area of Doha – the emirate’s capital. The wireless sensors will provide all manner of real-time data, while standing up to searing summer heat.
Vortex IoT is also making sensors alongside rail tracks which use a beam to spot corrosion and obstructions while, again, providing real-time data for rail companies.
“We are all about making the physical digital,” said Mr Sutton.
That explains the IoT – short for “internet of things” – in the company’s name. You may have heard this phrase being banded about.
Mr Sutton said: “It’s all about connecting things to the internet, and turning those things into something you can talk to. By connecting an air quality sensor to a lamppost, you turn that lamppost into something you can talk to and get intelligence on.”
He also said the sensors revealed air quality detail at a very fine – or “granular” – level of detail.
Another Vortex IoT sensor being developed aims to guide motorists to available parking spaces in town and city streets, preventing them wasting time driving round and round.
Mr Sutton said the company, which he founded with two others, also worked with Tata Steel, Dell and BT.
Vortex IoT is based at the Tech Hub, High Street, and employs 13 people in Swansea and two in Singapore. It received a £500,000 investment from the Development Bank of Wales earlier this year.
Asked about the city deal, which has had no central Government funding as yet, Mr Sutton said: “It has had teething problems and governance issues, but it’s advantageous to us when we talk to our customer base in Singapore and the Middle East.”
The 46-year-old added: “We knew we had a good fit with the city deal vision, and the strategic vision of Wales.”
Mr Sutton is on Gower College Swansea’s digital skills board and is determined to nurture young people’s interest in the tech sector and encourage them to do “cool things”.
One of his recruits is senior research and development engineer Tim Mortensen. The 32-year-old has a PhD in physics and was working at Swansea University after a stint in Paris when he saw a Vortex IoT job advert.
“It was one of the jobs that stood out,” said Mr Mortensen.
His role involves the nitty-gritty of working out how parts fit together. The day we speak he has been designing bespoke printed circuit boards.
“Every day is different,” said Mr Mortensen, of Sketty.
“The challenge is one of the best parts. It’s problem-solving from start to finish.”
Over at Neath, The Safety Letterbox Company has been manufacturing products since 1986. It makes more than 150 mail and parcel boxes – and these days is also part of a German group called Renz.
Parcel boxes made by Renz allow people living in flats, for example, to receive and send parcels without actually being physically there to sign for them. Couriers unlock the boxes by a smartphone app or a PIN code, preventing repeated, failed delivery attempts. Everything is tracked, and the technology also smooths out the returns process.
Manging director Alison Orrells, whose father Ian Brown MBE started The Safety Letterbox Company, said the aesthetics, design and technology of their products had evolved hugely.
“We are starting to talk software,” she said. “We’ve had to throw ourselves into this world of technology and educate ourselves very quickly.”
With the dizzying growth of online shopping, Mrs Orrells has high hopes for the myRENZbox products, although they are currently a small proportion of the Neath firm’s business. Their core business remains the letter and parcel boxes made at the company’s two Milland Road units, which employ 52 people.
“My job is to ensure that we do not take our eye off the ball,” said Mrs Orrells, of Killay, Swansea.
“Our work is mostly in the UK, but we did an amazing project at the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building) in Dubai. And we’ve done another one in Qatar.”
She added: “The retention of our staff is crucial. They are the backbone of this business.”
The 50-year-old is on the board of the Swansea Bay Business Club, and is very much up to speed with the Swansea Bay City Deal.
“The whole vision is really exciting,” she said. “Obviously there is a lot of frustration at the time being taken.”
Brexit is another factor to consider, especially given the company’s continental links.
Mrs Orrells said her European partners were “alarmed” about the situation, but she was determined to make things work.
“It has given me that extra drive,” she said.
One of her long-serving colleagues is technical operations manager Keith Jones. He oversees the product control office and the design team.
“Anything that comes into the company is vetted by myself or my department,” said Mr Jones.
“I’m also responsible for research and development work and the design work.”
The 54-year-old, of Llangyfelach, joined the company in 2003 and has seen it grow. He said the number of office-based staff had risen from seven to the mid-20s, and that employee turnover was very low.
“It’s hands-on, extremely challenging – I enjoy it,” he said.
Further west in Llanelli, 18 staff at digital media agency Tinint provide video content and other business services to clients.
These clients include Discovery Networks – the Olympic Games broadcaster and owner of the Discovery Channel.
Tinint commercial director Adam Edwards said its contract with Discovery Networks covered eight summer and winter Olympics, which started with the 2018 winter event at Pyeongchang, South Korea. The work involved designing and building a management system for all broadcaster requests – from booking a bin, to camera positions and post-production shots.
Tinint is the digital agency arm of independent broadcast media group Tinoplis.
“It give birth to us, then we became an external-facing organisation,” said Mr Edwards.
Tinint has small office in London, delivers Manchester City FC’s digital audio streaming service and has worked with other sporting groups such as the International Cricket Council and America’s Cup.
“We are also a key supplier to the Welsh Government for digital learning and teaching resources,” said Mr Edwards.
“We have been doing this for the last 10 years.”
The 39-year-old, of Carmarthen, said digital media was going to play a key role in Wales’s new school curriculum.
He added: “Video is probably the primary medium through which to communicate with people.”
Mr Edwards said Tinint did not outsource.
“We work really hard to bring local talent in and retain them,” he said. “It’s not easy in our area.”
Two apprentices from a nearby college are starting at the Park Street office next month.
“The city deal should be a catalyst for us, and support people locally,” said Mr Edwards.
Up-to-date digital infrastructure – another of the city deal’s projects – was also critical, he said.
Mr Edwards’s working life has been spent at Tinint, ever since he joined as junior graphic designer in 2002.
“It’s brilliant,” he said.
In Pembrokeshire, Mainstay Marine Solutions is fabricating wave and tidal stream energy devices.
One of the city deal’s 11 projects is the creation and scaling up of a testing, manufacturing and deployment hub at Pembroke Dock for the so-called “blue economy”.
Wave and tidal energy have long been talked about as a useful source of low-carbon power, and the Welsh Government has put a lot of investment into the sector. Mainstay Marine managing director Stewart Graves said the company’s engineering capabilities had enabled its expansion from boat building into renewable energy.
“The city deal plans are vitally important to enable the (Pembroke) port to service this new growth market in order for devices to be built efficiently and to scale,” said Mr Graves.
“We would benefit greatly from this much-needed investment, which in turn would help create quality, sustainable jobs and boost the local economy.”
The company employs around 65 people, including naval architects, mechanical engineers and shipwrights, and has 4,000 sq ft of workshop space. It has won a Ministry of Defence contract for communications masts for the Royal Navy’s new Type 26 frigates, and also repairs and refits boats.
The Pembroke Dock firm hosts school visits and has taken on apprentices like Nirvana Kerslake. The 21-year-old, who lives in the north of the county, is doing a business administration apprenticeship.
“I’m getting on really well,” said Miss Kerslake. “It’s a good working environment.
“I gather project costs ready for billing, do internal auditing from time to time, and raise purchase orders.
“When I was in school I studied an NVQ in engineering, and this background is useful.”
While the future for young workers like Miss Kerslake looks encouraging, not everyone will thrive in the smart manufacturing and high-tech future.
Some experts have even voiced fears of a digital elite and a working class stripped of value and relevance.
Others have suggested new ways of taxing multinational tech giants to help fund a universal basic income payable to all citizens.
But there are clearly significant market opportunities and well-paid jobs for the taking. And Wales and the UK are set firmly on a low-carbon trajectory.
Back at Swansea, Professor Sienz, director of innovation at the university’s college of engineering, said more research and development funding was needed in Wales.
He said the country again lagged at the foot of the UK table in this regard.
“The UK punching well below its weight (in R&D) and Wales in context is even lower,” said Professor Sienz. “Action is required.”