Graeme was teaching his son to drive when he swapped the wheel of his car for a dream job driving how a new generation of electric cars are put together…
For Graeme, several parallels can be drawn from teaching his son to drive and how high-tech manufacturers navigate the product journey from production to the hands of the customer. A bit like driving – a smooth journey, and a sustainable legacy, relies upon it.
It’s a legacy that is important to Graeme’s story – one that started during the miner’s strike back in the days of Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s. Having dreamed of being a carpenter from a young age, Graeme’s journey has seen him become a product of his own making, a path that has seen him embrace battery manufacturing and achieve his biggest success – becoming a father.
Outside of teaching his son to drive, Graeme thrives on being part of international teams that design and deliver large-scale facilities of the future for pioneering products that haven’t even been created yet.
A journey 30 years in the making, Graeme’s latest adventure sees him return to a disused coal site in Blyth, Northumbria, where ISG is delivering a £350m gigaplant for Britain’s top investor in car battery technologies, Britishvolt – only this time it’s the future of electric-powered cars, and a sustainable legacy that will create thousands of jobs for families like his own, for years to come.
It was at a similar age to his son that Graeme left school and accepted an apprenticeship as a toolmaker at a local engineering company. Hailing from Stourbridge, Graeme’s passion for carpentry and making tools inspired his interest in manufacturing design and build, leading him to enrol in a full-time degree at Leeds Polytechnic University. It was during this time when Graeme undertook a placement with Rover Group before becoming a student once again – sponsored this time – joining the company as a graduate engineer.
“Looking back, I’m so glad I accepted the apprenticeship,” he says. “I always wanted to work in an environment that produced or manufactured items, and this was the first step to becoming a toolmaker when I left school at 16. It enabled me to join the manufacturing industry and create products that have a legacy, and after three and half years, I went to university.”
It was the start of Graeme carving out his own career, which has now seen him work with and for some of the world’s biggest automotive and battery brands in the UK, Europe and Asia – delivering complex, large-scale projects and service integrations that have influenced the battery manufacturing landscape.
When COVID-19 put the country into lockdown and caused Graeme’s job opportunity to fall through, Graeme turned his automotive experience into teaching his son to drive. But it wasn’t long before Graeme switched the passenger seat for the driving seat on ISG’s largest ever project in the UK – a £350m lithium-ion battery manufacturing facility for Britain’s foremost investor in battery technologies, Britishvolt.
“The pandemic was difficult at first, but it was also a blessing in disguise because it meant I was able to spend more time with my family,” he explains. “When I heard that ISG was bidding for the UK’s first-ever gigaplant and large-scale lithium-ion manufacturing factory on an old coal-powered site, it felt like my career had gone full circle and it was a natural step for me.”
The new gigaplant sited in Blyth, Northumberland, will put the UK on the map as a powerhouse in lithium-ion battery production, capable of creating 30 gigawatts of energy capacity, which is enough to power 300,000 electric cars. The result of £2.6bn investment, the Britishvolt facility is due to start construction in late 2021 and begin producing world-class lithium-ion batteries for the automotive and renewable energy industries at the end of 2023. Construction of further phases will continue until the end of 2027.
“This landmark project to build the UK’s first gigaplant is one of the most visible signs that we are confidently stepping up to meet the challenge of new zero emissions by 2050 and closely aligned with the government’s key commitment to cease petrol and diesel car manufacturing by 2030,” explains ISG’s managing director for high-tech manufacturing, Peter Millett. “The construction phase alone will directly support thousands of jobs in the North East and create a wealth of training and upskilling opportunities for local communities. The legacy of this major investment will benefit the region for generations to come.”
Designed by leading Italian design experts Pininfarina, the gigaplant will be built on a 95-hectare site, formerly the site of the Blyth Power Station, and exclusively use renewable energy, including the potential to use hydro-electric power generated in Norway and transmitted 447 miles under the North Sea via the world’s longest inter-connector from the North Sea Link project.
Graeme believes it’s a legacy the UK and once-thriving manufacturing hub, Blyth, needs. If there is anything he has learnt, it is that it’s a race against time: “I have been fortunate to be involved in the delivery of some of the world’s largest engine & battery manufacturing facilities and whatever the product, brands across the high-tech manufacturing sector are under pressure to navigate the journey from production to the hands of the customer quickly, efficiently and cost effectively.”
"The gigaplant will bring with it much-needed employment, totally regenerating the area. Britishvolt has a strong social values agenda, as well as a world-class environmental, social and governance framework. At our very heart is doing the right thing - this project is the right thing for the UK plc, and its people, on the roadmap to a low carbon, sustainable future."
Technology plays an important role. ISG’s tech-led approach connects every corner of the manufacturing environment, ensuring that spaces reinforce production, champion energy-efficiency and epitomise the products at the heart of the brand for years to come. Whether it’s a complex service integration or large-scale construction build, Graeme works alongside many partners to drive the adoption and implementation of Modern Methods of Construction, such as Design for Manufacture and Assembly (P-DfMA), across our business and beyond.
We have also consolidated our role as an ‘Integrator’ on the CIH’s Platform Design Programme, driving innovation and best practice across the construction industry. Our smarter practices and methodologies are proving transformational for the speed, quality, and environmental performance of our buildings, optimising outcomes for our customers that support our communities and economic prosperity.
One example is a 60MW datacentre in Holland that ISG delivered on programme and budget in under 60-weeks – a record delivery schedule for a hyperscale datacentre. Detailing how this immense achievement was made possible, it was clear that this model and methodology of delivery could be readily replicated at this scale within the high-tech manufacturing market. However, the relationship between the equipment in the space and the fabric of the building cannot be underestimated.
For Graeme, the key to successful delivery is straightforward, but so often evades contractors – especially on projects of this size and complexity: “Put simply, it’s an open and equal partnership approach between all stakeholders, shared pain and gain with a relentless focus on quality, and that all-important completion deadline. It’s about playing to the strengths of your broad project team in an environment that allows innovation to flourish, while identifying and mitigating risk early in the process.”
The large-scale battery manufacturing market In Europe is primed for significant investment over the next few years. The question is whether there is the appetite and ambition to make those major decisions that could signal the start of a space-race for the lithium-ion battery manufacturers – with the UK at the forefront.
For Graeme however, it's the next normal.