Exclusive Richard Hulme interview

Following Glass Futures being granted planning permission for the delivery of a £54million global glass research and innovation facility, Dr. Richard Hulme exclusively discusses his long-term secondment as Technical Director at the organisation, as well as his role of Senior Glass Technologist for Guardian Glass. The full version of this article appears in the July/August issue of Glass Worldwide (preferred media partner of Glass Futures) that has been mailed globally and is also now available free of charge in the digital archive*.

Exclusive Richard Hulme interview

GW: What first attracted you to the glass industry?

I’m a Barnsley [South Yorkshire, UK] lad. Most of my family worked on the shop floor for Redfearn National Glass, Wood Brothers or Beatson Clark, so when I left school at 17 years old it seemed natural to join the glass industry. I can’t say I was attracted to the industry, but I fell in love with it, and I’ve been faithful for nearly 50 years! The glass industry has given me opportunities to meet people, learn, gain experience, teach and train some talented people and travel the world, which would otherwise likely not been possible.

GW: How did you establish your career and where have you worked since?

My first job in the glass industry was during the school summer holidays in 1972 when I worked as a ‘taker in’ at Wood Brothers. I joined Redfearn (now part of Ardagh Glass) as a junior in the batch and furnace department. Dr. Stanley Race encouraged and supported those of us who wanted to further our education at Technical College, as well as gain hands-on experiences. The company sponsored many of us for our Master’s degree in glass technology from the University of Sheffield.

Redfearn Barnsley was the biggest single-site container plant in Europe at that time, having seven furnaces of different types making different colours. It was a fantastic place to learn.

I worked for Calumite for over a decade as Glass Technologist and worked with Professor Michael Cable to get my Ph.D. studying melting, refining and redox control.

I was Factory Manager of Edinburgh Crystal’s Penicuik site and then Operations Director at Waterstone Glassware in Wath-upon-Dearne.

GW: In your experience, how has the glass industry changed since the 70s?

 It’s been amazing to see many of the nascent technologies I saw in the 1970s develop and become commonplace now, such as in-furnace cameras, oxygen probes in regenerators and remote access to SCADA systems.

Many ideas have been out there for quite a while, but the innovations needed to make these ideas practical have required changes in materials, processes and equipment, requiring talented people. New technologies that weren’t thought about but dreamed of, like thermal cameras and the use of radar to measure refractory thickness, have all been deployed within the last few years. Hot end product inspection is being developed and widely deployed and there have been some major improvements in glass inspection in container and float sectors.

Professor Box [British statistician George E. P. Box] said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful” but the advances in CFD [Computational Fluid Dynamics] simulations over the last 20 years have been phenomenal. Using these as a basis for improved furnace control has been a major advancement for the industry. Improving the CFD models is essential if the industry is going to make significant changes to furnace designs to take advantage of new fuels, design concepts and to improve process control.

Redfearn was a big supporter of the Society of Glass Technology (SGT) but, sadly, the industry doesn’t support the SGT as it used to (or should) at a time when working together as an entire industry – and across sectors – would seem to be a good idea. Shame on us.

GW: How did you come to work for Guardian Glass?

I wanted to get back into a glass manufacturing company in which I would learn, and my contributions would be valued. I joined Guardian in 1996 as Manager, Glass Technology within the Corporate Engineering function responsible for supporting our float operations, including optimising furnace operations and troubleshooting.

I moved up from Manager to Director, Glass Technology, first within Corporate Engineering and then with Science & Technology to develop the Glass Technology group to support process as well as product development. As Director of Hot End Process Engineering, my responsibilities included furnace design and construction, furnace optimisation and process auditing. I am currently Technical Fellow/Senior Glass Technologist working on advanced melting and emerging glass technologies.

GW: What would you consider your highlights with Guardian to date?

Working with a lot of conscientious and talented people. I believe that I have had some influence on our float design and operations, and I have helped develop several new float products.

GW: What potential is there for quantum improvements in glass manufacturing methods?

The quantum leaps will likely come from step changes in process design based on better understanding of the process and validating CFD models, and we may even have to reconsider some of the business models we have. Increasing use of renewable fuels, electric boost, oxy-firing and oxy-firing with hydrogen will likely be part of our glass futures.

GW: What do you see as being the biggest opportunities for glass manufacturers now and in the future?

Working together as an industry on common technical problems which we are unlikely to solve working separately. The glass industry is not as big as we sometimes think we are. For example, the petrochemical industry is huge and has a vested interest in funding behind research and development for plastic. There are examples of collaboration within the glass industry, but we need to do more.

GW: And the biggest challenges they face?

Reducing the total carbon emissions of making, using and recycling glass, whether as containers, flat or otherwise. Our customers and, more importantly, the end users are demanding this. This will be compounded by the need to stay competitive.

The Factory of the Future will have fewer people and key to the industry’s success will be how we can recruit, develop and retain innovative, capable and motivated people to come up with original ideas or build on good ideas as our materials, processes and equipment evolve. We will also need someone who knows what to do when there really is a dark [fully automated] factory.

GW: How did your role with Glass Futures come about?

Guardian has been a supporter of developing Glass Futures Ltd (GFL) following a meeting I had with Dave Dalton (CEO of British Glass) about seven years ago. He told me of the vision to build a centre of excellence. My boss, Dr. Sheldon Davis, proposed that I be seconded to Glass Futures as Technical Director to provide glass technology, furnace design and operational support, which aligns with my role within Guardian.

GW: What are your personal responsibilities and activities with Glass Futures?

I work with members to make sure that the technical strategy reflects their needs. Companies in container and float have similar technical challenges, so it’s important that we work to address them with a robust technical development roadmap with a high probability of being executable.

I also focus on what is needed to build the pilot line [at Glass Futures’ Centre of Excellence – a revolutionary new plant for sustainable glass manufacture in St Helens, east of Liverpool] and other test facilities to accommodate the likely experiments that will be conducted on them.

I have oversight of the various small scale and laboratory studies as part of the BEIS fuel switching project to investigate the effects of hydrogen combustion on the foaming and redox characteristics on melts.

I am also responsible for the development of the 350kWh combustion test bed and experimental plan to assess a range of renewable fuels including biofuels and hydrogen.

Glass Futures’ main product is knowledge and I have a responsibility to help to create, capture, safeguard and communicate knowledge to the benefit of GFL and its members.

GW: EME have been chosen to develop the detailed design specification for the batch house at St Helens, which will subsequently be put out for tender for its construction. How will this process work for the furnace?

EME were selected to develop a detailed design specification to reflect the unique demands likely to be made on the batch house. This design specification will be used as a basis for equipment suppliers to bid for fitting out the batch house.

The facility is unique and must reflect the fact that nothing like this has ever been done before and will be capable of producing glass from zero to (almost!) 100% cullet and be able to try more raw materials than would be typically found in a container or float factory.

GFL followed the same process for selecting a furnace design company so that we could incorporate some novel design ideas while ensuring that the design and construction were within current technical capabilities. STARA Glass have been chosen as that design company.

GW: What is the current status of the fuel switching initiative and timeline for proceedings?

Aston Fuller (General Manager) and Richard Katz (CEO) have done a great job in recruiting a team which reflects a strong culture of working together to get things done in the right way.

The BEIS fuel switching work is a major development led by Dr Palma Gonzalez (Innovation Programme Manager) built around the Combustion Test Bed. This will test various biofuels and hydrogen blends. The BEIS project should wrap up early in 2022. There are also several collaborative, private and UK Government funded projects.

The major project is the design and construction of the St Helens facility, scheduled to be online in 2023. There will be opportunities for multiple users to work on the line concurrently, which may enable the costs of line rental to be shared and therefore increase the accessibility by smaller companies to use the facilities.

GW: What will the first projects focus on?

Project selection and scheduling is in progress and will reflect the membership requirements. They likely will focus on decreasing carbon emissions via raw materials, fuel switching and process control.

GW: How pleased were you with the initial results of Glass Futures and Encirc’s collaborative biofuel trial to create the world’s most sustainable glass bottles?

It was an honour. I was thrilled to be a member of the project team and pleased with the outstanding results, which have answered a lot of questions and have calmed some anxious people regarding the use of biofuels especially regarding the effects on emissions.

GW: What do you consider to be the next steps with this initiative?

The success of this trial should give the industry some encouragement to develop alternative fuels and ways of working together to improve how well we can produce glass while minimising the use of resources.

GW: Is the biofuel trial a good example of Glass Futures’ goals of promoting thought leadership, innovation and collaboration on the road to making glass the low carbon material of choice?

Definitely. But thought leadership by itself is not enough, and I think the trial is a good example of a company having the courage to carry out experiments on a full-scale production unit.

GW: How will Glass Futures divide its priorities between the hollow, flat and speciality glass sectors?

This is more of a multiplying effort rather than a dividing one! The collaboration seen already between the container and flat glass organisations in developing the specifications for the St Helens pilot line have shown that we can learn from each other and we all get a better outcome when we challenge each other.

GW: How important do you consider Glass Futures to be to the future of glass manufacturing in the UK and beyond?

It’s critical to get the glass industry working together on technical issues. Glass Futures will support the various groups already working in the industry but eventually should be able to provide global coordination of efforts by bridging the gaps between academia and manufacturing

GW: How will your extensive glass industry experience benefit proceedings?

I have worked with people who have little or no experience in glass making who have made significant contributions to how things are done, so experience alone is not always a good indicator of the value of contributions. My experience is that it’s more useful to change “it won’t work because” into “it won’t work unless”, so that we can get more people working on solving the challenges we face.

GW: What role do the member companies have now and in the future?

Glass Futures is “for the industry, by the industry”, and its direction and successes will reflect the involvement of its members who will determine the most appropriate routes for answering the important questions facing the industry and establish the areas of focus for the technical programme.

GW: Is Glass Futures open to new partnerships?

Yes, and to increasing membership and member participation as well as new partnerships wherever it makes sense to connect people with others interested in doing similar research within Glass Futures or elsewhere.

GW: What is your vision for Glass Futures in the future?

My focus is to support the design, construction and commissioning of the St Helens facility. Liverpool Combined Authority and the St Helens Council are keen to support the development of GFL and the adjacent land to provide a technical hub for the glass and other high temperature industries. As part of this my responsibility will be to establish a melting technology and training base on the GFL Campus.

GFL will create opportunities to encourage companies throughout the supply chain to collaborate to ensure that the industry has a future.

My hope is that the industry comes together to support GFL and the SGT to ensure that glass in its many forms fulfils its potential as the material of choice for packaging, construction, and the myriad of uses we all know it can excel in.

Further Information: 

Glass Futures
web: www.glass-futures.org

 Guardian Glass
web: www.guardianglass.com


* The full version of this article appears in the July/August issue that has been mailed globally. To increase accessibility in the current environment, the digital version of this issue can be read free of charge in its entirety alongside back copies in the Digital Archive (sponsored by FIC) at https://www.glassworldwide.co.uk/Digital-Issues. To receive the paper copy, all future issues and a free copy of the new Who’s Who / Annual Review 2021-22 yearbook, subscribe now at https://www.glassworldwide.co.uk/subscription-choice

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