Xi Engineering Consultants
Profile: Xi Engineering Consultants
Core business: Noise and vibration solutions
Clients: AES, Hammerfest Strom
From pneumatic drills to car engines, buildings and turbines, vibration is not just an irritation but a major design issue and a huge factor in costs. For example, if you could eliminate half of the vibration in a wind turbine near sensitive seismic equipment, it may be possible to double the number of turbines installed in a site. If you could reduce the vibration from railway lines, it may be possible to build new houses closer to the tracks. And these are exactly the kinds of problems which Xi Engineering Consultants has dealt with since the company was formed in 2011.
Xi was born out of Reactec – a spin-out from the University of Edinburgh – but what makes the new organisation so different is that instead of developing products and providing consultancy services to finance R&D, Xi focuses on being a consultancy, providing off-the-shelf or customised solutions in industries including renewables, construction and marine.
“Vibration is a problem which affects anything and everything – even champagne on a luxury yacht,” says Xi managing director Dr Mark-Paul Buckingham, who is now a non-executive director of Reactec, the company he founded in 2001. According to Buckingham, the three drivers of the business are “performance, maintenance and legislation.” Health and safety are of primary importance, but the bottom line is money – how to optimise investment, extend the life of buildings or equipment, and reduce costs.
Buckingham graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2001 with a degree in mechanical engineering, and developed the ideas for Reactec while he did his PhD there, focusing on vibration issues in complex composite materials used in skis and snowboards. For the next 3–4 years, he developed a generic solution to monitor and manage the vibration experienced by individuals operating different equipment – a device which became the HAVmeter. Buckingham also won SMART: Scotland and SPUR awards to develop and commercialise the control unit for the device. And at the end of 2005, he made his first big breakthrough when he won an order for 750 units from Tarmac for a product which didn't exist yet.Banging the prototype vibration device on the table to demonstrate how robust the design was, Buckingham convinced Tarmac that he had the solution it needed, and then said his firm would design it however the company wanted. It took another three years to finalise details, solving problems such as inductive charging and making the device robust enough to deal with the rigours of a construction site; but finally the HAVmeter debuted in early 2008.
This was not the best time to be launching such a product – at the start of a recession in the company’s key industries – but Buckingham also continued to develop his consultancy work, providing vibration analysis services to companies such as Wind Energy, Rolls Royce and Intel. Three years later, increased demand for consultancy led to the spin-out of Xi, with £400,000 of investment from sources including Archangel Informal Investments and the Scottish Enterprise Co-Investment Fund, plus a Board including former defence minister Adam Ingram, ex-Lloyds TSB Scotland director Manus Fullerton, and Gordon Stewart, ex-managing director of PRTM, as Chairman.
When developing the prototype meter, Buckingham targeted a number of specialist markets and conducted trials with companies of all shapes and sizes to test the product to destruction; and this is one of the services Xi now provides to its clients – helping to design out vibration and noise problems in advance, rather than after the event.
The irony of modern materials, Buckingham explains, is that the lighter and more efficient they become, so too the vibration problems worsen – e.g. the Forth Rail Bridge has much more mass than modern bridges and therefore vibrates less.
What gives Xi the edge is its use of advanced mathematical modelling software to predict and measure vibration, then diagnosing problems and developing solutions – for example, creating virtual labs to model turbines. “The modelling is complex and must be precise,” Buckingham says.
Buckingham describes what the company does as a “turnkey solution”, and is keen to demonstrate the practical benefits – e.g. the company's work on the Newcastle Metro, building an acoustic trench to “bounce away” vibration so more houses could be built beside the tracks. Xi is also helping Hammerfest Strom to ensure that its ten tidal turbines have been “optimised for vibration” during a five-year trial for Scottish Power Renewables in the waters off Islay. Small-scale turbines also present very similar problems, including the gearbox, while manufacturers of semiconductors also need to reduce vibrations during production.
One of Xi's greatest challenges is to reduce the vibrations in wind turbines, and for this it has developed the Seismically Quiet Tower (SQT), a hardware solution which can be retro-fitted to turbines or integrated during construction, for any tower height and power capacity. The impetus for SQT came from a project to deal with the seismic issues of the Eskdalemuir Seismic Array, which monitors seismic events, including nuclear explosions and earthquakes. Planners originally limited the number of turbines which could operate in the area around the array, so they wouldn't interfere with any instruments. But now, thanks to Xi, the power company can multiply the number of turbines and potentially release an extra £1 billion of investment, at the same time as producing much more electricity.
So what is Buckingham's target for the first year of business?
“We want to provide added value to a greater number of clients and assit them in solving problems and improving products,” he says. “As a team of highly-skilled engineers, we inherently like solving problems.”