Titans of the compressed air industry
Interview with Andy Pulley & Brian Hale
Andy Pulley and Brian Hale have not only had a long and distinguished career within the compressed air industry, but also their career paths are uniquely intertwined, as they both started working together on the very same day and both retired from Atlas Copco Compressors on December 31st 2021. With over 87 years of service between them, they have certainly made their mark on the compressed air industry. We look back at some of their most memorable moments and observations on how the industry has changed during that time.
The early days
The story started on a September day in 1973, when Andy and Brian began their Mechanical Engineering apprenticeships at Broom & Wade Ltd (later known as CompAir) in High Wycombe, after leaving school. Brian remembers Andy back then as having long, sun-bleached blond hair, Levis jeans and Doc Martins boots. They both recall the Three Day Week, which was a measure introduced by the Conservative government in early 1974 to conserve electricity, the generation of which was severely restricted due to industrial action by coal miners and railway workers. Due to the limited supplies, Brian didn’t get to do electric arc welding in the training school, and both had to go in on Saturdays to make up for the lost time!
The duo spent the first year of their apprenticeship working in the training school, followed over the next three years in various departments, including the machine shop, R&D, design engineering and the foundry, from which they always went home covered in black dust. Andy did a stint in the installation department. He recalls that, “The installation of compressors was a lot more complicated back then, as we had to consider vibrations and foundations for the big cast iron piston compressors. The compressor, aftercooler and non-return valve were separate items which had to be piped together, nothing was integrated into a package like it is now. ”
At the end of the first year they were both assigned to the same project to section a rotary vane air end to display in the reception area of the portable compressor factory. Their paths continued to cross and, after the apprenticeship, both moved into the special projects team where they took standard products and modified them, rather like Atlas Copco’s former EngineeredSolutions department. “The big difference back then was that there was only one computer between 12 or 15 project engineers and a second one for the manager,” recalls Brian. Rumor has it that he didn’t know how to use it, so the other computer was mostly used for playing games at lunchtime!
A changing industry
Health & Safety is one of the biggest areas of change since Andy and Brian started work. For example, in the 1970s, workers were allowed to smoke a pipe in the heavy machine shop at the same time as drilling bolt holes; white knuckle disease caused by vibrations was quite common; apprentices got used to freezing hands from using trichloroethylene for de-greasing; and Andy nearly burnt down the apprentice training centre whilst heat-treating a lump of steel and then wrapping it in a rag before leaving the room! “Back then there were no near misses recorded; industrial accidents just happened,” says Andy.
Product design has also undergone significant transformation over the decades. Andy and Brian have seen the compressed air world change from mainly reciprocating technology to mainly rotary screw technology for most industrial applications. In fact, Andy was directly involved in bringing CompAir’s first air-cooled dry screw air compressors to market, a rival product to Atlas Copco’s oil-free rotary screw compressor.
In parallel to product design, customer requirements and expectations have also greatly changed over the years. “Customers are more informed than they used to be,” says Andy. “They also didn’t worry about energy efficiency in the past.” Brian adds that the concept of air quality and air treatment hasn’t always existed either. “When you started the work shift, you used to blow down the airline to clear the water out of it. There weren’t refrigerant air dryers in the past to knock the condensate out of the air.”
They both agree that Atlas Copco has been leading the way to make customers more energy conscious. “Air compressors use a lot of energy. But Atlas Copco is at the cutting edge in supporting sustainable production and becoming a green compressor supplier.” Andy also notes that the industry has become more marketing oriented over the years. “Although Brian has successfully avoided social media!” he laughs.
Andy and Brian have witnessed a massive consolidation of the compressed air market during their career. In the 1970s, CompAir, including Broom Wade, was the largest player. Apart from Atlas Copco, its competitors used to be Ingersoll-Rand, Bellis & Morcombe and Gardner Denver, all of which are now under the IR banner. In 2005, with the closure of CompAir’s High Wycombe factory, Andy and Brian went their separate ways professionally, although they stayed in touch outside of work. Andy moved to Atlas Copco and Brian became a project engineer in the wastewater industry. “In 2013 Andy gave me a call and asked if I would be interested in a job which had come up at Atlas Copco,” recalls Brian. “He only gave me 24 hours’ notice to sharpen my cv and apply!” The rest, as they say, is history.
What kept the pair in the compressed air industry all this time?
“The variety,” explains Brian. “Every job is different. I have been involved in so many things, but I can still sometimes get a different question from a customer that I haven’t heard before. I enjoy putting technical information across to people.” And what will they miss the most about their working life? “The people definitely, everyone we work with,” says Andy. “There is so much interaction every day, we all help each other, and that makes the workplace enjoyable.”
Andy and Brian were much loved and respected in the company and in the industry and will be missed by many colleagues and customers for their open and friendly manner and their immense knowledge. “The Atlas Copco Compressors distributor network knows that they can give Andy a call with any question and he will have the answer. That is much to his credit,” says Brian. For Andy’s part, he says that Brian is the reliable go-to guy for product knowledge, mainly for Atlas Copco’s direct Oil-free sales team, and he is often invited to site to talk to customers. They also leave the legacy of the Atlas Copco 5-a-side football team.
What will they be doing in their retirement?
Anyone who knows Andy and Brian will already know the answer to this. Andy of course will be spending plenty of time fishing with the Atlas Copco fishing team and has plans to go travelling with his wife. And Brian, a railway enthusiast, plans to finish his garden model railway which he started years ago, making the most of having the freedom to work on it whenever the weather is good.
All of us in Atlas Copco Compressors and the wider network would like to thank Andy and Brian - titans of the compressed air industry - for so many years of support and camaraderie and wish them a long and fulfilling retirement.
Note on the old photo: “Andy was standing at the bottom of the slope! It’s a parallax error,” explains Brian. True to character, he went on to explain that a parallax error occurs when the measurement of an object's length is more or less than the true length because of your eye being positioned at an angle to the measurement markings.