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Q&A Interview with Alan Denney

Wed, 02 June, 2021

As part of our 75th anniversary celebrations, we have reached out to a number of our Industrial and Professional Members as well as a few key figures from among our colleagues past and present.

Now the Director of AKD Materials Consulting Ltd, Eur Ing Alan Denney BSc MSc, CEng, FWeldI, MIM3 has been associated with TWI since 1970 when he was working with Ove Arup. His association with TWI continued through his later career, working with John Brown, Ionik Consulting/JP Kenny/Wood Group, and Saipem UK Ltd. Alan has also twice been a member of The Welding Institute’s Council, helping to guide the direction of the Institute, has sat on Professional Board, was chair of the Offshore Technical Group of the Institute for many years, and now is the Technical Group Co-ordinator. He is also a two-time past President of London Branch and has stepped back to a role he is very familiar with – that of Programme Secretary for the London Branch.

With such a wealth of history with TWI, we took some time to find out more…

Could you start by letting us know how you first became aware of and then involved with TWI?

I was the first metallurgist to be employed by Arup and worked in their Materials Engineering Group in London. I was a recent graduate and my first topics were looking at the corrosion performance of materials involved in ‘Reinforced Earth,’ fire resistance and fire protection of structural steel and bolt failures. However, what really struck me, from the early days was just how many questions I would get on welding and welding inspection. I simply did not have the background knowledge necessary to answer these. There were no PCs, which were introduced a decade later, and it was several decades before the Internet, but Arup had an excellent library in which I could do useful research. When I found I needed more focussed assistance, my boss, Turlogh O’Brien and the head of R&D, Poul Beckmann pointed me in the direction of The Welding Institute, of which Arup were Members. From that point on, TWI in Abington became my point of reference and I drew heavily on the ‘free consultancy’ and the excellent library services to make good on what I did not know. That led to attending courses, putting investigation work into TWI, and joining the Institute as a Professional Member. In those days, The Welding Institute owned 54 Princes Gate in Kensington where courses were run and the London branches (there were two) held their meetings. I attended those meetings and encountered some of the brilliant engineers working in structural steel from companies like Freeman Fox and Partners, Halcrow, and others.

I was fortunate to be involved on Centre Pompidou in Paris, first doing studies on cast steel and then on fire protection issues. Whilst still working on aspects of Centre Pompidou, I got involved in an even more metallurgically challenging project, which was a development of the cast steel aesthetic (a term I learned from the highly creative engineer, Peter Rice in the context of the Pompidou Centre) at Bush Lane House in Cannon Street, London, which I believe to be the world’s first building with a structure of cast duplex stainless steel. It probably remains unique. That structure is fully exposed on the outside and, to me, it still looks stunning today nearly fifty years later. TWI provided consultancy and advice on both of these buildings and probably more than anyone knows, due to my habitual use of the library and the consultancy services.

You have no doubt seen a lot of change and growth since then, but what was TWI like when you first came into contact with us, and how have you seen it change since then?

I’ll start by mentioning the telephone. The local exchange at Linton was not connected to the ‘subscriber trunk dialling network.’ If you wanted to speak to anybody at the Institute, it required the call to be made by the operator to Linton 192 and you would be put through manually to the extension. In those days John Hicks, a specialist in welding design, was at the Institute and often he would be my first port of call. I remember he made me aware of welding design and first introduced me to CTOD testing and the use of the CTOD design curve to get you out of trouble when you found ‘indications’ of a size normally considered unacceptable! Without the modern benefit of emails or even fax machines the most effective means of discussion was a face-to-face meeting. This involved taking a train from Liverpool Street to Audley End station where I’d be collected by one of TWI’s cars (sometimes the director-general’s car with his driver), which ran a shuttle service for visitors. I would then be deposited at the small reception building where Anne (who doubled as the telephonist with an old-fashioned plugboard out of the 1940s in front of her) would greet you like a family member. You would be collected from there for your meeting. I cannot describe how those memories of coming to Abington resonate with me now. When there on a course I would sometimes escape from the site, across a wooden bridge over the river, across a field full of cows, past the church and into Abington village, where I would drop into the pottery and buy exquisite modern carved wooden animal figures and square-ended hand dyed ties, which were considered stylish in those days. I still have the cat staring at the mouse in my office, but the ties have all gone.

The Institute was like a village in the woods, with the old Hall and a collection of stylish 60s buildings in which people worked in their offices or laboratories in their ‘cells.’ In the centre of the 60s development was a courtyard and at the centre of that there was a fountain which played on a curly stainless steel structure which you now see in Granta Park as you drive on the approach road leading to the main reception entrance to the Institute. Rumour had it that the fountain only played when Richard Weck, the director-general, was on the premises! I am not sure if it was some sort of alarm, since Dr Weck was quite a formidable character. No doubt Dr Weck’s pride and joy was the fatigue laboratory, an innovative structure in its day, although just a portal frame building to you and me. There was also the conference centre, the old training centre and the accommodation block, which is relatively unchanged to this day. The Institute then built the red brick electron beam welding building, which did not relate to any other building in materials or style, and then the restaurant with its ‘tree structure’ and glass walls, which I always considered a wonderful building for that site and years before Peter Rice used a similar ‘tree trunk and branch’ structure (admittedly on a different scale) for the terminal at Stansted airport.

The Welding Institute combined the assets of the Institute of Welding (the older body) and the British Welding Research Association (a young upstart by comparison). When the (former) Institute of Welding’s premises in London were sold the new Members’ building was constructed at Abington, which looked very similar to an enlarged lunar module, housing the library downstairs and the Professional Division upstairs with a big meeting room. I am not sure that anyone loved that building, which was demolished to make way for the modern buildings, but I miss the definitive ‘home’ for the Professional side of the Institute and the walls where our distinctive ‘honours boards’ were placed. Their loss to me is a loss of patina, which the Institute needs, since I believe such things can enhance functional buildings and give a sense of history, continuity and modernity all at the same time.

In marked contrast to the homely ‘village-like’ environment at Abington, TWI’s international reputation was of the highest standard due to the quality of the engineers and technicians working away in their offices and laboratories. The Annual Conference, held in London over three days, was a ‘must attend’ event with the presentations run strictly by an ex-RAF man and, I believe, his wife, who ran reception. Woe betide anyone who overran their time or spoke too close to the microphone. One of his purpose-designed slides would appear on the screen to tell you, graphically, of the latter misdemeanour. The Annual Dinner would take place combined with the conference, and the international audience was sufficient to fill the Great Room at the Grosvenor House Hotel. Only last week whilst ‘decluttering’ I came across some of the professionally taken photos of that formal black tie event.

After performing an MSc in Welding Technology and a further spell with Arup, I moved on to work in the offshore industry. TWI played a huge role in the research underpinning the amazing developments in that industry, which enabled us to design and build offshore platforms of a size never previously seen for service in environments where no fixed installation had been placed before. There were meetings and seminars at TWI supporting the offshore construction industry and TWI managed the UK Offshore Steels Research Project, including a large research programme to underpin the developing fatigue design rules.

The British Welding Research Association started on the Abington site 75 years ago after Dr Weck was (reportedly) requested to remove his noisy fatigue testing machines from the premises of the University of Cambridge. Fatigue testing and fatigue design continued to be a strong part of TWI’s portfolio throughout that period of offshore development. Whilst the design rules for welded steel bridges had been well developed based on work at TWI, when it came to offshore platforms, the influence of the marine environment and cathodic protection was largely unknown. This was addressed in the UKORSP work. One of the large laboratories was full of joints being fatigue tested, with different test conditions, loading regimes and levels of applied potential to establish a workable set of safe design rules. It was exciting to go into that area and hear all the servo-hydraulic machines clunking away, especially for me since my MSc project was on fatigue and those sounds were familiar.

The first big change away from the village in the trees was the rather brutal construction of the Bevan Braithwaite building and the research hall, which rendered most of the ‘village’ redundant. This was a design and build contract which was financed by the spin-off of the development of Granta Park, which may explain its brutality but that marked a dramatic break with the past and the new building fitted in with the developing ‘big grey building’ aesthetic of Granta Park, and did not condescend to come down to the level of the ‘village’ buildings, whose days were numbered.

Bevan was a bit of a railway enthusiast and one of the agreements with the developers over Granta Park was there be a railway track around the park which would be used to transport people around the site and also be an attraction at other times. The full loop was never constructed but a small loop was and, on the opening day of what is now the Bevan Braithwaite building, all the guests, of which I was one, got a ride on a steam train on that loop.

The Institute has changed all the time, with the acquisition and sale of parcels of land around the historic core site, including the development of the Riverside buildings and other parcels of land. I should also mention the satellite facilities, TWI in Middlesbrough with its tank for training diver inspectors, and more recently TWI Aberdeen, and TWI in Wales, not to mention Malaysia and other international ventures. However, back in Abington the next step change was the design and construction of the modern ‘street plus three blocks’ design, which is really the Institute’s core as it exists today.

The other transformational development has been the formation of NSIRC. From my perspective that has made a massive difference to the Institute, most notably in terms of the range of research work being performed and the improvement in diversity of those working on site.

You have worked alongside TWI over many years and with a number of different companies and roles, what is it about TWI that kept you connected with us over the years?

I’ve been fortunate to have worked for some great companies on some superb projects. Those companies had considerable resources but there were numerous occasions where we needed specialist support from people who could take things off-line and provide us with the answers, particularly if we had a failure or significant fabrication problems. It was the competence and rock-solid reliability of that support which always brought me to Abington for advice and assistance. Further, I have always benefited from shared knowledge from my peer group and associates in other companies, which came to me by participation in Professional Affairs. TWI in both entities, industrial and professional, has met a lot of my technical and professional needs. Frankly, it is difficult to get away from the community when you are still professionally involved and retain an interest in the world of engineering, materials, fabrication and welding. That is why I am still involved, even though approaching my second retirement.

Of course, you have also served on the Council, can you explain what this is and what you did?

Council is the governing body of The Welding Institute and this covers the activities of the entire organisation worldwide. It is probably necessary to clarify that the name The Welding Institute is that of the whole organisation, whilst the commercial research activities are performed by TWI Ltd for legal and contractual reasons. The name ‘The Welding Institute’ is used more or less exclusively for Professional affairs. What goes with this is the different branding, blue with the TWI letter logo for TWI Ltd and green with the heraldic crest design for Professional affairs.

All the constituent parts of TWI report back to Council through a series of committees. The most powerful of these is the Financial and General Purposes Committee, which monitors and manages the finances of the Institute, which is a huge responsibility. Since I run my own consultancy, I know how important it is to have good financial management. With the many subsidiaries of TWI worldwide and the property portfolio, this is a big challenge for the top management, and it has been good to see progressive improvement in this area. I have been on Council during two separate periods, the first when Granta Park was formed, which was facilitated by TWI led by Bevan Braithwaite, and the second with the latest development, which was led by Christoph Wiesner. These were two periods of transformation of the Institute and its facilities.

I am not a good committee person. Probably as a Council member I was not noted for my tact, and I frequently raised questions which others appeared too polite to raise. However, Council members in my day were obliged to be Directors of the company, and I am well aware of the responsibilities which go with that role. My real desire is ‘delivery,’ which comes from my background in projects where delivery to the required standard is everything. I have a role coordinating the Technical Groups of which there are eight representing different technology areas and when meetings go well that rekindles all my enthusiasm for TWI in all its manifestations.

With such a long association with TWI, you must have plenty of memorable stories, is there anything that springs to mind that you would like to share?

I can think of many stories but one which comes to mind is back in the 1970s when I was working in Italy for John Brown who were managing an Italian contractor building Libya’s first fixed offshore platform. I got a call on a Friday morning in the project office in Milan to go to the site in the South of Italy because they had a cracking problem. I had a couple of days over a weekend on site to investigate it and report back but, once in the fabrication shop, I realised quite quickly that it was classic heat affected zone hydrogen cracking brought about by all the typical issues; thick steels welded in panels under heavy restraint with suspect preheat (and I was not impressed by the consumable control either). In the time available to me, I could not take any samples or do any laboratory work but I was lucky in that, to me, it was an open and shut case. The first big sub-assembly showed some of this cracking in a particular location and I reported that if they continued with the same fabrication practices a whole series of similar sub-assemblies in earlier stages of construction would show the same problem in the same location. However, there were a number of vested interests and my report made back in Milan on my return was excoriated as being based simply on my opinion, lacking in intellectual rigour, limited in non-destructive testing and lacking laboratory test results, etc, (what did they expect in three days?). Much more obscure reasons were put forward for the problem, mainly attempting to push the problem in the direction of the steel supplier. Such an issue would probably have set back the project by a full year (It was fascinating and appalling to me to see the fantasies which such an incident can engender, rather than taking the evidence for what it was). The problem came to a head when the other sub-assemblies were found to have similar issues a couple of weeks later. It was time to call for reinforcements and I asked Peter Hart of TWI to come and investigate. Peter came to site within days, having read everything previously sent to him. He had a look at the situation and, on the following day (I think), presented to all parties. He explained that the problem was obvious, explained heat affected zone hydrogen cracking in terms that a five-year old could understand, explained there was little reason to stop the project in its tracks by mounting a big metallurgical investigation. He outlined the remedial measures and the avoidance measures for future work and, much to my surprise, left everyone nodding in agreement. To say I was impressed by the performance was an understatement. It was one of the most cost-effective bits of consultancy work I have ever commissioned. The resulting changes in practice prevented significant re-occurrence. It was also highly professional, in that there was an opportunity for TWI to get a large open-ended contract for investigative work but Peter made it clear that, whilst it could be investigated further, they should first fix the obvious issues and see what happened. There is a footnote; we had a further limited amount of cracking in some of the last completion welds when the platform was due to load out. That time I was allowed to handle it without reinforcements. That whole experience taught me to always observe carefully and look for the ‘bleeding obvious’ before over-complicating the response.

Finally, looking forward, how do you see the future of TWI and The Welding Institute and why do you think they remain important for industry?

TWI has had many challenges in the recent past, both financially and operationally for all the obvious reasons. Although I am ‘out of the loop’ on the business affairs of the Institute, I imagine that Brexit will have resulted in a loss of European work and I am unsure if the Government will have responded to provide the same level of support. My opinion is that, on the European level, we need the interchange within the engineering community of ideas, people and shared research. I have significant work experience with other European organisations and find that I have to work to maintain my standards in order to match theirs. Too often as a nation we believe in our inherent superiority. That is false. TWI needs that international exposure, collaboration and competition to stay world class. The highest level of competence, experience and integrity of staff is necessary to maintain its world-class reputation.

Within Professional Affairs the need is to maintain the benefits of membership, but these have to be improved and developed and that has to be done within what I am sure are tight financial constraints. Our role is that we are a Professional Institution supporting all Members. Most of our Members work in traditional industries and there are many issues there which are unglamorous but need addressing and old lessons need continuous relearning. We also need to provide services for new and developing materials joining areas. We could do with different types of membership to those with an affiliation with materials joining, surface coatings and allied technologies, who would not see, at first, any in-depth need for full membership and a further subscription.

The change from seminar type meetings to webinar type meetings for The Welding Institute branded meetings, although enforced by Covid-19, has brought about a dramatic increase in participation, including very significant overseas attendance, which is heartening. I am also currently involved in some initiatives, one of which I hope will deliver a better ‘product’ to all Members and also another focussed on younger members. I hope that the working parties for these will deliver something of enduring benefit to the Members and to the Institute.

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