Unsurprisingly for a business that has been around since Louis Blériot flew the Channel and Selfridges first opened its doors, there have been many important milestones along the way for Conex Bänninger.
Few, though, can have had a more significant impact than the 2011 acquisition of parent company IBP Group by the IDD Group, a global supplier to the HVAC and sanitary markets, including IBP, headed by chairman and CEO Martin Tang.
The deal followed a challenging period for IBP, with several ownership changes, and the subsequent support and investment has enabled Conex Bänninger to build again on a proud history of industrial innovation.
Although the West Midlands-based manufacturer had produced traditional copper fittings for the ACR industry since the 1950s – and still does – it has gained a firmer foothold in recent years.
In partnership with Wieland it developed the K65 tube and fittings system for high pressure applications such as transcritical supermarket refrigeration systems. This was followed by the >B< MaxiPro flame-free press fit system, which was devised in 2012 and made its UK debut in 2017 after previously being introduced in Australia.
The system uses three-point press technology, where three presses are made, one each side of the bead and one compressing the O-ring. It is designed for use in systems with operating pressures of up to 48 bar.
At its UK launch in 2017, IBP Group CEO Mano Bakhtiari said his aim was to see press fit accounting for 50% of the ACR installation market within five years. If the target seemed ambitious it could be argued that Bakhtiari, of all people, deserved to aim high.
More than 30 years earlier, he had headed an engineering team at Triflow which developed a flame-free system called N-Grip, based on the patent application of inventor and designer Michael O’Leary. It was launched in Ireland but a Board decision consigned it to history, as it was felt it would potentially conflict with existing products, only for a competitor to later enjoy success with a similar design.
The arrival of >B< MaxiPro, then, was a case of making up for missed opportunities and, as Bakhtiari says, there is a very different culture in the business today.
He said: “It seems inevitable the press revolution will go on; that press will grow in all markets and that, at some point, flame will disappear. Technology will continue to provide easier, faster and secure solutions, while increasing regulation will force new materials and make some of the old ones obsolete.’’
The significance of >B< MaxiPro made it fitting that trade journalists from across Europe and beyond were invited to the Conex Bänninger anniversary celebrations in Córdoba, Spain, where the system is manufactured alongside K65 and the traditional >B< ACR range.
The Andalucían city boasts a pretty strong history of engineering innovation in its own right. A 16-arch Roman bridge spans the Guadalquivir River, and the incredible structure of La Mezquita, which was built in 784 as a mosque and has served as Córdoba Cathedral since 1236, attracts visitors from around the globe.
That spirit of innovation is carried through to the 20,000 sq m IBP Atcosa factory, as plant director José Luis Jiménez explained. Established in 1975 with 15 employees, the workforce has grown to 240 despite increased automation and capacity has reached 250 million pieces per year.
A deep technical heritage means that all machinery and processes are designed and engineered within the IBP Group and the focus in Córdoba, as elsewhere in the business, is on:
On a tour of the factory, we learned more about the drive to continuously improve all the processes to deliver efficiency, quality and service.
The majority of IBP Group copper manufacturing takes place in Córdoba. The remainder is in Poland, which is also home to the largest of four distributions centres (others are in Córdoba, Dubai and the global HQ at Kingswinford, UK).
Group commercial director Richard Darwin explored the entire range, which has resulted in more than 22 billion fittings installed worldwide. He also described recent applications including K65 at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid, which hosted this year’s Champions League final, and >B< MaxiPro for a major upgrade at Luton Airport.
Mano Bakhtiari closed by saying that the challenge now was to stay ahead of the market by continuous improvement. He said there would be significant capital investment year on year to enable the company to grow.
He also said it was crucial to recruit and retain the best people and would strive to achieve that by an increased focus on work-life balance and providing clear pathways for progress.
In a commemorative book charting the last 110 years, he said: “For more than a century, Conex Bänninger has re-shaped, evolved, renewed. Sometimes it has taken the lead. At other times it has taken steps to catch up.
“Thanks to the talents of many it has brought significant numbers of new products and services to our customers. But while products and equipment are important, it’s people this business is really about.’’
It seems certain that innovation and individuals will remain at the heart of Conex Bänninger. After all, it has quite a history in that area.
1919: The Sanbra Engineering Company, later to become Conex-Sanbra, was born in Birmingham, making brass fittings for water applications.
1920: The distinctive >B< marque which adorns many of today’s products became part of the Bänninger branding.
1932: Bänninger becomes the sole producer of red brass fittings in Europe.
1940: Conex introduces compression fittings.
1950: Development of the unique Conex Ribnut.
1967: Conex acquired DCP.
1972: Acquisition of Triflow.
1973: Introduction of the Triflow Solder Ring range.
1980: Acquisition of ATUB.
1983: Development of N-Grip, the first 3-point copper-based press fitting.
1987: Bänninger and Triflow were bought by the Delta Group, leading to the creation of the IBP (International Building Products) Group.
1991: Instalfittings in Poland incorporated into IBP Group.
1994: Conex and Bänninger brands merge under IBP Group banner.
2011: IBP Group acquired by IDD Group.
2011: Introduction of K65 refrigeration range.
2016: Introduction of >B< MaxiPro system.
2019: Introduction of >B< Sonic range.
>B< MaxiPro range extended
Richard Leigh, group deputy technical manager, said: “In every market that we have launched >B< MaxiPro demand has been strong and continues to grow. Every week we are training more installers and engineers who see the benefits of using this innovative product as a quicker-to-fit, reliable alternative to traditional brazing. As a flame-free copper press joint, there’s no need for a hot works permit and the risk of fire is eliminated.”
>B< MaxiPro was developed specifically for use in air conditioning and refrigeration applications. It is designed to be used up to a maximum operating pressure of 48 bar, with a maximum operating temperature range of -40°C to 121°C. It uses a 3-point press, with one press each side of the bead and one compressing the O-ring, providing a permanent, leak-free joint.
Online training for installers
Previously, engineers had be trained face-to-face, learning the correct method of installation to become a certified installer which brings with it the added benefit of extending the warranty on >B< MaxiPro products from one to five years (terms and conditions apply).
By logging onto the new portal and creating an account, they will have the option of online training plus access to videos, installation guides and technical information, project case studies and the opportunity to post questions.
The module includes a step-by-step guide, followed by questions to test the engineer’s knowledge, and access to a digital certificate upon successful completion.
Emma Baldwin, group marketing executive, said: “As a business, we are continually looking at ways we can add value to the first-class service offering we provide our customers. Since its introduction, >B< MaxiPro has become the pipework jointing solution of choice for many ACR engineers and with the new portal and e-learning module it means we can put all the information they require at their fingertips in an instant.”