Case Study

Design in business | Rockbrook Engineering

The company

Rockbrook Engineers is Ireland’s largest systems integrator of open protocol technologies. Originally providing industrial and process automation solutions to the food and beverage industry, their ability to deliver bespoke design solutions for each of their customers has enabled them to diversify into new market segments and compete on an international scale. Rockbrook now specialise in ‘complicated control systems’ across industries, for companies such as Siemens and Diageo.

The company is composed of three main divisions, each with its own dedicated engineering team and project managers:

Industrial Control – including industrial automation and building technology.

Audio Visual Solutions – covering exhibition design, the graphic content, the control systems and their installation;

Services – including an on call team for 24 hour cover on industrial and exhibition sites.

Around 80% of Rockbrook Engineers’ contracts relate to bespoke solutions. In order to sustain their extensive output, each division in the company has different emphases and requirements which work in sync to provide a multitude of custom complex systems.

Design activity in Ireland

“Everything we do is design, design is what we do.”

The primary intention of the audio visual team is to entertain people. They have a specialised creative team who develop and design the content. The creative team is supported by audio visual engineers who possess the capabilities to develop the technical design. Each project begins with an ideation stage involving both specialisms. The best ideas will then be developed further by the creative team with advice from the technicians as to what is and isn’t possible.

Industrial control projects on the other hand require very detailed engineering design. All Rockbrook Engineering staff on that side of the business have an original, mostly electrical trade. Even though a college degree is a key requirement and a marker that they are able and interested to undertake design work, they also need to be able to actually ‘do it’. Overall, the design process in the industrial control division is more boxed, having to go through certain stages, being based on schematic drawings and, crucially, having to pass stringent Factory Acceptance Tests (FAT).

Projects are delivered either as turnkey solutions or with the customer directing the work. For turnkey solutions Rockbrook Engineering is the principal contractor and uses external expertise where additional inputs are required e.g. an architect might have to see to the structural requirements for a video wall.

Similarly, in cases where Rockbrook Engineering is charged with setting up a whole industrial process, external expertise is required. Usually the starting point for the control system design will be technical drawings specifying the locations of pumps, the sizes of pipes etc.

Delivering bespoke solutions to customers is time and resource intensive. A key challenge for Rockbrook Engineering is combining their expertise with a way of codifying their vast experience in more standardised products. Taking advantage of an Enterprise Ireland R&D grant, the company has invested in setting up a standard library of ‘skills’, the particular protocols and formats that capture individual components of an industrial control system. The aim is to get to a position where staff can draw on the library to use boxed products to deliver 80 to 85% of a job. This reduces cost and risk for Rockbrook Engineering while also increasing their throughput and competitiveness.

Competitiveness is based on speed to market, the quality of the offer, and the development of stable customer relationships. Approaching people early and ‘prompting them into design’ is one way of achieving this. Similarly, for the customers with existing SLAs in place, it is standard practice for Rockbrook Engineering to attempt any new projects.

Design in focus

The Smithwicks Visitor Centre exemplifies a typical audio visual Rockbrook Engineering contract. The initial customer contact with Diageo, the company behind the Smithwicks brand, was the starting point of the design process. Diageo developed the concept of an interactive visitor experience on the site of the old Kilkenny brewery. The aim was to create an attraction that would bring 200,000 to 300,000 people through the door every year.

Rockbrook Engineering’s first task was to discuss the customer’s own ideas and consider what could and couldn’t work. Based on some initial drawings, the team then sat down with the client to look at early ideas for a self-guided tour.

The first milestone consisted in developing a full design concept and securing client sign-off for this. The set-up was to involve the creation of interactive smells, the development of a 3D monk and the use of iPads to allow an exploration of the brewing history at Kilkenny. The fact that the Smithwicks visitor experience needed to be installed in a 200 year old building also needed to be considered.

The technical specification, which fell out of the concept design, delivered the blueprint for the contract. Rockbrook Engineering developed an installation and project schedule and a project team responsible for the final design, engineering and completion of the project

A critical path analysis was developed to govern regular meetings of the project team,  the overall time line and the budget. A regular challenge in audio visual design projects is that the team will always be the last in a sequence of project teams, particularly in a new build setting.  Project schedules are often squeezed, sometimes from three months to just one. In this case the installation period was planned for 4 weeks but was reduced down to 13 days due to various delays. Rockbrook manage this by increasing staff presence and introducing a rolling shift pattern.

Detailed design drawings then formed the basis for the procurement of the individual components, sourcing the equipment as close to schedule as possible and building components as required. The Factory Acceptance Test before delivery to site and Site Acceptance Test on site formed the final stage of the active design process followed by a 12 month warranty period.

Impacts from design

It is not possible to separate out the design process as a stand-alone part of the business. Rockbrook Engineering’s overall activity is the result of the successful application of design processes. However, reducing the bespoke design input and using design in a move towards standardisation is used as a tool here to strengthen the sales approach. The maturing of design expertise and approaches through working with customers on bespoke contracts is therefore arguably leading to higher productivity and the overall growth of the business.