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From ships to shops: the growth of Bureau Veritas
Feature: 3/7/2006

Enlarge Image click here

Enlarge Image click hereTesting houses really are the forgotten heroes of the consumer world; only with their help can manufacturers ensure that their products are fit for purpose, distributors sell with complete confidence and customers buy with peace of mind.

After all, they make sure that every product lives up to its legal specifications, whether those specifications are EN standards for reflective clothing or specialist European directives for electronics - and in an age of strict consumer watchdogs that has never been more important.

But don't make the mistake of thinking that testing houses have only come about as a response to modern attitudes about quality control and accurate advertising.

No, the idea of guaranteeing quality products through standardised testing and accreditation goes back hundreds of years.

Take Bureau Veritas, for example; the company has now been operating for close to two centuries - 178 years, to be exact - and now covers almost every part of the globe, with tens of thousands of employees and a total turnover of 1.6 billion euros a year.

It is, quite simply, one of the biggest and best-known testing organisations in the world. But it wasn't always like this.

Sailing into history
Enlarge Image click hereThe company began in 1828 in Antwerp, Belgium, as a certification body for ships. The enormous demand for trustworthy vessels - which, after all, were literally the only way to travel across the world - meant that there was potential for rapid expansion, something that the founders capitalised on immediately.

Within two years, Bureau Veritas had registered 10,000 ships and opened up another office in France. As demand grew, so did the business itself, and in 1855 it opened up its first British facility in the English port city of Newcastle.

It continued to grow and expanded into other areas of testing, including a material testing services section in 1910 and an aeronautics division in 1922. Soon it began to acquire existing businesses, allowing it to enter new countries and areas of service.

This practice continues today, with Bureau Veritas having purchased ACTS Testing Labs in America in 1998 and Merchandise Testing Laboratories in 2001, which together formed the newly created Bureau Veritas Consumer Products Services (BVCPS) division.

Their commitment to develop in the UK was confirmed with the acquisition of UK testing companies AMTAC in 2003, Technicare in 2004 and Merchandise Testing Laboratories (UK) Ltd just six months ago.

These purchases have been backed up by the company's programme of building new facilities and expanding services in America, Europe and Asia.

Today, Bureau Veritas has over 20,000 employees in 140 countries around the globe, and its testing capabilities include toys, electrical goods, oil and gas, beauty products, telecommunications, logistics and, of course, textiles.

Examining every aspect of clothing
Enlarge Image click hereOne of BVCPS's UK textile labs is based in Derby. Formerly Merchandise Testing Laboratories (UK) Ltd, it is now firmly embedded in the Bureau Veritas organisation.

Its director of business development, Kelvin Manship, said: "At this site we mostly test soft lines, which are textiles and clothing.

"Apart from testing for the majority of the high street clothing chains, we have a particular interest in PPE clothing such as high-visibility tapes and reflective garments.

"In fact, we have probably certified about 80 percent of the high-visibility garment lines that you see in the UK."

As well as high-visibility testing, the company also offers testing for waterproofing, water resistance, abrasion resistance and flammability.

But the company doesn't just test for EN standards in PPE wear; it also examines the more mundane, but no less important aspects of clothing.

Kelvin said: "Anything that goes on a garment's label must have been confirmed through testing first. That includes, durability, strength and colourfastness to a variety of hazards including water, bleach and dry-cleaning.

"Most importantly we have to confirm what fibres make up a material and in what percentages, because companies have to put that on the label by law."

Maintaining scientific standards
Enlarge Image click hereOf course, some of these tests sound deceptively easy to perform; the washability test, for example, or the tensile strength test. But this is not the case, as strict scientific guidelines must be adhered to.

Kelvin said: "It's not just a case of throwing the garments into the washer or trying to pull them apart. We have to carefully measure each garment before, after and during testing, and make sure that each test is carefully calibrated so that the results actually mean something.

"You also have to use controlled environments for some of them - it's important to maintain specific lighting conditions when testing for colour fastness, and keep the temperature and humidity to certain levels when testing for strength."

Harvey Jones, technical operations director for BVCPS UK, concurred. He explained: "A controlled environment is vital for testing textiles. Humidity is the main problem for natural fibres, because their strength is affected by it, whereas with plastics the problem is temperature.

"We use a standard atmosphere with a temperature of 20 degrees centigrade and a 65 percent relative humidity. That's used as a standard for most textiles, so that everything's tested in the same environment.

"However, sometimes I have to test garments in completely different environments to get the right effect. For example, if we're testing for anti-static properties, we'll have to work in very dry conditions.

"On the other hand, foul weather wear has to be tested under simulated torrential rainfall, which involves using a high-pressure hose to test water penetration, particularly on the seams."

As well as test packs given to them by the companies themselves, Bureau Veritas also tests garments off the shelves, to ensure that the products have not been changed after certification. It's this attention to detail that can quite literally mean the difference between life and death for the user.

Of course, for all its expertise in testing, the company must themselves be certified to make sure that it gives the proper level of service. Kelvin said: "All of Bureau Veritas's UK laboratories are recognised by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS).

"UKAS annually audits us, our systems, our competence and out ability to test to correct standards for different markets. The British Standards lay down how different products should be tested and so we have to prove that we can carry out certification according to those schemes."

Testing around the world
Enlarge Image click hereNot that BVCPS Derby is dedicated solely to products made in the UK; it also handles goods from much further abroad. For Kelvin, it helps that the testing house, which was once independent laboratory MTL UK, now has the backing of a major corporation.

"Before we were fully purchased, MTL UK was in a joint venture business with Bureau Veritas and obviously that was good for us, but being part of the company gives us a far better opportunity to expand the business globally," Kelvin said.

"More and more products are being made offshore, especially in Asia, so you do need that global connection if you're going to compete in the marketplace."

That global connection includes sharing knowledge and information with other Bureau Veritas laboratories across the globe.

Kelvin explained: "It's a global network; we are liasing and talking to people from around the globe and the different parts of Bureau Veritas have a lot of expertise on different types of testing, whether they're American, Canadian or whatever. It gives us an edge."

It helps, perhaps, that the global network Kelvin speaks of is continuing to expand. He concluded: "We're looking to increase our share of the global marketplace and there are things happening all the while to get us to that point.

"Obviously, Bureau Veritas have acquired a number of companies over the last two or three years and I imagine that they will continue to do so because they're an expanding business. They are very committed to growth both here in the UK and globally."

Author: James Wilkinson
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