Liz Nickels spoke to a well-established composite manufacturer in the UK about its range of bespoke products and the future of GRP.

Coe’s of Derby, based in the Midlands, is one of the UK’s oldest fiber reinforced plastic companies. It began designing and manufacturing glass reinforced plastic (GRP) products in 1951 with polyester resin and glass matt using the traditional hand laminating process, and now includes various resins and composite matting with processes including spray laminating and resin transfer moulding.

The company had a significant breakthrough when it was involved in the development of an alternative to phenolic resins. Phenolic resins were some of the first thermosetting resins used in reinforced moulded plastics and are a constituent part of Bakelite. According to Coe’s, phenolics offer a very high levels of fire resistance but require curing by heat, are difficult to work with and entail strict regulations around working conditions due to the formaldehyde released during the curing process.

The company says that its alternative material is easier to work with than phenolics and does not require the same level of manufacturing restrictions and produces lower levels of smoke and noxious fumes. 

Coe’s phenolic alternative has been tested and approved for use by organisations across the UK that require high level of fire resistance; but which have low smoke and fume emissions in cases of fire. 

It has approval from the Ministry of Defence, (used on nuclear submarines) the London Underground, and Network Rail. It has also been approved by Lloyds Register allowing it to be used in marine and other offshore applications.

Coe’s also specialises in bespoke manufacture for an astonishing eclectic range of industries, ranging from utilities, automotive, leisure, architecture and construction, with products ranging from garden gnomes to church steeples (yes they have made both) in quantities from a single motorcycle luggage rack (Figure 1.) to hundreds of 5 metre ‘stop logs’ (Figure 2.) for export to China, (stop logs used in creating dams for water barriers in flood defence). Recently Coe’s have produced GRP mortuary trays (Figure 3.) to help alleviate the bottleneck in mortuaries due to the Covid-19 Virus.

I spoke to Wendy S Dent, Managing Director, about the background to the company, and what is next for Coe’s.

Liz Nickels (LN): Can you tell me about your background?

Wendy Dent (WD): My background is finance. I ran a book-keeping company for a while, and then joined Coe’s, working one or two days a week in their accounts department and seventeen or eighteen years later, here I am! I am not the sort of person to sit back and not get stuck in. I did not know anything about glass fiber when I first joined, so I learnt the ropes and took a glass fiber laminating course in Southampton, so I could understand the process. I even got my forklift truck licence. If I am giving instructions to the guys on the shop floor, it was important that I know what I was talking about! I would not ask the guys to do anything on the shop floor, that I would not be prepared to do myself.

LN: How has Coe’s grown, since its beginnings?

WD: Coe’s dates back to 1951, when it was founded by a gentleman called Bernard Harrison. He used to work for Rolls-Royce, during the Second World War, when the company was packaging engine parts. Every new device that Harrison invented, Rolls-Royce claimed as theirs – since, of course, at the end of the day he invented it whilst working for them. He would get a pat on his back and a guinea in his wage packet and move on from there. It got to the point where Harrison realised that he could earn enough money doing it on my own. So, he and another gentleman –John Feasy – set up on their own. The company was then called Bernard John Ltd and the business was run from a garden shed. In 1957, a place in Derby became available; since Harrison did not have the money, a silent investor, Mr Coe entered. He told Harrison that he did not want any part in running the company – he just wanted his name above the door. As a result, Bernard John became Coe’s of Derby. After several years, when the loan was paid off, everybody knew the company as Coe’s of Derby, so there was no point in going back to calling it Bernard John.

Meanwhile, Harrison was supplying glass fiber boxes to Rolls-Royce and got some interest from the Fleet Air Arm. Eventually, he secured a contract with the MoD to supply glass fiber containers for a variety of products from specialist tools to weapons. He was awarded an MBE for his services in the military.

LN: What’s happened more recently?

WD: In the early 90s, MOD work tailed off and the company was then forced to seek new markets. We are now involved in automotive, architectural, leisure, defence, public sector, construction, and many other sectors – both large and small projects. More recently we commenced using low styrene polyester resin and lead-free pigments. We specialise in making GRP products that are, weight-for-weight, stronger than steel. The benefits of GRP as well is it can be almost any colour, and its maintenance free. You can replicate any surface, whether it is matt, gloss, wood effect, slate effect, drip effect, and so on.

LN: How are is the company coping with Covid-19?

WD: Luckily, in March we received a letter from Sir Stephen Lovegrove, Permanent Secretary to the MoD, and Timothy Walton from Rolls Royce requesting us to continue to manufacture their components. As a result, we have not been as badly affected as other companies. We have traded throughout everything. However, we have lost a couple of customers along the way. And we are at the point where I think everybody is ready for a break now!

LN: Do you think the industry will be different after the pandemic?

WD: Yes, I think the markets will be different. I think lockdown and Brexit have made people look closer to home and lean more towards UK manufacturing. The people I have spoken to want to keep manufacturing in the UK. I also think that despite any changes, there will always be a need for GRP, and fire-retardant materials are getting more and more efficient, and safe, which is important now public health have become paramount.

This article dates from April 2022.