Going through process is a modern way of life

The process sector dominates the North-East's economy. But there's more to this complex industry than chemical plants and refineries as Anastasia Weiner discovered.

The process sector dominates the North-East's economy. But there's more to this complex industry than chemical plants and refineries as Anastasia Weiner discovered.

The process industry truly touches every part of modern life. From petrochemicals to food, drugs to nanotechnology, its scope is seemingly endless and its output invaluable. The sector is without doubt the North-East's economic powerhouse - accounting for 25% across the region and 60% in the Tees Valley.

As well as employing 35,000 people, a further 300,000 jobs are dependent on the complex sector.

Perhaps the most visible evidence of its success is Wilton - one of the UK's largest petrochemical processing sites.

Although ICI has all-but disappeared from the 2,000 acre site - equivalent to 1,300 football pitches - its legacy underpins the North-East's multi-billion process industry.

Work on constructing the giant industrial complex started in the mid-1940s.

Today boasting some 60 miles of private road, 400 miles of electric cable and 150 miles of pipe work between plants, it is the UK's premier chemical manufacturing site and one that easily competes on the global stage.

It is home to eight global chemical giants including Dow, Invista and Huntsman, Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) and Croda International as well as numerous smaller firms that supply vital maintenance and engineering services.

Millions have also been spent upgrading site plants over the years. From 2004, SembCorp - Wilton's utilities and services provider, and a key player in its recent history - has invested £120m.

In 2006, Huntsman announced a £200m investment in a low-density polyethylene plant, now owned by Sabic. The site is also proving a global hotbed for alternative and renewable energy companies, not least Yarm-based Ensus, which has announced the construction of the first world-scale bioethanol plant.

When operational this ambitious plant will produce 400 million litres of bioethanol using feedstock (namely wheat) sourced locally.

The growth of biofuels is just one example of how the biotechnology sector is rapidly expanding in the North-East.

Fine and speciality chemicals, where manufacturers turn raw materials into basic chemicals for more familiar products such as pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, food flavours, and fragrance, is another area enjoying high growth.

Indeed, the number of companies with biotech interests in the region has risen from 23 to 50 in just three years.

Employing 5,000 people, it contributes £700m to the economy, helped by investment from firms such as Avecia Biologics, sanofi-aventis in Alnwick, Peterlee-based SSL International, and HyClone in Cramlington.

Biopharmaceutical companies, including those specialising in stem cell research and regenerative medicine, have also made the North-East their UK base, including international giants such as GlaxoSmithKline at Barnard Castle, and Merck Sharp & Dohme, of Cramlington. In fact, more than 200 pharmaceutical companies, including the likes of Aesica Pharmaceuticals, Cramlington, have their core business in the North-East with another 200 in the supply chain.

The sector contributes one third of the UK's gross domestic product (GDP) each year - a total of £1.5bn.

The region's strength in this sector led to the building of the UK's first biotechnology village.

The purpose-built £70m International Centre for Life is at the heart of the Life Sciences cluster and houses low-cost incubator units, specialist facilities, university research institutes and the Centre of Excellence for Life Sciences.

The £10m Life Knowledge Park in Newcastle is one of five UK "genetics parks" set up to develop better NHS treatments.

But it's not just corporations that are pushing the limits of science in the North-East. The Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) - one of five centres of excellence - is at the heart of some of the most progressive research and development.

It is leading the £5m national industrial biotechnology facility (NIBF) which will catapult the North to the forefront of this field in the UK.

It has also developed the £1.5m Fuel Cell Application Facility to push forward green energy schemes, and is behind barrier-breaking work such as making paper-thin roll-up TV screens a reality thanks to its Flexible Electronics Facility. CPI was originally set up by regional development agency One NorthEast in 2004 to compete with the world's best in the fields of process development, nanotechnology, life sciences, renewable energies and digital media and technology.

The team of almost 40 scientists, managers and support staff is now driving projects worth tens of millions of pounds, working at local, national and international level. CPI is a key player in the PETeC project, based at NETPark in Sedgefield. The £9m project is designed to position the North-East as a "world-beater" in plastic electronics technology.

Both ONE and County Durham Economic Partnership have invested in the project. European money is also funding the facility.

The Department of Trade and Industry is also investing in the first platform installation in the centre, which will be managed by co-managed by Cenamp. The centre, the first of its kind, will establish the region as a global leader in the application of plastic electronics research, making specialised facilities and expertise available to companies seeking to develop new products and services for use in a wide range of markets.

Plastic electronics is predicted to be a £30bn industry by 2015 rising to £250bn by 2025 with uses ranging from thin flexible display monitors and televisions to lighting, medical sensors and solar cells. The region's five universities are also vital to the region's global competitiveness.

So too are organisations such as ONE, local authorities, and the North-East Process Industry Cluster (Nepic), which works hard to attract new investors and encourage existing firms to grow.

Part of its role is to facilitate funding initiatives, help with identifying a suitable location, and highlight the benefits to the skilled local economy - and the company's bottom line.

However, according to Stan Higgins, Nepic's chief executive, the sector's success still surprises some. "Strangely some commentators have said that the process industry is past its sell-by-date in the Tees Valley. How wrong could they be," he says.

"In the past four years the North-East process industries have captured more than £1.5bn of investments creating more than 2,000 new jobs, many of which are in the Tees Valley, including Avecia Biologics, Lundbeck Pharmaceuticals and new bio-diesel plants.

"In addition, there have been numerous major investments by companies such as BOC, AdvanSA, Invista, SembCorp and Huntsman.

"Nepic is fortunate that it has the enthusiasm and commitment from more than 100 senior executives in the process industry who are dedicated to help secure these projects."

Mr Higgins says that Nepic has established several key strategic teams to improve productivity within the industry sector, work on new innovative processes, build international trade networks, market and communicate the benefits of coming to the North-East.

The organisation also works hard to improve the skills of the workforce and attract more young people to join the process industry.

"Unless we attract more young people to join the process industry where there are some amazing, highly paid and secure jobs, and unless we up-skill the workforce to compete with other countries, then we will fail to capitalise on the fantastic growth potential of the industry," warns Mr Higgins.

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