From concept to production of the new Swiftline Rail Dropper: an interview with John Butterworth

In this final blog of the series, John Butterworth discusses how we took the new Gripple Rail Dropper from initial concept through to solving a major issue in the rail industry.

As you will have read in blogs 1 and 2 in this series, the Swiftline Rail Dropper was introduced to overcome the problems Overhead Line (OLE) installers were having when fitting electrification systems, making the whole process, safer quicker and easier.

Once the concept was agreed and refined how did you develop the product and get ready to take it to market?

“We had some really useful feedback from Network Rail and our industry contacts on the initial concept for our Rail Dropper and so were able to enter the ‘detailed design’ stage of the product’s development stage of the process.

As we are constantly innovating and introducing new products into the market, we have established processes in place which follow a carefully structured approach.

The detailed design stage is where we fine tune the concept and explore production possibilities and launch plans with wider stakeholders, including our operations, supply chain, quality, manufacturing and marketing teams.

Once the final Rail Dropper product design was agreed, as a business, we considered the cost of investment, the volumes which were needed by the market and the subsequent ROI. We then put it forward for CAPEX approval.

A business decision was made to invest in the product and to put it into production. This was a big moment internally with all our teams’ hard work finally starting to come to fruition.

Our product managers and product designers who have driven the project to this point now work with our dedicated new product implementation team, which co-ordinates the production and launch with other departments around the business.

The next stages of product development were:

  • Tool and component sourcing – we ordered the machinery and tools to produce the product and develop plans for manufacturing and conduct trials.

  • Pre-production – our operations teams undertook trials pilot builds and packing trials as well as finalising production and manufacturing processes.
  • Field trials – our product managers tested our SwiftLine Rail Dropper product in real world environments, in this case on a Network Rail site.

  • Product implementation – where our innovation team and new product implementation team handed product designs over to production."

(John Butterworth conducting field trials on site with Network Rail)

How did you select which Gripple sites to choose for production?

"It was a very carefully considered decision as to where we choose to manufacture the new product.

In the case of the Rail Dropper, our Norfolk Bridge Works in Sheffield was selected to carry out the bulk of the production, as it has the largest capacity. Final assembly was then set to take place at our Head Office, the Old West Gun Works in Sheffield. 

Our established manufacturing capabilities at Norfolk Bridge Works made it the perfect place for us to smoothly integrate the production of SwiftLine Rail Dropper. Punch and press brake tools were both already in operation at the site to produce Gripple products which are supplied into the Construction industry. This meant that we could adapt existing processes to produce SwiftLine Rail Dropper, rather than waiting for the delivery of completely new machinery.

Our production team at Norfolk Bridge Works already have many years’ worth of experience in operating the machinery which would be needed for SwiftLine Rail Dropper, from producing similar products for the construction industry. This means that the learning process would be as efficient as possible and customer demand could be quickly and confidently met."

(Punch machine producing parts for the SwiftLine Rail Dropper at Gripple Norfolk Bridge Works)

The low-down on the two sites where the Rail Dropper is being produced:

Our Norfolk Bridge Works opened in 2021 as a cutting-edge modern manufacturing facility which has been awarded 'BREEAM Excellent'. This modern facility features 442 solar panels, a green living wall as well as a smart building management system.

Old West Gun Works became our headquarters in 1994. Today this iconic building houses wire rope and sling manufacture, packing and distribution, as well as IT, finance, supply chain and our people & culture teams.

How did you produce the tooling for the Rail Dropper?

"Vertical integration is a key driver at Gripple and we aim to manufacture and control as much as we can in-house. This even includes the machines that produces our products which our advanced manufacturing department design and manufacture. This gives us greater control over our supply chain, helping us offer continuity to our customers and protecting them from external supply pressures.

When it came to creating the tooling to produce components for our SwiftLine Rail Dropper, we worked with our sister company GoTools, which specialises in precision tooling and machinery. GoTools was able to quickly produce the tooling, which allowed us to meet the market’s demands more quickly than our competitors.

The rest of the process didn’t stop at this point, though. Whilst the tooling was being produced our quality and testing teams worked together to ensure that we were completing all of the testing needed to meet Network Rail's standards. The product massively surpassed both the mechanical and electrical tests that are needed to meet the requirements, and are laid out in BS EN 50119.

As well as the tests needed to meet Network Rail’s standards, we also undertook additional testing to ensure that we were completely satisfied with the product. Salt spray and UV tests were undertaken to prove the product’s performance was sustained after exposure to the elements. High and low temperature tests (including an ice expansion test) were also undertaken to prove that the product can continue to perform in harsh environments. Cyclic tests were undertaken beyond the Network Rail standard to prove the product’s longevity.

(SwiftLine Rail Dropper pull test carried out at Gripple Old West Gun Works in Sheffield)

Once tooling was ready, manufacturing could begin, so it was time to work with our production teams to ensure that the process was as efficient as possible. This went right through from the cutting and fusing of the dropper cable, to the assembly of the housing, through to the frequent quality checks and finally the packing team. Our new product implementation team are responsible for working with production to ensure that the benches and jigs, which are bespoke-made for the development of each new product, are as efficient and cost-effective as possible. The whole process involved eight individual teams who work across five sites in Sheffield."

How do you think the Rail Dropper will “change the game” for OLE (Overhead Line Electrification) installations going forwards?

"There is already a lot of excitement from those who are ‘in the know’ in the rail industry about our new SwiftLine Rail Dropper.

Electrification is probably the hot topic in the rail industry and is a massive contributor towards the UK meeting its environmental targets.

Our new SwiftLine Rail Dropper has the potential to revolutionise this application and allow Network Rail and its contractors to significantly speed up the electrification rollout.

We are confident that our game-changing SwiftLine Rail Dropper is faster, safer, and easier to install than anything else on the market. This will allow users to take control of their electrification projects; getting more done in every possession window and even bringing forward project completion dates.

(The SwiftLine Rail Dropper is fully height adjustable using the Volt Lock gripping wedge system)

Users can save time both installing, and preparing for works, thanks to the improved installation speeds and the fact it comes as a plug-and-play system, which is pre-cut to length, eliminating the need to measure and assemble on-site.

What’s more, minimal product training is needed for teams to master our easy to use, tool-free dropper. This makes projects simpler and safer thanks to less time spent working at height or in the dark."

We are excited to confirm that our SwiftLine Rail Dropper has now received Network Rail Product Approval and is available in the UK. Discover more online here.

Tags: Corporate

Why use Gripple?

  • Innovative, patented solutions designed by an in-house team of engineers
  • Considerable reductions in packaging, vehicle movements & embodied CO2
  • A range of support services at every stage of your project, provided by our technical team
  • Complete, off-site solutions which minimise health and safety concerns
  • Significant time and cost savings on your project