22 May 2022

EJ - Combining history and innovation at world class production facilities in Offaly

The team in EJ in Birr

The team in EJ in Birr

As one of the world’s leading manufacturers and distributors of high quality and innovative infrastructure access solutions, EJ is a 5th generation family-owned company headquartered in Michigan, USA that spans six continents. The company, owned by the Malpass family, has manufacturing facilities, distribution hubs, sales offices, and multiple research and development centres worldwide.

An extensive range of access solutions in galvanised steel and composite material are manufactured in two world class production facilities in Birr. In addition, high-quality ductile manhole covers and drainage gratings are manufactured at the European headquarters in Picardie, France which is one of Europe's largest municipal casting foundries.
From Birr, EJ products are supplied to the construction, water, power, telecomunications networks in Ireland, the Nordics and Europe.

History of EJ in Ireland

The Cavanagh family had operated an iron foundry in Birr for over a century at the original Moorepark site and in 1977 the foundry relocated it’s operations to the current Roscrea Road site.

Further modernisation took place in 1988 with the installation of electric furnaces, a Hybe moulding line and a sand plant. During this time the Irish foundry was very successful in serving the drainage, telecommunications, and energy industries, winning numerous high profile contracts with key utility providers and distributors at home and across Europe.

Following acquisition by EJ in 2000, the Irish operation continued to prosper under its new ownership until the recession in 2008 and the subsequent crash of the construction sector. A sad day for the company and Birr town came with the news of the closure of the foundry in January 2014 and associated redundancies.

Although manufacturing was hit hard with the closure of the company’s iron foundry operation, and product patterns transferred to the larger facility in France, EJ in Ireland were quick to reinvent themselves.

The official opening of Birr Composites in October 2019 with members of the Malpass family in attendance.

Birr Fabrication

When the foundry closed, it left behind a very small fabrication team of only two welders and one fabricator. However, through the efforts of the production and sales team, EJ has been able to steadily grow it’s workforce to a point where they now employ as many people as they did in the peak of the mid-00’s.

The Birr facility now operates a first-class welding facility boasting highly qualified fabricators and welders who are each certified to EN ISO 6906-1, amongst a larger team responsible for the manufacture of fully compliant EN124-3 steel covers and frames.

While they still produce frames to match the ductile iron covers from their sister foundry in France, a huge area of growth for the department has been in the range of bespoke steel covers and frames.

These products are created to fit customer’s needs perfectly, providing features such as assisted lifting, fall protection and water-tightness.

This adaptability places EJ at the forefront of access solutions technology in Ireland and allows the facility grow into the future.

Liam O’Sullivan, Production & Design Manager: “The pandemic has posed many challenges for us, both to the safety of our staff but also on an operational front. Thankfully, our commitment to safety and manufacturing best practices have allowed us to come through this period in good shape to continue growing.

EJ are committed to continuous improvement in our manufacturing processes and to providing our staff with the latest technology to improve safety and productivity.

This year, we will be installing state of the art on-torch welding fume extraction equipment to provide our welders with the safest environment to work in. Add to this the vacuum and chain lifters, air-filtration masks and motorized lifting tables, and it’s easy to see the importance EJ put on the team’s safety. We continue to invest in upgrading our facility with the latest technology when it comes to growing fabrication and allowing us remain competitive.”

EJ have recently developed a new technology for applying a skid-resistant surface to our bespoke covers to conform to EN124-3 standards. This has allowed us to capitalize on our position as the only manufacturer of independently third-party EN124 certified steel and composite solutions in Ireland.

Birr Composites

The company's second manufacturing facility in Birr is now producing a highly innovative, Irish-developed range of access covers using the very latest fibre-reinforced polymer composite materials. The rebirth was celebrated at an official launch event in October 2019 with Irish Astronaut Dr. Norah Patten present. Birr is now an international manufacturing base for EJ. The Birr facility produces composite access covers that meet the latest European specifications.

The past 5 years has seen EJ Birr go from strength to strength with notable industry awards such as the Impact Award 2018 presented by the University of Limerick, and the short listing of the EJ composite project in the top 3 submissions for a national Knowledge Transfer of Ireland (KTI) innovation award 2018. EJ are one of the few Irish companies accredited to ISO 450001 which further demonstrates their commitment to safety in the workplace.

The ergonomic handling system on the composite cover production line.

Innovation at Birr Composites

To create an industry leading product, EJ needed to develop an equally first-class manufacturing facility. With help from Enterprise Ireland and the Irish Composites Centre (Icomp) based at the University of Limerick, EJ carried out an extensive research programme between 2014 and 2017 to devise how best to manufacture composite access covers using best-in-class materials and processes. This research was taken from the laboratory and scaled up into an innovative high-end manufacturing process through collaboration with two leading European equipment manufacturers. The result was the industry's first independently certified range of composite access products.

Once a concept was developed which met the requirements of EN124:2015 (European product performance standard), the process had to be designed to meet the volume requirements of the customers.

“Our composite capabilities give a new dimension to our product catalogue,” said Dr Vincent Cooper, Product Manager – Composites and Plastics, “allowing us to create new solutions for an industry that is becoming increasingly focused on improving ergonomics, developing smart city infrastructure and environmental awareness.”

One example of a recent market success has been receiving specification with a major European telecom provider. They have selected EJ as the manufacturing partner to help them transition from heavyweight concrete access covers to the lighter weight composite. Another example has been the selection of EJ's composite covers for use in a Hyperscale data centre located in County Meath.

“Our reputation as the leading manufacturer of high quality infrastructure access solutions in the market is demonstrated by exclusive supplier agreements with key utility providers such as Eir, ESB, National Broadband Ireland (NBI), Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) and Virgin Media,” says Daithi Regan, Managing Director of EJ in Ireland. “We supply our product range to every Local Authority in Ireland, North and South and we are a Tier one supplier to the world's highest profile Data centres, exporting to the Scandinavia region as well as to numerous countries around Europe from our Sales & Distribution centre in Birr.”

Delivering long term value

For over 20 years EJ have Engineers Ireland accreditation as a Registered Training Provider for CPD seminars where they advise and educate engineers, project designers and personnel involved in the specification and approval of access solutions across all networks and materials.

“Having the Engineers Ireland accreditation has really benefited the way we conduct our business, it helps position EJ as leaders in our industry, in local and European markets.  We are trusted by key consultants, project designers and utility providers to offer guidance on compliance to industry standards and it allows us showcase our innovate product range, either online or on site. Our proactive approach has helped us build relationships with the key players in the construction industry and allows us demonstrates how EJ can deliver long term value and help clients future proof critical infrastructure networks with compliant access solutions in ductile iron, steel and composite”

Quality, Safety and Environmental

The Birr facility has an integrated Quality, Environmental and Safety management system. This is demonstrated by the continued certification to ISO 9001, 14001 and 45001 standards awarded by BSI and maintaining the EJ core values which are safety and security, honesty and integrity, environmental responsibility, respect for others and quality and excellence.

All EJ employees are involved in safety, ensuring it remains a number one priority. This includes but is not limited to the implementation of pre-operational checks on our equipment and machines, weekly safety inspections by our production staff, regular safety meetings involving staff from all departments, regular safety inspections by leadership and supervisors, an annual safety day event and extensive internal and external safety training is provided to all team members. EJ aims for continuous improvement of its safety processes through the installation of vacuum lifters, lifting tables and many more safety devices to improve ergonomics and manual handling. All identified safety actions are managed through a top class QSE software which ensures all actions generated are completed promptly.

"Safety is a core value for EJ. We believe a zero accident workplace is possible. All injuries are preventable, all risks can be controlled, all employees watch and care for one another, and we are always improving."

The company's quality focus on its products is extensive. A clear Quality Plan is defined through all stages from conception to customer delivery. In-process Quality Inspections are scheduled and defined across all critical control points and managed via a production independent Quality Department. Inspections are conducted and collated via industry leading software tools using mobile devices and archived to the cloud. Pre-operational and in-process production validation checks form a central part of the Quality Plan to ensure final product acceptance criteria meeting exacting requirements. Corrective and preventative actions are systematically managed via a central software database ensuring comprehensive capture / assignment / tracking and validation. This ensures that all opportunities for further improvement are enacted.

EN124:2015 defines product design and testing requirements with prescribed frequencies. EJ considers the standard to be a minimum requirement and schedules product testing far in exceedance of requirements via defined batch testing of loading and permanent set requirements in addition to full type testing. Product load testing is undertaken in-house utilizing a custom-built calibrated test rig with external laboratory testing for bespoke testing such as water absorption and resistance to vehicle fuels. Product testing additionally extends beyond the requirements of the standard to in-field testing of products which further tests real world scenarios of pedestrian and vehicular traffic combined with weathering elements etc.
Combining the above techniques has enabled EJ Birr to produce the industry's first range of products to meet the latest European product standard EN124:2015, independently certified by the NSAI.

The company also has an innovative Design department whose aim it is to design products that create user value by leveraging potential technologies and techniques such as Augmented Reality and Ethnography.
According to Paraic Phelan Design Engineer & Product Specialist with EJ, this allows a designer to gather user insights which aid the design and development of user centric products.

A legacy is cast

The EJ legacy dates back to 1883 when William E. Malpass and his father-in-law Richard W. Round established a foundry on the shores of Lake Charlevoix, in the town of East Jordan, Michigan, USA. This foundry was called Round and Malpass Foundry and originally produced cast parts for the lumber industry, machinery, ships, agricultural equipment, and railroads. In 1886, William’s brother, James, joined the business and the company was renamed East Jordan Iron Works.

In the 1920s, when the lumbering era came to a close, the company welcomed the second generation to the business and expanded into new markets allowing continued success in changing times.

Production shifted to street castings, water works valves, fire hydrants, and various industrial castings. Through World War II, the foundry produced castings for the war effort. In the 1950s, semi-automation was introduced into the foundry.
During the 1960s, the third generation automated the foundry with the addition of a high-pressure molding line. By integrating automatic sand processing and mechanized casting handling systems, the company was operating the largest automated molding line in the United States and maximized production capabilities.

Since the late 1980s, the business has been led by the fourth generation descendants of the Malpass family. They have transformed the Midwest business into an international leader of providing access solutions to infrastructure systems.
The fifth generation of the Malpass family began joining the company in the late 1990s, continuing the strong family commitment to the company’s success.

In the early 2000s, East Jordan Iron Works began turning its attention to expansion in other parts of the world, with the acquisition of Cavanagh Foundry in Ireland (2000), Norinco in France (2004), McCoy Construction Castings in Canada (2006), and HaveStock in Australia (2010).

In 2012, East Jordan Iron Works and its affiliated companies began doing business using the same name and brand, EJ. One global name and brand, supported by a single mission, vision, and set of values has unified the company.

Local Success

During the Covid-19 pandemic an excellence-oriented culture that exists at the EJ operation has never been more important. It has allowed EJ to continue to operate safely, implement changes in its workplace and fuel growth.

The company is constantly seeking ways to improve how it operates its business and how to provide solutions to the problems which customers have.

By evolving product lines and systems, EJ can consistently deliver value to its customers and attain high levels of organisational performance. Being agile and being able to quickly adapt to the unexpected events and changes in 2020 and 2021 was a direct result of the company's internal culture of operational excellence.

The process of taking research from the lab, to the factory and on to the streets has been a challenge but the huge effort has paid off.“Our Birr operation,” said – Padraig Freeman Executive VP of Market Business Development and Strategy EJ Group,” is a super example of an operation who despite a setback in 2014 has reinvented itself and is now again one of the shining lights within our EJ locations. It has set benchmarks in the area of safety and environmental performance. The sales and product teams have worked tirelessly on developing new products for new and existing markets and this has seen green shoots develop into areas of sustainable growth. None of this would have happened without the hard work and dedication of our employees. This dedication and hard work are the seeds of this local success story.”  

According to Chrissie Power, Accounting & Human Resource Manager, “EJ in Ireland has been a local employer for the past 50 years. From 2014 EJ has progressed steadily, and in recent years the EJ story in Birr is one of renewal and rebirth and by the end of 2022 through reinventing ourselves, we will return to the peak employment numbers of the past. Birr and its surrounding area has been a great source of skilled employees and without each and everyone’s contribution EJ would not be where it is today.”

To continue reading this article for FREE,
please kindly register and/or log in.

Registration is absolutely 100% FREE and will help us personalise your experience on our sites. You can also sign up to our carefully curated newsletter(s) to keep up to date with your latest local news!

Register / Login

Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.

Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.