After more than two decades in charge of Safecote, one of the winter service sector’s best-known brands, Mark Dutton talks to Adrian Tatum about why innovation and thinking differently are the only ways to effect change in the industry.
You can imagine the look from some local authority winter service personnel back in the early 2000s when Safecote started to promote its liquid additive. “You want me to add what to my salt?” would have been the reply from some. But the product quickly proved its worth and today is being used by many local authorities to help achieve improved efficacy as well as allowing them to make significant savings in salt usage at the same time.
As a result, Safecote is now one of the best-known brands in the winter service sector in the UK and with over two decades in the industry, it is time for its next chapter.
The Safecote liquid additive, an agricultural by-product, was brought to the UK after considerable success in North America. It was in 1999 that Safecote entered discussions with TRL Ltd, an organisation with strong credibility within the UK and throughout Europe, for an independent assessment to take place of the liquid additive to the UK road network. This was a lengthy process, demanding a high level of management and financial resources, but the most effective and professional route to market. This philosophy has been continued and extended with other technical and independent organisations to involve scientific analysis, quality control and product optimisation of Safecote, aimed at giving customers the confidence that they are dealing with a credible product that has been independently tested and does what the marketing literature says it does.
The truth is, despite the changes in the way salt is applied to the network from dry salt, to prewet to use of brine and now the extensive trialling of liquids, the Safecote liquid additive has stood the test of time.
Talking to Mark Dutton, Safecote’s Managing Director, it is clear why the company has been a success over the last two decades. He has lots of passion and enthusiasm for the industry he has worked in for many years now. As a founder member (and now the only one left with membership) of the National Salt Spreading Research Group (NSSRG) that is now better known as the NWSRG, the continued development of the sector has, and always will be, important to him.
“Safecote has continued to drive forward development to help bring innovative products to the sector. Taking the same approach we always have, is never going to solve the challenges we have now or in the future,” says Mr Dutton. “Continued research and development are obviously vital for the development of the winter service sector in the UK. With no central government funding going directly into winter service we had to find a mechanism to drive that research and development that would have otherwise not have happened,” he adds.
What followed was one of the most comprehensive reviews of winter service delivery guidance the UK has ever seen, something that has carried on today with the latest easy-to-use guidance chapters that bring a real focus to what operatives need to achieve during the season and how best practice determines that they do that.
Safecote comes to the market this winter with a new website and refreshed branding. “It is a long-time since we last re-branded and a lot has changed since then. The focus has been to make people more aware of the range of innovative products and service Safecote offers as well as a focus on two themes. The first, ‘innovation through understanding’, has evolved from the ‘old’ website but was kept because the phrase really is synonymous with what the company really is about. “Quite a few of the products we have introduced in recent years have been done so because that’s what local authorities and their contractors have told us they need. If we didn’t take the time to understand why, then it probably would never have happened,” adds Mr Dutton. “You have to be able to offer a solution to a challenge, not just a product.”
The new tag line that sits prominently on the new home page is ‘making winter safer’. “Again, I think this clearly describes our philosophy and approach as a company. Through every one of our products, that is ultimately what we are here to do-keep the public and operatives safe,” says Mr Dutton.
“Every product we offer, whether it is the liquid additive, snow plough blades or weather sensors is unique in some way compared to other alternatives,” he adds. So, what else is on the horizon from Safecote in the future?
“We are working on one or two potential new product developments at the moment but before we introduce them we have to be 100% certain they are the right ones, at the right time and ones that will make a difference in the sector,” says Mr Dutton.
Safecote has for many years now represented other companies in the UK-bringing innovation from Europe and further afield into the country. “We will only introduce things whether its directly ourselves or via a partner company if we feel it will demonstrate a real step change and the key to that is understanding the market,” he adds.
But what comes next for the industry? What research and development should now happen and where are the current gaps in insight? “Residual salt is the big talking point among practitioners in the sector right now. Ultimately, we need a better understanding of the development of residual salt on the road network after spreading and taking other factors into account such as traffic and weather etc. This in turn will help us to deliver more accurate salt application rates and assess when we need to spread and when not too,” he says.
“Also, I think there is still some educating needed around ploughing and the fact that now it is a requirement to remove all the snow from the road surface and effectively plough ‘back to black,” he adds.
But just as in other parts of the highways sector, what role will advanced automation and Artificial Intelligence play in the winter service sector in the future? Last year saw the launch of the world’s first fully-electric gritter, but how far off a full-automated one actually are we?
“In the fullness of time I would like to think that there is going to be more automation in the sector but how far off that are we? I would say still some considerable way still-especially for things like full automated spreaders which drive themselves, for example. There is so much we need to get right on the road network and with law changes etc but like many things in our industry, they are driven by data and we are starting to get to a really interesting point in the sector where we have a much higher level of data now than we had even a few years ago. The more accurate information we can get from automated route planning systems, automated spreading, weather sensors etc the better position we will be in to drive more new technology and provide practitioners with answers to problems,” says Mr Dutton. “The next thing that would be really useful is examining how best we fit mobile weather sensors to vehicles,” he adds, “That could take data to a whole new level and if councils could have information from a system that offers accurate real-time data-that could be invaluable.”
Safecote’s TrackIce Road sensors offer a wealth of information to help decision making more effective and they are also available to rent. “For local authorities to have the ability to take the worry of capital financing out of the equation by renting the sensors is a good thing right now we think. We are also in a good position to help councils save money across our range of products, and I am proud of that. The Safecote liquid additive can save 25-30% of salt usage and the BM Road Service System that helps authorities with route planning-has recently saved one customer upwards of £150,000,” he adds. Added to that, its range of liquid anti-icers are proving more popular as more authorities are creating temporary and permanent cycle ways and its Kuper GK5 blades allow gritter drivers to plough back-to-black every time.
“Our next five-year plan is to continue to search the globe to find the right innovations for UK winter service practitioners, and we won’t rest on our laurels on that one,” he adds.