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Feature - Powering the world through a century of innovation

(Northern Echo, February 11 2019)

AS Cummins celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, PETER BARRON looks back at the fascinating history of the company – and the importance of Darlington to its worldwide operation

“CHALLENGING the impossible.” The theme for Cummins’ centenary is well chosen in view of the humble beginnings of a company that has gone on to power the world.

Clessie Cummins, who founded the global engine manufacturer in Columbus, Indiana, was certainly a man who relished a challenge, and unflinching in his determination to see his dream become a reality.

He had started out as a chauffeur for a banker called William G. Irwin, and back in 1919 managed to convince his wealthy boss to invest the significant sum of $2,500 in his vision to capitalise on exciting new technology developed by Rudolph Diesel.

The money was used to buy the licence for a design by engineer Rasmus Hvid, which was seen by Clessie to be the best available for a small kerosene-burning engine used on farms, on boats and in factories. It became Cummins’ first engine and, although just 28 of the six horsepower units were sold in the first year, the epic Cummins journey had begun.

The irony was that Clessie’s company lasted longer than the bank that helped to set it up, and Irwin Bank’s building is part of Cummins facilities in Columbus to this day.

However, those early days were challenging for Cummins too. The new company was pushed to the brink by long-term problems with the supply of the HVID, and Clessie’s response was to design his own engine. In 1924, he launched the Model F with a capability of 12.5hp per cylinder in one, two, three, four, and six-cylinder configurations. With 25 per cent more power than comparable engines, the Model F was a winner, as was the Model U in 1928, the first US diesel to have all working parts enclosed.

The story of ingenuity continued, with the NH Series being introduced in 1946, and going on to build the company’s reputation for durability in trucks and industrial applications for more than 50 years.

Clessie was also bold when it came to attracting press attention. He drove diesel-powered vehicles across the US to secure publicity, and used the famous Indianapolis 500 to test his innovations. Motor racing claims to fame included designing the first car to complete the race without stopping in 1931, and using turbo-chargers for the first time in 1952 to achieve pole position.

His Pressure Time fuel system, also tested on the Indy car in 1952, was a forerunner of today’s high-pressure fuel systems and, when he died in 1968, the former chauffeur had 33 patents relating to diesel engines and fuel systems.

Fast forward to today and, after 100 years of relentless innovation, Cummins is a world-leader in the design, manufacture, distribution, and servicing of a broad portfolio of power solutions.

In stark contrast to that first year of Clessie’s grand vision, when just 28 units were sold, a record 1.5m engines were sold by Cummins in 2018, with a record turnover of $24 billion. The company has factories across the world and the Darlington plant, which opened in 1965, goes from strength to strength, playing a key role in a global success story.   A total of 67,000 engines were produced in 2018, the second highest in the plant’s history.

It is a source of great local pride that engines powered in Darlington – the town with a reputation for innovation going back to it being the birthplace of the railways – are used in buses, tractors, trucks, boats, excavators and other vehicles right around the world.

And Cummins’ commitment to its North-East base is being underlined in 2019 with a £10m investment in the Darlington operation. The financial injection will improve operational efficiency and engine testing capability, as well as creating more modern, attractive, flexible offices.

Staff running Cummins’ centralised administration, finance and human resources services will also be transferred from Stockton to Darlington, bringing the total number of employees on the Yarm Road site to around 1,300 by the end of the year.

This represents “a big vote of confidence” in the Darlington operation, according to Marketing Director Steve Nendick, who is based in the town but travels worldwide in his role.

“Darlington is undoubtedly a vital cog in the wheel,” he says. “What’s amazing is that you can be working in Darlington in the morning and dealing with colleagues in India and China, and in the afternoon America and Brazil. People drive past here and perhaps don’t fully appreciate that what goes on is massively influential to a global network.”

Part of that influence comes from the fact that product development for European emissions regulations carried out in Darlington is applicable in other regions such as India and China, at a later date.  What happens in Darlington’s technical operations, therefore, has a significant bearing on the company’s global operation, ensuring that power solutions are tailored to worldwide markets.

Darlington may play a key role in the present-day Cummins’ network, but it might have been very different if a major gamble hadn’t paid off decades ago. When the plant first opened in the sixties, it concentrated on small Vee engines, which were manufactured until the early 1980’s.   

At this time a major investment was approved in the B Series, the forerunner of the engines built today.  With the company valued at less than the $1 billion dollars it planned to spend, it was described as a “You bet your company deal”.  More than £13m was invested to upgrade the Darlington plant as part of the gamble but, thankfully, it paid off handsomely, with 15 million B-Series engines being sold since.

Darlington is one of two UK engine manufacturing sites operated by Cummins, the other being Daventry, in Northamptonshire, and there are also facilities in Huddersfield, Stamford, Ramsgate and Cumbernauld. However, Cummins never stops looking to the future and recently bought Johnson Matthey’s UK battery business, based in Milton Keynes, as part of its investment in developing electric power.

Just as innovation is at the heart of Cummins, so is a commitment to its local communities and that is certainly the case in Darlington. STEM ambassadors are employed to go into schools to inspire youngsters to consider careers in engineering.

Key local causes are chosen each year under the themes of education, environment and equality of opportunity.  Recent beneficiaries include St Teresa’s Hospice, Daisy Chain, and Family Help Darlington. Every employee also gets four hours to work on local projects such as Eastbourne park, Firthmoor Community Centre, and Durham Wildlife Trust.

It is a commitment that cascades down from the top of the business. Alexei Ustinov, Vice President Off-Highway Engine Business, said: “It isn’t just innovation that made Cummins successful, but also the values of the company.”

This month, Cummins is celebrating its centenary at the Bauma show, the world's largest trade fair in the construction industry. Visitors will be able to see 100 years of innovation, with the company’s first engine, the HVID, displayed alongside the latest cutting-edge Darlington built B6.7 2019 Stage V engine.

The spirit of innovation that made Clessie Cummins such a visionary, lives on in the company’s current employees, and Mr Ustinov promises it will burn brightly into the future.

“Throughout the 100 years, Cummins has proven its dependability to our customers by developing market-leading products, and we will continue to do this into our second century,” he says.

An important milestone has been reached but Cummins clearly remains determined to go on Challenging The Impossible well into the future. Here’s to the next 100 years of innovation.

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Peter - 07711 958272

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