WITH his long greying hair and grubby white lab coat, Dr René Hoyle looks rather like a mad scientist as he proudly shows off his facilities, stopping briefly to examine materials in a scanning electron microscope, and running through the impressive array of equipment at his disposal, but there is nothing crazy about what he does.

Dr Hoyle, director and principal materials and corrosion engineer at Axiom Engineering Associates, in Stockton, is one of the world’s foremost experts in forensic materials science.

“What does that mean?” he says with a smile. “I guess you could describe us as failure detectives. When something breaks unexpectedly companies come to us to find out why.”

Loading article content

Materials science emerged in the 1960s as a new approach to the study and analysis of materials taking in several fields of science and engineering including solid state physics, chemistry, metallurgy and ceramics.

As Dr Hoyle explains: “We do specialist engineering support. We aren’t interested in picking up spanners. We’re not mechanics, we’re not fitters; we’re at a much higher level than that.

“In the materials department, we’re looking at why things fail and how they fail.

“Obviously companies do not want failures happening unexpectedly. If something slowly degrades over a long period of time you can predict failure and replace it before it fails; like the tyres on your car. If something suddenly fails without warning, taking the car scenario you could be half way up the A19 and stuck by the side of the road – not a place you want to be.”

Companies today do more pre-production testing than at any time in history. New products have to meet rigorous international and domestic legislative requirements. And even when they do, litigious consumers won’t hesitate to use the courts if things go wrong. That’s why new designs are tested to destruction before they are approved for sale.

So with all this pre-production testing why is there a need for a company like Axiom?

“You can’t do failure analysis until you have got something that’s failed. Take the space shuttle, for example. NASA did engineering design and risk assessments which were all based on past experience. But the shuttle was leading edge technology; there was relatively little experience of the technology that was built into it. They tested it but, fundamentally, when the first one took off NASA had its fingers crossed.”

When the Challenger disaster occurred, the Rogers Commission found that a flaw in an O-ring had caused a seal to fail, setting off a chain reaction which resulted in the shuttle’s destruction.

As Dr Hoyle says: “Challenger was a badly fitted O-ring; Columbia had problems with lumps of ice falling off the fuel tank and hitting the heat-resistant tiles. The failure analysis basically concluded that the design of the shuttle was fundamentally flawed and they couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t happen again. That hastened its demise.”

Axiom performs the same job as the Rogers Commission – examining failures, finding out what went wrong – but goes one step further: “If we understand why something has failed we can devise a method to prevent it failing in the future, be that a process change, a design change or whatever.”

Dr Hoyle set up Axiom with Adam Potter, a mechanical engineer, in April 2003 when their employer, ABB, decided to shut down its laboratory at Wilton.

“I was working in the materials labs doing failure analysis and corrosion testing. We were looking at supporting what had been the ICI plants,” he remembers. “I didn’t see my job as being achievable from behind a desk so I made them an offer for the equipment which they accepted.

“We paid them a sum of money, went in with a very large trailer on the back of a Land Rover and spent three weeks taking out everything we physically could from the existing labs. The biggest problem was moving the scanning electron microscope which we literally dragged onto the back of the trailer, trundled from Wilton to Billingham, then struggled to get it off again.

“It’s physically quite large and inherently a very delicate piece of equipment. We probably didn’t treat it with the respect it should have been, but we moved it, put a few bodies on the job and got it shifted. To our surprise when we set it up again, not only did it work but when we got the manufacturer’s service engineer in to check it out the resolution was better than it had ever been.”

Axiom started off in The Grange Business Centre, in Billingham, which had originally been the ICI Training school canteen.

“In that space we built a corrosion lab, a failure analysis lab, the office, library, the workshop and a desk at which to work. It was tight. It got to the stage where if the phone rang you had to shut down the workshop machinery in order to answer. If you wanted a cup of coffee you had to move other equipment in order to get to the kettle. It literally got to the point where people were going home to have space to work.”

Two years later, having comprehensively outgrown its original premises, Axiom moved home. They moved again three years after that. The company is now based in new offices close to the River Tees from where it carries out failure and corrosion analysis for clients worldwide.

“Being based on Teesside was an advantage because we starting doing corrosion analysis on the storage tanks and pipework for the petro-chemicals industries there. But the business has grown and we have clients from all over the world. We work from the central belt of Scotland to the Humber and across to Manchester, but we routinely do inspection work in Finland, Holland and Portugal. We also license our inspection system to a company in Malaysia and we have clients in Hong Kong, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand.”

Dr Hoyle has also become an internationally acknowledged expert in his field and has appeared as an expert witness in court.

When trading standards had a problem with a horse’s bit which had repeatedly failed, causing the riders to be thrown, they approached Axiom.

“We found a manufacturing fault in the way the bit was made which accounted for why it was failing in the horse’s mouth. Obviously, if it fails that would account for why the riders were thrown. Trading Standards prosecuted and the importer was convicted.”

Axiom currently employs 40 people but demand for its services means the workforce is growing all the time.

The past couple of years has seen the firm diversify into other fields, including the automotive industry (“We have literally dozens of crankshafts,” says Dr Hoyle), power generation and green energy.

“We have been constantly expanding since starting the company,” he adds. “In the first ten years an average of three people joined us every year. In the last couple of years, the rate of growth has accelerated. We are getting to be better known; our reputation is out there as being a safe pair of hands, a reliable company to use for this sort of work and jobs are coming in from clients we haven’t actually approached. It’s an organic growth.”

Now Axiom’s experts can be doing anything from mapping a multi-million pound gas holder in South America using lasers to inspecting storage tanks in Redcar.

And there seems to be no end in sight. As Dr Hoyle says: “In the beginning we produced a ten year business plan. Within eight months we had exceeded the first year’s expectations. We set ourselves a target when we expected to turn over £1million – we smashed that – every milestone that we set is smashed way in advance. It’s grown faster than we ever expected.”

Twelve years after taking a chance in a former ICI canteen, René Hoyle has proven beyond all doubt that failure can lead to success.