Lifesaving creations

Mullion Apparel is a Scunthorpe-based designer of marine safety equipment including immersion suits, floatation suits and lifejackets for the professional market. Since its acquisition by Sioen Industries Group in 2000 and integration with sister companies the Mullion brand has gone from strength to strength, becoming a leading light for innovative and reliable concepts. Its high quality has seen it work with some of the biggest figures in the international marine sector.

Sales director Kurt Smits explains that it is this pursuit of innovation that defines the company against the rest of the market: “What makes us different is that we are constantly seeking new product concepts. For example, many of our competitors are in the 150N lifejacket business for the leisure market but, when you look at what they offer, it is mostly a standardised product without much testing or design. What we do for our customer is look at exactly what their work requires and try to find the best solution. This type of customisation is one of our biggest strengths as it means we can deliver not only comfort but also excellent protection.”

To achieve this, Mullion’s facilities possess cutting edge testing equipment that are able to measure the buoyancy, integrity and compatibility of raw materials and final products up to European standards. Furthermore, it makes use of services provided by Fleetwood Nautical Testing House, an independent verifier and approval body for marine clothing and life-saving equipment. This ensures that all of Mullion’s products are of a consistently superior quality, whether it is meeting a small order or a large volume request.

However, the crux of the company’s research and development (R&D) is the field studies that it carries out by co-operating with industry training sessions. “I recently spent five days with a client in the Netherlands whilst they trained their employees on how to react when falling into water,” illustrates Kurt. “The client makes use of our 275N heavy duty lifejackets so, apart from simply selling them a product, we help teach the client’s staff how to cope with falling. This has two basic functions; first, we can assist in teaching the best way to react and use our lifejackets, and secondly it provides us with a lot of information on the ways that different people with different backgrounds handle our products and situations. That way we can learn if something needs to be adjusted.”

Despite this practice requiring huge investment it has been beneficial, enabling Mullion to remain committed to innovation. One such product to have come from this problem solving is a recently designed hybrid lifejacket that aims to be a safer alternative in combination with traditional floatation or dry suits. A feature of dry suits is that they trap air inside to keep the wearer warm. However, this becomes a critical issue should the user fall into water as the trapped air may rush to the back of the suit. This means, if a victim is unconscious, they will remain face down in the water with the bubble of air counteracting attempts of the floatation suit to turn the wearer over. Though it is possible to get around this by securing a lifejacket over the dry suit very tightly, Mullion’s research shows that in a real life panic situation this is not commonly possible.

The company decided, therefore, to create a solution for this problem. Two years of R&D came up with a hybrid part-foam-part-inflatable lifejacket with an asymmetric chamber at the top that will ensure the wearer turns face-up regardless of how much trapped air is in the dry suit. The waistcoat design pushes any trapped air outward, toward the body’s extremities, whilst the asymmetrical chamber rotates the person sideways until they are in the face-up position. To meet the demands of all its clients, Mullion even designed two versions of this hybrid – automatic and manual inflation. The former would be useful to a rig operator, for example, where falling into the water might result in unconsciousness, and the latter for Coastguard / Professional Rescue Brigade work where automatic inflation would be detrimental to the job.

Flexibility in the company’s production to meet the requirements of different customers extends to its manufacturing capacity. As Kurt highlights, this is where being part of Sioen industries is of huge benefit: “Sioen Industries has approximately 4000 employees working in factories throughout the world, resulting in a very big production capacity. Because Mullion is a fully integrated subsidiary, it can not only use its own facilities to meet smaller 20-piece contracts but also sister production sites to handle big 1000-piece orders.”

This is incredibly important when looking at its client list. Alongside rig operators and fishing boats, the company also has important contracts with many national navies including Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, France and Poland where large orders are standard. It also counts important sea rescue organisations such as the UK’s Maritime Coastguard Agency amongst its customers, for which company flexibility and product reliability is absolutely crucial.

“We have a very loyal customer base and want to keep delivering quality products to them,” concludes Kurt with an outlook on the future of Mullion. “Once someone joins us they rarely leave even though we are not the cheapest. They want quality and that is what we give them. This means we have had constant growth even during the financial crisis – since 2002 we have increased turnover by eight per cent annually. The intention is to keep this going for the next five years whilst expanding geographically, into the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. This will also help us broaden the scope of our products and, in doing all of this, we can remain a market leader.”

Innovative sea rescue products

New hybrid lifejacket

Part of international Sioen Industries Group