ChemUK founder Ian Stone tells Helen Compson about the massive expansion of the expo in what is only its second year

It arrived with a bang last May and a formula worthy of the chemical industry itself.

And there’s no two ways about it, ChemUK will be even bigger and better this year.

While the fledgling expo-cum-conference took place in Harrogate last year, Manchester’s EventCity venue – the largest such space available in the North – will play host to the event this year.

Founder and managing director Ian Stone said: “It has almost doubled in size in terms of the number of exhibitors and stands. We had 140 last year and this year we’ve got circa 270, with over 100 companies on the waiting list.

“What you can draw from that is a massive appetite among suppliers and partners in the chemical industry to be part of ChemUK.”

The event is described by Ian as providing an intensive two-day supply chain sourcing, business networking, intelligence gathering, best-practice and strategy development experience, designed to introduce new relationships and strengthen existing ones throughout the intersecting layers of the UK’s chemical sector. “It is designed essentially to empower attendees with knowledge, contacts and inspiration vital to making future decisions for their chemical sector businesses and operations,” he said.

Ian is ambitious. By year three he expects to have around 350 exhibitors and attract some 4,000 or so visitors, but then he is sure of his market.

Having already founded one of the largest UK industry events of the past decade, the Advanced Engineering trade show at Birmingham’s NEC, he then spotted the gap in the market in the chemical industry.

“The lack of a dedicated event which would unite all of the various interconnected and interdependent layers of one of the UK’s absolutely crucial industrial sectors was evident,” he said.

“The chemical industry contributes £17bn a year in added value to the UK economy at a time it is also going through profound change – two very good reasons for providing a national forum that brings together all the different elements under one huge roof.”

To say the first ChemUK was well-received is an understatement. The platform it provided for companies to meet, talk and do business was heartily embraced.

Ian said: “As we started to discuss our intended development of the new event, we proactively reached out to a cross section of the industry’s headline trade, technical and professional bodies, embracing the industrial chemicals, formulated products, and wider process industries, to provide industry-wide clarity on the event’s ‘purpose’ and at the same time anchor in baseline support and input.

“They were all quick to acknowledge the value of a forum that would allow for the interchange of ideas, technologies, best practice, supply chain options and crucial intelligence between all of these national and international groups.”

As last year’s expo sharply demonstrated, chief among the beneficiaries were the hugely diverse ‘industrial chemicals’ manufacturing & supplier groups, reliant on tight relationships between their various segments – from petrochems & base chemicals, to fine & speciality chemicals, to chemical intermediates & additives, to polymers, inorganics, dyestuffs, process chemicals and so on..

He observed: “It is often said the biggest customer of the industrial chemicals market is the industrial chemicals market itself, and that is what we picked up on, that huge interdependence.

As important was the unlocking of a networking platform between the industrial chemicals and the ‘downstream’ formulated chemical product companies that were suddenly in the position of being able to tell their upstream suppliers exactly what their needs were, face to face.

“Industries such as paints, coatings, fuels, lubricants, adhesives and sealants, cosmetics & personal care, household & industrial cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, agritech… just some of the formulated products that are, of course, very tied to the upstream industrial chemicals providers – were able to talk on their future supply chain requirements, supporting their product development, product performance and regulatory compliance needs.

“There was nothing like this before ChemUK. It provides the opportunity for a unique dynamic.”

It also gives attendees the ‘big picture’, bringing them up to date in terms of new technology and developments. This year, the conference side of the event will field around 100 speakers drawn from all areas of the industry.

Key themes they will be covering include process improvement & intensification, green chemistry, sustainability and circular economy, plant and supply chain management, process safety and the regulatory landscape, sector logistics and outsourcing, global trade and, inevitably, “the infamous B word”.

“We had around 70 speakers last year, so that has grown,” said Ian, “but we have also introduced a whole series of new, themed sessions on hot topics tailored to particular sectors.

“Case in point, the pest control products industry: this year we’ll have a dedicated session looking at the major trends and developments there and, in the process, give this sub-sector of downstream formulated products market a chance to address the whole industry to say ‘this is where we are headed, these are the products we want to produce and these are the ingredients we need’ “

“In short, this is what we need from the upstream chemical industry and supply chain to support our ambitions.”

Reflecting the subjects testing the industry at large, the dominant themes of the conference will be the challenges inherent in transitioning to sustainability and digitisation. “They are by far the two biggest topics and areas of change,” he said.

“A third key subject is process intensification, which is also affecting and influencing every level and sub-sector of the chemical industry.”

Cyber-security, the use of data and reducing energy costs are just three of the many other topics that will be aired.

This year’s conference will boast three stages instead of two in order to satisfy the palpable thirst for knowledge and debate. Indeed, Ian describes the whole exercise as being akin to mounting a West End production. “It’s all in the planning,” he laughed.

“You can only really breathe once you are in the theatre on the night and you can see the audience’s reaction and hear the clapping and cheering.

“For me, I need to stand in the middle of the exhibition hall in the middle of the first day to look for the signs an event is working the way I intended it to, from the type of introductions taking place to the intensity of conversations to the expressions on people’s faces.”

Such has been the recognition of the value of ChemUK that multiple government departments, attendees from global chemical industry leaders, national centres of research, leading consultancy groups, trade, technical & professional bodies and a cross section of the sector’s technology, equipment & specialist service providers will again be represented at this year’s event.

And fresh off the blocks as it was, ChemUK was also shortlisted in last year’s EN Indy Awards, a scheme designed to recognise the crème de la crème of independent shows.

All things considered, 2019 proved a solid launch-pad for what has already turned into the chemical industry’s ‘must go to’ event.