Ross McDonald is a man on a mission. He certainly does not hang about. In 2018, aged 26, he became the youngest ever member of the Water Jetting Association’s Ruling Council. He had already been a member of the WJA Technical Committee since 2016.
Ross is the Operations Director at Hydroblast, a water jetting contractor based near Northallerton, in North Yorkshire. He shared his thoughts on his experiences in the water jetting industry to help the WJA mark its 40th anniversary.
Ross has always been an early starter. He wanted to pass his driving test as soon as possible. So, he passed his driving theory test on the day of his 17th birthday and passed the test less than two months later.
It meant he could then drive to 6th form college where he was studying business, IT and law. “I was interested in business,” said Ross. “But I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do specifically. My parents were very supportive of any career choice I wanted to make.”
Interest in innovation
It was by no means certain that Ross would join the family firm (his father, Gerald, founded the business). One experience, though, nudged him into that choice. Aged 16, he had a chance to visit one of Hydroblast’s suppliers, Falch, in Germany.
Ross explains: “I stayed in the home of the owner, Mr Falch, and spent a lot of time in the factory, seeing how the equipment was designed and made, from 100bar machines up to 3000bar. It was fascinating, and really got me interested in the potential of new technologies.”
That opportunity helped cement Ross’s interest in innovation, a passion of his father’s too. It also helped him make up his mind to join Hydroblast.
“I started at the bottom as an apprentice,” said Ross. “It was hands on learning. I have had to learn to do everything our water jetting operatives can do. I believe you shouldn’t ask someone to do what you can’t do yourself, so it suited me fine. I would tell people I am working for my dad’s business, not working for my dad. I didn’t want any favours.”
While Ross was building his technical skills and knowhow, he wanted to also develop his business acumen. So, in 2011, he enrolled at university on a part-time degree course in business management and graduated in 2014.
Learning every day
At around the same time, he also passed his HGV Class 2 driving test and was well on his way to qualifying for a NVQ Level 7 black CSCS card.
That does not mean he did not have a lot to learn. “You have to take the view that you’re learning every day,” said Ross. “With high and ultra-high pressure water jetting, every job has its challenges.
“Every day and every project teaches you something new. Fortunately, Hydroblast does a vast array of different work and is always trying to push the envelope of what can be done.
“The challenge is to select right the pump, jetting equipment and accessories and combine pressure and flow rates ways that complete a task in the safest, most productive and most sustainable way.
“We consider the parameters placed on us by our client’s system specifications, the varying condition of legacy components we’re working on and the site conditions during the project. This all takes expertise and experience.”
Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that some clients have looked twice when they have seen Ross in charge. “As a younger person, I always felt I had to prove myself to others,” he said. “When I led projects, some clients took a little convincing that I knew what I was talking about. But they quickly realised I did.”
Success in winning new and challenging projects is driven, Ross believes, by Hydroblast’s approach to innovation. It was, he said, the first water jetting contractor in Yorkshire to introduce robotic water jetting.
The company has striven to expand its services, adding refractory removal to other services that include hydrodemolition, surface preparation and tube and pipe cleaning, and tank cleaning. Aided by his business management knowledge, Ross has also championed Hydroblast’s development of water jetting consultancy.
He leads many high-profile projects himself. And some not so high-profile ones, for important reasons. For example, Hydroblast was called in to clean tubes on the Royal Navy’s new Astute Class nuclear submarines. There is not much more Ross can say about that, except that the project was a success and demonstrated the benefits of water jetting.
Last year, the company took its refractory removal skills to Italy to work on an energy from waste plant in Cagliari, Sardinia. This type of work is a growing market for water jetting as waste to energy plants are being built at rapid speed across the UK and Europe.
Ross said: “Unit costs of hydrodemolition is higher than traditional removal methods, such as labourers with hammers and chisels. But those costs are outweighed greatly by the speed of hydrodemolition, and the reduced risk of damage to pipework and other structures and risks associated with hand and arm vibration. It makes hydrodemolition the obvious choice.”
Ross and Gerald have developed a strategy that involves significant investment in robotic (semi-automated) water jetting.
Hydroblast’s jetting fleet includes an Aquajet 410A Evolution, the world’s smallest standard hydrodemolition robot, which is ideal for removing refractory in confined spaces, as well as a HVD Robot.
It also has an Aquajet Ergo frame plus two Aquajet Spines for hydrodemolition of vertical or sloping surfaces, along with two contain-based power packs that allow independent operation of hydrodemolition and robotic jetting projects.
“As a company that tries to be forward-thinking, we have to constantly develop our ideas and capabilities, because others are always looking to catch up,” said Ross. “But we don’t mind. It keeps us on our toes.”
Attracting young talent
Ross is equally keen that the WJA constantly moves forward. And that, he believes, should involve doing all it can to make the water jetting industry attractive to young recruits. In fact, people like him.
He said: “I had an inside view of the benefits of working in the water industry, but obviously most other young people don’t. We want to recruit the brightest young people to lead the industry forward, to take advantage of all the technical advances that will make our work safer, faster and of a higher quality.
“Currently, the problem is that water jetting struggles to be recognised as a trade when, in key respects, it’s a profession. It’s not necessarily seen as cutting edge and exciting by aspiring young engineers. It’s up to all of us to change that.
“At Hydroblast we are doing what we can, with a very good apprenticeship scheme to attract, develop and retain young talent, and I think the WJA should take a lead on that as well.
“It’s done a good job to get us to our 40th anniversary, however I would like us to now refresh our vision and goals in line with future challenges and younger generations, who have different ways of working and, perhaps, broader expectations. It’s something I will be encouraging as we enter our 41st year and move forward as an organisation.”