The story and development of pipeline materials and evolution of Saint-Gobain PAM since 1856
The story of Saint-Gobain PAM is a truly eventful industrial saga. The history of this modest foundry that has become a world leader reflects the fortunes of French industry, which has been difficult and marked by identity crises. The formidable rise of this small industrial company was made possible by the far-sighted risks taken by very bold captains of industry. Long before anyone else, the company, which was still called the “Société Anonyme des hauts fourneaux et fonderies de Pont-à-Mousson”, took risks on:
- A market: water transportation;
- A product: pipelines; and
- The specialization in a material: grey and then ductile cast iron.
In addition to taking these risks, the “old lady”, as it is known to its customers, built a durable strategy on two constant features of its history: technological breakthroughs (centrifugation, ductile cast iron, etc.) and strong internationalization and commercial development. After the celebration of its 150th anniversary, against a backdrop of rising raw materials prices, the pipeline activity continues to grow, with the same spirit of conquest, innovation and industrial strength.
Cast iron: the standard-setting material?
The story of pipelines can be summarised as follows. At the time of the Romans, the first pipelines were made of clay, or sometimes stoneware or lead. The Middle Ages saw the arrival of a few pipelines made of wood.
The story of cast iron pipelines started in Belgium in the 17th century. The first cast iron pipes equipped Marly’s famous machine and the Chateau de Versailles. The first flanged pipes, which were sealed using pig skin or foils of lead, replaced the wooden pipes from the 17th century. But at this time, mains water remained an almost royal privilege.
The industrial adventure at Pont-à-Mousson started almost a century later, more by accident than anything else, as is often the case. The company was founded two years after the accidental discovery of a large deposit of iron ore in the Meurth-et-Moselle department of France in 1854. PAM, Pont-à-Mousson, or the “old lady”, has a glorious history. But, like the rest of French industry, life has not always been rosy for PAM. The first years were difficult and chaotic. At the time, the modest foundry produced various products, and was not specialized in pipes, and the company resembled many others. It was still a long way from becoming one of the “iron barons”.
The first pipes
The momentous decision was taken to produce pipes and the first one was manufactured in 1865. In an innovative step at that time, the “Société Anonyme des hauts fourneaux et fonderies de Pont-à-Mousson” immediately created a sales department, a decision that heralded the start of its specialization in water transportation. This strong alliance between manufacturing and sales was a forebear of vertical integration, marked by the constant desire to remain independent.
From a structural perspective, the organization of the company was the first of its kind in the iron and steel industry in Lorraine, since it allowed entrepreneurs and directors to enter capital. “The first two directors did not wield power because they owned the capital. They acquired the capital because they wielded the power”.
Mains water arrives late in France
The domestic market was extremely limited, since very few localities, outside the big towns, were connected to the mains. The transportation of drinking water was not a priority in France at that time and public hygiene was a subject of almost universal indifference. By way of example, in 1903, the vote to invest 1% of profits made from gambling to develop water transportation only just scraped through parliament. Ironically, this measure was repealed as recently as 2004.
Once the decision had been taken to develop the mains water supply, growth was strong at the end of the 19th century. The company won the contract to become the main supplier of the city of Paris in 1887.
After the Great War, drinking water remained an abstract concept and disease was widespread. Water was not the focus and took a back seat behind other projects. Local authorities preferred to invest in electricity, highways and other infrastructures. In this situation, France lagged behind other developed countries. For example, in the Mayenne department in 1930, only the prefecture, Laval, and the sub-prefecture, Mayenne, boasted a mains water system, and the rest of the department remained without running water. The same was true in the Gers department. Drinking water was a privilege only available in large towns. To survive, this young company’s only solution was to develop its exports through distributors, agents and factories (in Brazil in 1937). Export for volumes and France for a durable business: the foundations of the company’s development had been laid.
The arrival of “public health propaganda”
But the strategists of the time wanted to venture into “commercial propaganda”, or marketing, as we now call it. It was necessary to create demand and directly reach the population, even if the concept of users was still a long way off.
The office of “propaganda, advertising and expansion” (Propex) was set up to extensively promote water and its benefits. The merits of running water, and of cast iron pipes, were promoted to the population using books, a comical silent movie and schoolbooks. Nothing was neglected by this strategy, which was similar to that of Michelin. The company “advertised”, and it was a success.
Just read the enlightened statement of one of the sales managers at the time.
“There’s no point in telling consumers about the qualities of cast iron pipes. Tell them about water, hygiene, commodities, protecting lives and property, and position Pont-à-Mousson ahead of the rest, just like Michelin. This highly disinterested method appears to be the best one, when we have the time.” Even then, the obsession with becoming more than a manufacturer of pipelines was quite obvious.
The hygiene and water committee
At the same time, the decision-makers were approached with the creation of hygiene and water committees. The company became the spokesman of the water industry and health specialists, with the support of an association of health experts (AGHTM) and other manufacturers.
The committee’s review, “L’Eau” was sold to the AGHTM, and has since become the “TSM”. Bonds with the association have remained close since this period and many former employees of PAM have played leading roles in it. Traditionally, the treasurer is always the director of the Ile-de-France region.
So the domestic market gradually grew, awareness increased and funds were made available. But it was not as simple as that. Fierce competition was on the way, firing broadsides at the flagship of cast iron and getting themselves organised.
The development of advertising
In the early days, the advertising praised the merits and benefits of abundant drinking water on a varied selection of media (schoolbooks, calendars, diaries, etc.). A silent movie “La source” was made to illustrate the benefits of cast iron pipelines in schools and local councils. Cast iron was promoted by a combination of education and entertainment.
In addition to this aspect, PAM also highlighted its successes on export markets with an exotic, or even oriental touch, which was fashionable at the time.
The 1970s saw the arrival of more conventional adverts, focusing on the products.
Fierce competition and reinforced concrete pipes
But the domestic French market remained very limited and the competition was fierce. As early as 1890, reinforced concrete pipes and cast iron pipes were locked in merciless combat. Cast iron was more successful in the diameters used for distribution, while reinforced concrete remained limited to very large diameters. But to maintain its standing, Pont-à-Mousson had to make enormous sacrifices, especially since the financial ties between certain manufacturers and the water companies were a serious commercial handicap.
Competition from steel tubes really arrived after the First World War. This “knife fight”, as it was called by the charismatic leader Camille Cavallier, turned into a price war. Steel overtook cast iron in 1927. PAM reacted with its “propaganda”, which, in modern terms, we would call a determined policy to lobby the public authorities by promoting the durability of cast iron. The first sales “bibles” were published at the start of the 20th century.
The first very cheap and lightweight asbestos-cement pipes created uproar on the pipeline market with Eternit in 1932. PAM responded to this competition using the same weapons, and started producing these pipes itself, through its subsidiary Everite, to avoid prosecution. It reacted in the same manner to the arrival of PVC tubes, but PAM went through an identity crisis with the arrival of plastics. PAM produced plastics, but without really earning any money. It attempted, in vain, to improve the PRV process in its research centre, and wisely reverted back to cast iron pipes at the start of the 1980s.
This shift was completed with the shutdown of fibro-cement in 1996.
Technology as a commercial weapon
The development of cast iron pipes has been fuelled by major technical innovations. To begin with, in the 1930s, centrifugation replaced vertical casting. The company bought the patent of this process, developed by two Brazilian engineers, and then improved it. The idea of centrifugation is based on the use of centrifugal force to mould pipes with a regular input of metal. This principle was improved over the decades and had become a universal means of production by the 1950s. This technological breakthrough allowed Pont-à-Mousson to produce large series and to achieve rates of production that were unimaginable using vertical casting.
Cast iron was brittlen and the fragility of grey cast iron was its main weakness. The pipes behaved like our grandmother’s pans and broke all too often, which is why the metal was so thick.
The discovery of ductile cast iron and its application to pipes. This discovery was the fruit of research in the armaments industry in the United States, during a study trip in 1946. The engineers at PAM understood the huge potential of what was little more than a laboratory experiment. Ductile cast iron is not a variant of grey cast iron, but a new material with exceptional, or even extraordinary, characteristics.
The technological turning point
Adding a small dose of magnesium instantly transforms the grey cast iron into ductile cast iron by catalysis, with exceptional capacities in terms of mechanical strength and elongation, about three times greater than that of grey cast iron. These new qualities were an opportunity to develop the pipes and this technological breakthrough fuelled Pont-à-Mousson’s formidable growth. Now that the risk of ruptures had finally been overcome, ductile cast iron became the definitive standard-setter for pipelines. In 1970, Pont-à-Mousson replaced its entire output of grey cast iron with ductile cast iron.
At almost the same time, in the early 1970s, France witnessed one of its first public exchange offers, with the hostile bid made by BSN to take over Saint-Gobain. The meeting with Saint-Gobain was a unique opportunity to enter a new dimension. Pont-à-Mousson came to Saint-Gobain’s rescue by making a counter bid, and the two companies with high-profile identities merged. Mr. de Vogüe relinquished his position to Mr Roger Martin, who became the first President of the new “Compagnie de Saint-Gobain – Pont-à-Mousson”. The new giant was organised into three branches: Saint-Gobain SA (glass and packaging materials), Pont-à-Mousson Pipelines, and Socea (water and sanitation). For Pont-à-Mousson, the 1970s were a time of diversification. Since 1986, President Jean-Louis Beffa and then President Pierre-André De Chalendar since 2010, have developed this group into a leading industrial player in most of its activities. The Saint-Gobain group resolutely focuses on internal growth, thanks to its constant R&D activity.
Saint-Gobain pipelines: a worldwide ambition
Since this date, the pipeline activity has continued to grow as part of Saint-Gobain. As a supplier of equipment for the water cycle, the company is organised around three activities: water and sewerage, municipal castings and building. The group’s long-standing operations in France, Germany, Spain, the UK, Italy and Brazil were recently supplemented by new capacity in Colombia, China, South Africa and the Czech Republic. The pipeline activity operates in around 120 countries and the story of Pont-à-Mousson continues in the same spirit of conquest, innovation and industrial strength. All of the people in the company share the determination of their predecessors to defend their position as the world leader in cast iron pipelines. On the strength of its experience, Saint-Gobain PAM can now modestly claim that the sun never sets on its pipelines!