I would firstly like to thank Coleman and Campingaz for the invitation and the hospitality they extended to me, it was an absolute pleasure.
I along with some UK Coleman, Campingaz Staff, and a handful of other journalists from the outdoor industry were invited to Lyon to visit the Campingaz factory in late April 2019. We travelled from Birmingham International to Lyon, which is quite a short journey by aeroplane.
After we had landed and checked into the hotel, we got to explore Lyon a little. We walked around the city and took in the sites; it is a beautiful place and the weather was kind. Lyon is France’s third biggest city, with two rivers the Rhône and Saône. It’s a city steeped in history, founded in 43BC a Roman military of Lugdunum (Lyon) was the capital of the Roman territories known as the Three Gauls. In 1473 Lyon became the printing capital of Europe with the arrival of moveable type.
By the 18thcentury Lyon had progressed to the silk weaving capital of Europe, the Lumière family moved to Lyon in 1870. In 1895 their sons Louis and Auguste shot a moving picture of workers exiting their father’s photographic factory, this was the their first. Cinema was born!
The second world war was particularly harsh on Lyon, it was one of the main cities of the Résistance movement. Also, the Nazi Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie known as the "Butcher of Lyon" had occupied Lyon, many thousands were killed, a lot by his hand. He would many years later be convicted of war crimes. Lyon Old Town was rebuilt after the war and in 1988 UNESCO ranked the Old Town as a World Heritage site.
The history of Campingaz.
In 1949 the company is founded by 3 French engineers Colomb, Corlet, Sillon. The Bideon Bleu was the first gas cylinder created under the Camping Gaz brand, in Oullins (near Lyon). This led to the building of the Camping Gaz site in Saint Genis Laval, Lyon in 1952. Along with the new site came a two-burner stove and lighting. 1955 saw the invention of the C206 pierceable cartridge and the Bleuet Stove, 1962 the company is renamed Application Des Gaz (ADG). 1970 Crédit Lyonnais, a French bank buys the company out and the plant expands taking on an additional 200 people.
1975 brings about the introduction of the Hard coolers to expand the range. 1982 Butagaz (Shell) and Primagaz take over Application Des Gaz / Campingaz. The launch of the first true Campingaz gas BBQ takes place in 1994, 1996 brings about the Coleman buy out of ADG/ Campingaz and in 1997 Campingaz Italia opens its factory doors, producing gas BBQ’s. Jarden buys Coleman in 2005 and in 2016 Newell Brands buys Jarden and that is how it stands today. I think you’ll agree that a lot was achieved in a short space of time.
Newell Brands have a large portfolio of many famous brands, some you will know well such as Yankee Candles, Papermate, Sharpie, Parker, Sistema and Graco to name a few. The Outdoors companies you will be familiar with are Coleman, Campingaz, Sevylor and Marmot.
Interestingly in the UK, Coleman tents and Shelters being the biggest sellers.
Let’s move on to the Campingaz Plant and the tour!
Saint Genis Laval is on the outskirts of Lyon city, we arrived at the plant and from the entrance the size of the site isn’t immediately apparent, what is apparent is the high level of security. The site is classified SEVESO II high level, which is the equivalent to COMAH in the UK (Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations) and are the most far-reaching set of regulations to apply to 'major hazard' premises. Only seven plants in France have this risk classification, which is second to nuclear, this is why the site is always occupied and why the security is so important.
Once through the turnstile entrance we had to sign in at the security office, I was given a pass and we made our way to the offices. In a conference room Laurent Danion, Director of Operations greeted us. Laurent is a lovely man, he’s been with the company for some 20 years, working his way up through the company. He is deeply knowledgeable, approachable, and passionate about his job, Lyon and the Campingaz company. Laurent had joined us for dinner the evening before he helped us to decipher the menu highlighting to us local dishes and their history, none of us were fluent in French. He had also ordered some genuinely nice wine at dinner and explained how it was made locally. We watched a presentation about the history of the company and site, before the site tour began.
Kitted out in our safety jackets, shoes, glasses, and earplugs, we were looking all professional and the tour began. The site is vast, and you can see the history of the site, with a mixture of old and new buildings, one of the first parts of the building we saw was the gas pump. The gas is brought in from a refinery once it has been extracted from Crude Oil and stored underground. The old gas pump is being replaced with a new one which is currently undergoing construction. I really liked the older buildings they looked retro and gave a feeling of nostalgia.
We headed to part of the site that made the smaller type gas cartridge/canister they make around 20 millions of these a year, I found this to be extremely interesting watching a gas cartridge/canister something I use quite a lot being made. Sheets of metal already slit and printed are pressed out into cartridges and filled. Pierceable cartridges/canisters are filled from the bottom and then have the bottoms pressed on, canisters with the valve at the top are filled from the top, they then have their valve pressed in and shaped, from one arm to the next, in a seamless flow, the process takes place behind very thick Perspex. I was mesmerised watching the thread being pressed into the valve on the cartridge. Unfortunately, I can’t share this with you, due to safety you can’t have cameras or phones around gas, it isn’t safe. I know that you will understand, also I didn’t want to be responsible for blowing up Lyon (they have already rebuilt and restored once).
The great part is that all the canisters travel on a long conveyor belt partly using magnetic energy to move them along. This is something quite magical, like something from Mary Poppins or Disney’s The Sword in the Stone - Higitus Figitus. They move around from pressing room to filling room from around waist height up towards the factory ceiling then moving outdoors and into the next unit. Watch the video footage of how its simplicity is a thing on wonder, watching what would be considered old technology (magnetism) working so beautifully. Another brilliant thing to watch is the water bath, each canister after being filled goes through a bath of water which is supervised by a lady. Any bubbles rising from the canisters indicate a possible leak and they are removed, like looking for a puncture on your bicycle inner tube.
We watched a canister tested to destruction, these tests happen often because safety is paramount at the Campingaz site which I’m sure is reassuring to you all. It is fascinating to watch, in this controlled experiment, the pressure inside the canister is increased using water until it fails. The pressure that the failure occurs is noted, the test is always done using a much higher pressure than is safe, this assures the canisters are more than adequate and extremely safe.
I’ve already mentioned that we went into the part of the factory that fills the small canisters, you may recall that no photos can be taken. I did get to do something I found daring, now I’m from a science background so I’ll explain this in lay terms. The gas used in the canisters is a mixture of butane and propane and at room temperature it is gas. Putting gas into a canister isn’t the best idea as it takes up too much space. you would need a massive canister, huge. So, the butane and propane are in liquid state when the canister is filled, and it remains a liquid whilst it’s sealed inside the canister. To achieve this, it’s kept an extremely low temperature. Now I did put my finger in the liquid my finger didn’t drop off, this is because it was only a liquid briefly, the heat from my body made the liquid boil and turn to gas. It was kind of cool though, like being back in the lab, making and trying ethanol (that shouldn’t be done by the way and probably explains a lot haha).
Once filled, the canister is sealed, they make their way to packing. The gas canisters are lifted by a mechanical arm and placed onto an opened box. This is then automatically built/closed around the canisters and sealed. The boxes are then loaded onto trailers to be shipped out.
The Bidon Bleu
Next on the tour was the famous Bidon Bleu which is the larger refillable gas cylinders which you will probably know by numbers 901, 904 and 907. I will speak about the 907 and why it is such a brilliant cylinder. The 907 is available throughout most of Europe, making it great for travelling. You can buy them in the UK and be sure that once across the channel you can get a refill easily. This makes travelling the continent with your tent easier and less stressful. The main reason I like this cylinder is the way it’s reused and recycled over and over and over again. I’m going to tell you about the UK operations and how it works here. Craig from Coleman came with us on the trip, the Sheriff to some, the Grand Fromage to others. Craig is a lovely fellow, down to earth and he’s entertaining, with many a very funny tale, Craig is in charge of collection and distribution of cylinders in the UK.
Originally there were six distribution sites across mainland UK. This system was causing delays, London’s tunnels do not allow gas cylinders to be transported through them, for safety reasons. Imagine a few gas cylinders exploding in a tunnel, all it would need is Jason Statham and Dwaine Johnson running about in a tight oil stained tops and skin, and you’d have a sequence from some action film (I’m smiling). Detours avoiding the tunnels were adding a lot of time to journeys so three new distribution sites opened bringing the total to nine.
The new sites at Rainham and Fawley relieved the delays being caused by London’s tunnels, before it was solely Sittingbourne dealing with large area. Craig subcontracts the collection of empty cylinders to a company called Wastecare, the cylinders can be in many locations like the tip or home recycling centre, stores like Go Outdoors, petrol stations, independent camping and caravan stores and other places that sell refills. These places that stock and sell full cylinders, don’t refill them, it’s an exchange programme. Your initial purchase includes the cost of the cylinder which encourages people to refill cylinders rather than discard them.
So, what happens, how does the refill process work?
Wastecare collect and return them to Coleman UK, the cylinders are put into crates and returned to Campingaz in Lyon. Once at Campingaz the crates are emptied by an awfully expensive and intelligent machine, the machine equipped with cameras unloads the cylinders onto the conveyor at the site. This machine can tell if the cylinders are not the correct way up and it will correct this before loading. The cylinder refill journey begins!
Some of these cylinders are in a bad way - rusty, chipped, and faded paint, many haven’t been used in years. They venture to the shot blast room to have their old coats removed. Whilst they’re at their most bare they are weighed and if they’re found underweight, they are discarded for safety reasons and sent off to be recycled. Repeated shot blasting causes metal to thin. Too thin and the metal can split, cylinders are transported, often on long journeys, bashed and banged about, you want them to be able to withstand this. Hence the importance of the weighing.
If the weight is fine, the cylinder is sprayed with grey primer, ready for the paint booth for the blue paint to be applied, it’s a water-based paint which is better for the environment. Watching the spraying was cool, I was stood there for some time, it’s entertaining. The next stage is the logo, one machine stamps the white part of the logo, the other the red. The difference with the filling of the cylinders is that they’re only filled with a little liquid gas before entering the water bath for leak testing, this saves gas. If bubbles rise from the valve whilst in the water, they are taken aside and the gas is released in a controlled way.
A worker removes the valve and replaces it, the cylinder is returned, and leak tested again. Upon it passing, it will continue its journey and be fully filled. Remember the expensive sorting machine when the cylinders were unpacked at the beginning? Well another remarkably similar machine minus the cameras, reloads the cylinders back into cages, ready for distribution again. I believe Laurent said this machine was 180,000 euros.
You can see that refilling is a terrific way of keeping waste down, making it more environmentally friendly. One of the cylinders was nearly 50 years old, which is brilliant, still in the system and fully serviceable.
What else happens at the Campingaz Site?
A lot of research and development, they were working on some new stoves and a grill whilst we were there. All the certification of products is done in house, this makes the process quicker in that if a product fails certification, work to find a solution can begin straight away, compared to if the certification was outsourced. Items go into production quickly due to in house certification. The research and development area is a laboratory with different work stations, it feels like a relaxed and yet highly productive place.
We watched the rigorous testing of some new products, one of the tests running was measuring the temperature across the whole cooking surface of a stove, this is to eliminate any hotspots and make sure you have an even cooking surface.
The gas used to fill the cylinders and canisters is also tested in the Lab, which is good for production because any adjustments that need to be made to the gas mixture can be made instantly.
Campingaz is 70 years old this year (2019), during the tour everyone that I spoke to, or observed, seemed genuinely happy in what they were doing. I also noticed quite a few women on the factory floor, which made me smile, women make up 30% of the workforce. They work in the offices, factory floor and in research and development laboratory, which is great to see. We were made very welcome; the hospitality included a lovely lunch on the site. TentLife would like to wish Campingaz every success for next 70 years.