US industrial group General Electric (GE) expects the R10-million expansion of the low-voltage switch-gear manufacturing centre of its energy division, GE Energy, to create the platform the company needs to extend its offering into the mining arena.
Located in Midrand, north of Johannesburg, the new facility is the first in South Africa to manufacture a fully tested low-voltage switchgear panel that provides enhanced protection against arc flashes by using completely encapsulated busbars, says GE Energy GM for industrial solutions in sub-Saharan Africa Ross Boyd.
He says this feature has created significant potential for the panels to be applied in mining operations, where safety precautions are fundamental.
“Our expanded technology manufacturing centre delivers solutions, not only to the power sector but also to the mining, petrochemicals and steel sectors, as well as for paper mills, water treatment plants, additional industrial and commercial applications and infrastructure development,” Boyd adds.
He believes that GE Energy’s securing a R500-million contract last year to supply switch- gear to State-owned power utility Eskom’s Medupi power station, which is under construction in Limpopo, was the catalyst for the expansion and created the platform to localise the product and move into different vertical markets, such as mining.
The refurbished facility, which opened its doors at the end of September, has 1 000 m2 added floor space, which will be gradually increased to a final 4 000 m2 in the coming months.
The expansion also incorporates design changes to meet the specific demands of the region, along with upgraded and more automated assembly lines that enable a smoother manufacturing process and increased productivity.
“The new copper-bending, -coating and -punching machinery for the manufacture of copper busbars for the switchgears, as well as new frame-assembly equipment, lowers manual labour and manufacturing time, which improves efficiency.
“We expect the expansion to triple the facility’s production capacity and efficiency,” Boyd notes.
The facility consists of a series of stations, each manned by operators who build different elements of the boards. Eventually, over 40 additional jobs will be created.
He adds that the coating of the busbars forms a critical part of the arcproof design, as this ensures that, when an arc-flash occurs, the ignition remains at the point of origin and does not travel throughout the panel.
“The flash is contained either in a drawer or a single tier, protecting both the operator and the equipment,” he says.
Further, the equipment enables quick recovery time and lowers the amount of damage done to the panel during malfunction, as it is easy to repair.
While the boards have a European design, they are manufactured with over half the material sourced locally.
The company intends to increase local content, where it is viable, over the next few years.
The fully withdrawable panels are subjected to in-house testing that includes initial functional and electrical strength testing on every electrical circuit. Once the testing has been completed, acceptance tests are carried out to determine whether the requirements of a specification or contract are met. The acceptance test is either performed, or witnessed, by customers.
“The new facility not only enables expansion into other sectors but also permits us to better serve sub-Saharan Africa,” Boyd notes.
Vice-chairperson of GE and GE Energy president and CEO John Krenicki adds that improved service will be achieved through the upgraded facility’s ability to assist industrial customers with energy management and resolve industrial productivity and safety issues.
As part of the upgrade of the technology manufacturing centre and in accordance with the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa, GE has trained 12 apprentices at a further education and training college, in Limpopo. The training programme includes practical experience in various GE functional areas, as well as at power plants.
“GE will continue to invest in our ability to serve South Africa and the sub-Saharan Africa region by providing effective product and service solutions, while focusing on innovation, performance, safety and reliability, as well as training and development programmes for our employees,” Boyd concludes.