Supplier of flameproof equipment constantly investing in new technology

4th October 2013 By: Carina Borralho

Underground and surface vehicle safety equipment suppliers John Ratcliffe GM Andre Robberts tells Mining Weekly that the company spends about 10% of its turnover on the research and development (R&D) of new explosion-protection and flameproof products.

The company manufactures cameras, which are explosion protected, flameproof and suitable for underground operations where explosions may occur. The camera systems have various applications, such as enabling the driver to see blindspots, and together with a flameproof recorder assist in training, and the viewing of daily operations and the causes of accidents.

“It depends on the projects we are working on,” Robberts says, adding that the company will invest more money if a particular project requires intensifying R&D.

The company notes that it has spent more than R400 000 on importing cameras, which were bought for the purpose of taking them apart to see how they can be modified to suit new requirements.

The company is testing a new type of camera to stock new models, should previous models be discontinued. Robberts says that the company is constantly adapting to the growing needs of the mining industry.

“Cameras are also used to provide a visual on electric cables underground so that drivers do not drive over them, since damage to these will cause downtime,” he says, adding that thermal technology, which detects heat is useful in underground mining applications where the surveillance of persons or any electrical elements is required.

The company adds that the cameras are costly, owing to the manufacturing material used. “Our camera systems are made from mild or stainless steel and are nickel plated, which makes them durable and functional as well as aesthetically pleasing,” says Robberts.

The company notes that the cameras are robust and will outlast the vehicle production lifetime, depending on proper maintenance. “Cameras only break if they are managed incorrectly or abused,” he notes.

The camera design is as simple as possible to ensure easy use by anyone. “The camera comes with a manual and technicians are available to offer support – they are situated mainly in Witbank, where most of the coal mines are,” says Robberts.

Current Projects

The company notes that it is flameproofing a 20-inch touch-screen computer. “There are flameproof computers available, but they are bulky and very expensive,” says Robberts, adding that the company has flameproofed a normal-sized laptop with available technology. This computer is not overpriced, compared with other flameproofed computers.

“We have made the touch screen intrinsically safe by making it independent from the computer body, as it can be replaced should it be damaged,” he says. The company notes that the flameproof computer should be fully certified by October 2013.

Robberts says that flameproof computers underground, will become standard with technology advancements. “It is not practical to store data on paper, which could easily get damaged lost or become outdated within a few hours,” he adds.

The company is also marketing a broadband back-up alarm, which has a unique sound that warns people walking behind a vehicle that the vehicle is reversing. “The alarm is direction specific and pedestrians will be warned when entering a dangerous zone,” he explains, adding that a tonal alarm, which could be coming from anywhere, is often ignored by people and is, therefore, ineffective.

The company highlights that its R&D team comprises of skilled individuals. “There is a lot of practical training involved in this industry. People who work here are skilled in a specific trade and have years of field experience,” notes Robberts.

The company also flameproofs catalytic converters, which purify exhaust emissions for mines. John Ratcliff’s explosion-protected exhausts are water-cooled systems. “This is a particularly important application in coal mines, where coal dust collects on exhausts and could potentially ignite with heat,” says Robberts.

Skills Development

The company is hesitant to hire university students who only have theoretical knowledge and require technical training.

The company says its employees visit the mines to gain an understanding of what is needed. “We create customized solutions depending on what the client needs and what is best suited for a particular application,” says Robberts.

“Alternative materials could be considered for camera manufacturing in the future should it be more cost effective and durable enough to be used in flameproof applications,” he adds.

Mining Industry

Robberts notes that strikes in the mining industry have a negative effect on the suppliers to the mining industry and the industry as a whole.

Meanwhile, the company depends on government and international regulation, as “legislation governs our growth,” he says. The company creates equipment and technology according to the requirements of not only industry, but also government. An example is the proposed carbon emission tax, which requires industry to cut down on emissions and use suppliers of only low-emission equipment.

John Ratcliffe comprises of three divisions – Exhaust Solutions, which builds specialized exhaust systems and caters to the transport and mining sector; Donaldson Filtration, which services commercial filters; and Mine Safety Applications, which offers safety equipment to the mines.

As a long-standing member of South Africa’s Retail Motor Industry Organisation, John Ratcliffe’s customer base includes some of the large mining houses such as Australian mining company BHP Billiton, third-largest global coal producer Anglo Coal and South African gold mining firm Gold Fields.