ABHR editor Charles Macdonald spoke to Francois Steyn, chief executive of Kockums Bulk Systems, one of the most respected companies in the powder handling space.
Kockums’ installations and systems — in the areas of powder handling, packaging and lifting — have improved the safety and efficiency of scores of sites across Australia.
“We have always been about taking the dirty, dangerous and tedious work away from people and making machines do it,” explained Mr Steyn. “Australian labour is expensive. And where we can automate we generally go that way.”
Consequently, after being called in by a customer to assess a manual task, Steyn and his team will first assess whether it can be eliminated.
“If you are handling multiple 25kg bags in a shift, you may be better off switching to bulk bags and a semi-automatic machine, to eliminate the manual task,” said Steyn. “Take the man away from that dangerous task, install a bulk bag machine and it is automated from there.”
However, if the task can’t be eliminated, or volumes and economics make a bulk bagging machine unfeasible, Kockums will design a lifter or mechanical device so that an operator avoids injury.
Such lifting systems normally generate an instant ‘work, health and safety’ dividend.
“A vacuum lifter will set you back around $20,000 installed and the average cost of a back injury is between $60,000 and $80,000. There are so many industries that deal with back injuries on almost a daily basis.
“The safety part is an instant payback but there is a productivity spin off, too. A customer will generally end up doing more with less people on the (manual) job allowing them to use the free resources to grow the business.”
The trend towards lined containers
In the powder world, everyone is looking for the next bulk conveying method. At the moment the most convenient method is probably via one tonne or 1.5 tonne bulk bags but Steyn said that there is a big movement to lined containers. “It’s transporting a container load of powders in a lined container which is then effectively a super-sized bulk bag,” explained Steyn.
This development takes Kockums Bulk Systems back to its earliest days in Australia when company founder and current chairman Ivan Price used pneumatic conveying to develop road and rail tankers.
“This method is now gaining momentum,” said Steyn. “There are still some issues around the liners, the strength of the liners and getting aeration into the powder via the liners. But it’s a big movement and there are people working on improved liners.”
Explosive dusts a challenge
With the demise of the mining boom and Kockums increasingly moving into the food sector, the company has had to come to grips with the complex issue of explosive dust.
“In our traditional markets of cement, lime and fly ash that wasn’t much of a worry, but getting into the food industry with sugar, flour, milk powder and starch, anything organic, there’s a whole body of knowledge around making sure the installation caters for the potential that there might be an explosion,” Steyn explained. “So we’ve spent a lot of time in the last four years skilling ourselves up in the art of handling explosive dusts.”
Kockums is becoming increasingly well versed in the science that determines at what point powders ignite, and the mixtures that will allow an explosion. In its design of customers’ systems, its approach can encompass both management of explosions, and prevention.
“To design a system you’ve got two approaches,” said Steyn. “One is to say that an explosion might happen so we’ll manage that with explosion vents and suppression. We’re ready for an explosion.
“The other approach is prevention — making sure everything is earthed, no static electricity, no equipment that is not intrinsically safe in the hazard zone.
“The gurus who can advise you on which way to go are few and far between. So we are working our way through it ourselves. It’s still something that you can’t nail to a tree and say is black or white. Every application is open to debate.
“Economics can be an issue, too, with prevention sometimes cheaper than management. But prevention relies on a customer’s good housekeeping, such as making sure that dust is swept up and the plant is maintained properly. So you pass on a bit of risk there.”
Bulk Awards unite industry
As a long-time supporter of the Australian Bulk Handling Awards, and winner in 2008 and 2015, Steyn believes that the event is important to the bulk handling industries.
“It’s an important event to bring the industry together and celebrate some of the achievements. It brings the year together and allows you to respect it and pay tribute to it and then move on,” he concluded.