Giving The Mine Some Air

Howden

Howden is a name well known to anyone who uses fans. The group is a global one, having long outgrown its origins in the mid-19th century in Glasgow, Scotland, and encompasses a host of well-known brands that were previously independent.

As such, Howden (since early this year now wholly owned by US corporation Colfax) has regional and national sales or manufacturing operations in many countries. Howden designs, engineers and supplies air and gas handling equipment, including industrial fans, process gas compressors and rotary heat exchangers. It is a worldwide organisation with more than 4,200 employees and companies in 17 countries. But one of its most technically fascinating business sectors – and one of its most important in this age of resources – is wholly Australian. Howden’s mine ventilation operations are completely controlled here in Oz, designed and manufactured for mining projects around the world.

Howden has traditionally been involved in power generation, and Australia started a major expansion of this sector soon after the conclusion of World War 2 as the economy mushroomed. Until then, the local market had been served from Glasgow but it was decided in 1950 to establish a branch office, so James Howden Australia Pty Limited was formed in Melbourne. It soon moved across the border to New South Wales, and now from his base in Coffs Harbour, Kevin Lownie travels the world, spending around a third of his time in places as diverse as (in the last year alone) Ghana, Zambia, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia – and those are just the places he can recall. “In mine ventilation we work globally because this is the only company in the group that does it. We are not restricted to national sales.”

Howden is, says Kevin, “a multi-facetted engineering company – while we manufacture many of the products used in our projects, we function mainly as an EPCM, especially in the areas of gas and air handling,” including gas cleaning systems, scrubbers, filters, air and gas heating and cooling systems, and noise reduction systems. The company is particularly well known for fan manufacturing, “but we actually do much more than that,” explains Kevin, a fact that sometimes surprises potential clients.

A lot of these are in-house Howden products – reactive silencers, centrifugal or screw compressors and specialised reciprocating compressors for use in the petrochemicals industry. The coal seam gas project now under way uses the largest production line screw compressors available anywhere in the world and they are made by Howden.

“We do turnkey projects that involve civil, mechanical and electrical design,” explains Kevin. “Mine ventilation is a prime example, where the customer gives us the hole in the ground and we build everything from there onwards: surveying, levelling, putting concrete in the ground, lightning protection, site lighting, fencing, everything – we simply lock the gate and give them the key when we have finished. The client tells us how much air they want and what the mine resistance is and we work out the best way of achieving the result.”

One of the big advantages of Howden, says Kevin, is its in-house capability to design an entire project and then construct it using its team of service engineers and labour (supplemented by local labour where practical but always under close supervision), rather than subbing work out like most of the company’s competitors. “If we are doing a job in Mount Isa, for example, it would not be cost-effective to take staff from Sydney and put them up in Mount Isa for five or six months, so we would use local people. That’s also better for the local economy. If you have the right tradesmen with the right supervision, they can build it, no problem.”

Howden as a group has an enviable global sourcing network and while some of the mining ventilation equipment is actually made in Australia, quite a large proportion of componentry (for divisions worldwide) is made in Thailand, where the group has an office staffed by expat employees who manage manufacture through alliances with a couple of large local manufacturers. The expats ensure quality control and, for the time being at least, this set-up is proving cost-effective.

However, Kevin takes the interesting view (personal and general, based on some 40 years experience) that in time much of this manufacturing will return to Australia as the competitive equation swings back in the country’s favour. “If you look at the cost of Asian manufacture, including China, a decade or so back they were around one third of the Australian cost. But now they are up at around 70-80 per cent of the Australian price. The big killer has been transport costs,” which have more than doubled in the case of the sort of items Howden manufactures.

There has also been a major rise in labour costs in these Asian markets. Some people also cite quality issues when manufacturing offshore, but Kevin stresses the fact that having fully qualified and experienced expat staff on the ground to supervise the work means “we have never had the sort of problems that a lot of other companies have had with Asian manufacture – the sort of thing where you get two pieces off the same drawing and they don’t match, or where substandard materials are used. The Thai companies are working to the Howden global quality system.”

He also sounds a stark warning, however, that “Australia is becoming de-skilled. When we need the people, we won’t have them.” The supply of suitably trained and appropriately skilled graduate engineers is drying up, and this will become, he adds, a global rather than a purely domestic problem. Being such a global company, Howden at least is able to take advantage of those global resources in terms of picking the best engineers available anywhere.

Is Howden to be regarded as a global leader? “In mine ventilation, certainly.” Howden can take account of the varying conditions and requirements around the world, such as the need in some regions for air heating instead of cooling, for example, or – in parts of central Asia – a double system with cooling in summer and heating in winter, possibly with a dust collection system on the front end to keep the air clean in the mine. Every system is individually optimised for its location and what the customer wants to get out of the mine.

This mine ventilation sector is highly specialised but the group also boasts a general engineering division, Howden Group Technology, still headquartered in Glasgow, which employs a “lot of real hot-shots,” who Kevin and his colleagues can draw on to address specific challenges such as computational fluid dynamics with their incredibly sophisticated software.

At the core of the group lies Howden Technology, working at the forefront of engineering, and with unique expertise in aerodynamics, acoustics, stress and vibration analysis, and rotor dynamics. As Kevin points out, much of the advanced software used in mine ventilation has been developed in-house, giving the company another edge. There are perhaps 30 or 40 fan makers in Australia, he says, “but none of them is close to Howden in terms of the aerodynamic sophistication of their designs.” It is a highly skilled job to build large fans and that is a matter of expertise that just doesn’t come from anywhere else. It’s partly a matter of size; Howden’s complement of engineers in Australia – close to 50 – is simply bigger than anyone else’s, as well as being better. Financial resources also count; Howden simply has sufficient clout to get it right first time or, if an error is made, be able to put it right.

Part of that expertise involves knowing what will work and what will break and Kevin has seen many examples where clients have wanted to cut costs, sometimes with drastic results. In one instance, he recalls, a company (not a client of Howden’s) wanted to shave $200,000 off the project cost by simplifying the specification. “But it cost them two million dollars a year for the next 20 years in maintenance and 800 million dollars in lost production,” before Kevin was called in to see what could be done. Reliability comes at some front-end cost but the long-term effects are what need to be studied. “It is a major crusade I have that people need to look at the cost of a fan when it is not running.”

Howden has many times been called in to replace ‘cheap’ equipment with more suitable systems. “It’s a major problem not only in Australia but worldwide.” It is vital that companies should not attempt to cut corners on quality, he urges, because “it never pays in the longer term.” Howden is not usually the cheapest “but how we become cheapest is through our applications’ engineering skills. We generally come up with better ideas that allow us to do the job cheaper without compromising quality,” even on competitive tenders. Buyers take note: it’s simply never a good idea to skimp on quality. With Howden, quality and performance are the bottom line.

Strategic Resources

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December 15, 2019, 2:50 PM AEDT

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