Not Rocket Science

Transtank

There is an unusual matter-of-factness about Neil Harrison and the way he describes the products of Transtank. It seems hard to believe, but until the company came up with it, no one had ever made a fuel tank that could be classified as a container.

The company specialises in manufacturing and marketing a wide range of portable, self bunded (double wall) fuel and lubricant storage tanks and fuel equipment worldwide, with more than 4,000 units installed so far. The equipment is designed in accordance with the ISO dimensional requirements for shipping containers, making it easy to transport anywhere by road, rail or sea. The Transtank range of hydrocarbons storage equipment is designed in accordance with the requirements specified in Australian Standards AS1940 and AS1692, UL 142 and ULC S601 approval in USA / Canada and SANS10131 in South Africa.

Transtank was established in 2002 and was, says Neil, the first company in the world to have tanks registered as containers. “It’s just one of those things – nobody had thought of it at the time,” is his casual response. “A friend came to me and asked if we could do this; we sat down and designed one and built some prototypes and then figured that with our drawings it would be good enough to mass produce.”

Until this development, people took containers and put fuel tanks in them. But this meant a lot of inefficiency, not least because of wasted space and because they were not purpose designed, and anchoring the tank within the container added to complexity and safety concerns. “We revolutionised the design.” Neil and his colleagues double-skinned, which in itself was not new, “but we put the two skins together with only a very small space between them instead of a large space that wasted a lot of the internal space of the tank.”

Now there are tanks from 10ft to 48ft in length (along the ISO footprint) encompassing capacities from 12,000 to 105,000 litres of a wide variety of liquids, chiefly fuels such as diesel and lubricants used at mine sites, but also other liquids that need careful handling and storage. Transtank also boasts a range of specialised solutions for dangerous goods storage and movement and magazines for explosives. Transtank products are designed to be used where stringent environmental regulations exist and are self bunded (i.e. double walled, making them self-contained with any spills contained within the unit).

“The mining industry is our biggest customer,” explains Neil. “When we started selling to mines we were selling one tank at a time but we also revolutionised the system of making tank farms with pumping systems.” There is also a system called in-pit refuelling with all the fuels, oils and coolants in a single tank, placed at the bottom of the mine pit to avoid wasting time going to an external tank. These are all individually designed to client requirements; the modular nature of the tank farm means Transtank can draw up whatever size is required by linking tanks. The largest so far installed has a capacity of around one million litres.

“We can do a complete turnkey operation, in projects where we build the tank, design the fuelling and lubricant system the customer needs, and fabricate the pipework and install everything at site.” Usually, electrics are also included and tested before the tank leaves the factory, ready for connection to the generator on site. “All the client needs to do is fill it up with fuel and start using it.” Typically such an installation might take four to six months to realise, and Neil believes there is a substantial saving in costs. “If you transport a plain tank to site and then start installing pipework and everything else, the cost is horrendous. It is far more cost-effective to do it our way, with everything tested in the yard and taken to site where all that is needed is the interconnecting pipework.”

These more intricate individual designs are all made in Australia, at the company’s base in Parks. Originally, it was set up in Bendigo, Victoria, but relocated for improved access – the factory now sits on the main north-south road corridor between Melbourne and Brisbane and is alongside the east-west railway line, easing the transport of finished products to their intended destination. The range of simpler, ‘standard’ tanks is manufactured in China. “We have a very close relationship with a manufacturer in Qingdao [Tsingtao],” which has for nearly a decade been building the tanks to Transtank’s specifications. “We go up there on a regular basis to check what is going on,” and use a third party quality assurance company to inspect tanks at the factory to ensure quality control is top-rate, says Neil. “We have had no major problems with quality in the ten years we have been working with them.”

Any market anywhere in the world where the infrastructure is limited is a suitable territory for Transtank, which exports its systems throughout Africa and to Canada, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia and soon, Chile. The company even has some tanks in Somalia (an “interesting” place, says Neil). In some of these countries, additional security may be necessary and the company listens closely to customers and can build in more systems as required. Africa has become a stable market; “not a record beater but a big market, and we have had increasing sales each year we have been there. Our South African manager has developed and registered Petro Spaza (service station), a modularised fuel filling and convenience store that can be transported to site and assembled in as little as twenty four hours. This is a great innovation for the remote areas of Africa.”

Neil is one of the founders of the company, and spent a long time developing the production side of the operation, and now devotes much of his time to R&D, overseeing a development division “to make a better mouse-trap, so to speak.” He admits he enjoys playing with ideas and coming up with solutions; “that’s where I get all my fun from.”

One innovation, also patented, now taking shape and nearly ready for market is a completely automatic single-pipe tank farm where one pipe is used for both fill and dispensing operations. A series of interconnected tanks provides the required capacity and can be monitored from a remote location. All that the customer needs to do is note when the tank needs replenishing; then they simply send out a refuelling rig. In between times, the farm is completely stand-alone. There are some additional innovations currently in the pipeline, solutions which will be of special interest to the resources sector.

The company has recently patented a new pumping system for a wide variety of uses – a totally internal submersible pump inside the tank. There have been many submersible pumps, he explains, but they all had much of their structure outside the tank. “We have devised a system which is totally contained inside the tank, which means we can fit the pump into the tank and then truck it to anywhere in the world instead of having to take the pump separately to the site and fit it on site.” The advantage is obvious – all pipework is fitted before the vessel leaves the Transtank plant and everything can be tested before shipping. The vast majority of the company’s products are wet-tested and calibrated “before they leave our yard.”

The patent will, Neil hopes, deter others from co-opting the idea but he admits there are two or three companies emulating Transtank’s products at present, “which is a bit of a shame, but I guess that is the commercial world. We know we can’t be the only ones doing this forever and obviously we face competition somewhere along the line.”

The new submersible pump was developed out of a particular need; it was impossible to move the tank with the conventional pump already in place, “so we had to devise a way of doing it.” As a concept, it’s hardly rocket science and the customer benefits are many; so isn’t it a bit surprising that no one has managed to come up with this before? “It’s just one of those things,” says Neil.

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January 21, 2020, 12:21 AM AEDT

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