Thriving On Pressure

WE Smith Engineering Pty Ltd

Since we last spoke with WE Smith Engineering Pty Ltd, this long established supplier of process and heat exchange equipment for the oil and gas, petrochemical and mineral industries has been transforming itself to align its capabilities more accurately with a wider variety of business sectors and provide more targeted services. National Sales Manager Greg Mann and Project Engineer Jai Townsend told us more.

“As a company, we originally had a great deal to do with the petrochemical and power generation industries and the resources sector with our autoclaves and other products,” explains Greg. “But now we do not put too many limitations on the industries that we work within because in the context of our factory and the skill sets we retain we can find ourselves working across a broader cross-section of industries.” Right now in the company’s factory in New South Wales are projects for nuclear research, medical facilities (including hyperbaric chambers, specially equipped pressure vessels used in medicine and physiological research to administer oxygen at elevated pressures), defence forces (submarines) as well as the more conventional areas.

Looking more closely at the resources sector, the company specialises in components for underground mining equipment, fabrication of components and initial assemblies of large scale ball mills, and production of autoclaves for national and international projects. Many of the biggest minerals processing projects underway in Australia are seeing a spike in activities in acid conditioning and process equipment, and WE Smith is “manufacturing shell and tube heat exchangers for the acid process.” These vessels are 4.5m in diameter, 15-20m long and weigh in excess of 120 tonnes, and they are delivered to site from WE Smith through a combination of road and sea transport direct from Coffs Harbour depending on the size and weight of the individual product.

What is particularly unique about the company is that, “within the four walls of the organisation we have the engineering, design capabilities, the QA and QC controls to ensure that what is produced is to standard and to specification, and a factory which encompasses all aspects of engineering and fabrication, from initial cutting and forming of the plate right through to the high-end welding and fabrication techniques that are required.”

It is virtually impossible to standardise these products because the process conditions for each application are so different – for example, a heat exchanger made for power generation might be subject to fresh or salt water, whereas in the process industries it might be oil, water, acids, chemicals or highly volatile materials – so in all cases the materials and substrates that are passing through the equipment have different compositions, temperatures, pressures and flow rates, even down to the material suitable for fabrication. “There is just about no process for which we are unable to fabricate a product but every single application has to be looked at individually. And every customer has a different set of process data – the pressures and chemistry that will drive the specification and construction of the vessels.”

So each product is custom made to suit the customer’s process and requirements. Jai adds that, “In the past we have had quite a few different sizes and requirements of autoclaves, which are essentially just a large vessel that handles pressure and temperature. However, recent orders have included special thin-wall autoclaves where, instead of the conventional 80mm (or more) wall thickness, our client had a particular need for the wall thickness to be kept as thin as possible – in doing so, getting around the requirements to have post-weld heat treatment done.” The result was the manufacture of a 4.3m diameter autoclave, 23m long, made out of 38mm carbon steel. “When you looked at each of the sections that went to make the barrel, with steel so thin at that sort of diameter, you saw it struggled to keep its shape as it is with nothing in it. There were, in addition, 20 to 30 nozzles on the top of it so we had to find ways to support them all and devise ways to ensure it retained its shape without adding to the wall thickness.”

These products have been successfully exported to a client in Canada’s Newfoundland, one of the world’s biggest producers of nickel, for whom WE Smith has become a first point of call for fabrication irrespective of the fact that the projects are as far afield as South America and northern Canada. Prior to this work, the company was involved in making the largest autoclaves in the world, designed and engineered in its factory before being assembled overseas under the company’s supervision. This all underlines WE Smith’s unique expertise in this area. In the case of the Canadian project, there was only one other company (based in Europe) that was even in the frame – “everyone else just did not want to know about making autoclaves at this sort of thickness. We took it on in part as a challenge as to whether it was feasible and if so, how we would make it work.”

Greg says this encapsulates the company’s attitude: “Don’t tell me why it cannot be done; let’s talk about how it can be done.”

Like every business, WE Smith aims to grow. But autoclaves are a different sort of product – it can take many years to develop a project and the gap between initial exploration and the decision to go ahead with processing can be a big one, so much of the estimating and logistical work can be for products that may not see the light of day for many years down the line. Orders are correspondingly sporadic, hence the importance of other products such as ball mills and other related process equipment.

WE Smith Engineering is one of the remaining companies in Australia that can fabricate carbon steel shells up to 150mm thick. Jai says, “we have the facilities to roll that steel here; we believe it is one of the thickest steel roller sets in Australia and we even have external clients coming to us asking us to do rolling for them too, even though that is not our prime area of operation.” Everything is kept in-house where possible, even with exotic materials such as titanium, tantalum, and hastelloy right through to non-destructive testing, X-ray section, blasting and painting. “This way we can keep everything under our control.”

The industry is in flux, Greg acknowledges, but “our company is in the process of being able to adapt and change.” Until recently the team relied on simply making something and sending it to site. But now they design, engineer and manufacture the equipment and then have a stake in the installation and commissioning of the equipment, recognising that “our clients were expecting us to have more say and more involvement in the through-life support of that equipment.” This reduces risk and cost and can make life easier for the client. “We have the staff, we know we are competitive and we are looking for the opportunity.”

WE Smith is also keen to examine new areas that will extend and overlap with its skill sets. A start has been made in underground equipment manufacture at a high level of quality (heavily engineered items rather than commodities) and offshore applications, as well as undertaking a number of work packages in specialised fabrication of items such as spooling and other technically challenging engineered componentry and products – “big items in large gauges and tonnages.”

Because of the company’s experience in weld overlay applications, exotic materials and post-weld heat treatment processes, “we can also offer wear surface servicing for extractive industries and downstream mineral processing activities.” An example of where this could help clients is the bucket for a dragnet that could be made out of cheaper carbon steel with the front – wear – face overlaid with an exotic material to prevent it from wearing out so quickly instead of making the whole bucket from the exotic material. Quite a few big corporations in this field don’t realise the very substantial savings that could be made in this area, says Jai.

In short, Greg and Jai agree that anyone with any requirements that include pressure, temperature and quality metal fabrication should be making a beeline for WE Smith Engineering’s factory. “Indeed, the higher the pressure or the larger the item, the better. We can deal with very thick metals, exotic metals and internally review, consider and design for any such circumstances. There are not too many things we can’t do.”

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January 21, 2020, 12:23 AM AEDT

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