Plans to close a critical product testing facility in Australia could have far-reaching implications for local manufacturing — and beyond.
The High Power Testing Station in Sydney’s Lane Cove provides certification testing to Australian and international standards for electricity transmission and distribution network equipment.
This includes transformers, switchgear, low voltage switchboards, busduct and fault current limiters.
It is the only testing facility in Australia that can verify the performance of components under very high current that represents fault conditions, load conditions and overload conditions. It is also the only facility in the southern hemisphere that can test to globally recognised ASTA certification standards.
“This capability is a critical function for the testing of new electrical equipment, which is often mandated by Australian and New Zealand design standards, and in some instances by government regulation,” said Engineers Australia’s Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster.
“Testing is also a critical stage in the research and development of new electrical equipment, and for the introduction of imported plant to confirm it conforms to local safety and performance standards.
“There are many Australian manufacturers who support the transport, energy, infrastructure, defence, mining and heavy industries sectors who require this unique facility for equipment testing.”
On 16 March, facility operator PLUS ES, which is part-owned by the New South Wales Government, announced its intention to cease trading on 30 June. It has signalled an intention to ensure current bookings are fulfilled, but at this stage the industry will need to find an alternative from July.
Engineers Australia has been approached by a large number of its members and partner organisations who have concerns about the implications of the closure. These include a significant increase in the cost and time needed to certify new systems if companies are forced to use overseas facilities for electrical testing.
This could lead to reduced testing regimes or companies withdrawing from domestic production altogether.
Ultimately, closure of the facility could lead to job losses and business closures, weakened supply chains and a lack of local innovation.
Engineers Australia’s General Manager for Policy and Advocacy Jonathan Russell said the organisation understood the seriousness of the situation and was taking action.
“As well as advocacy to relevant Ministers at the state and Commonwealth levels, we are working with government agencies and industry peers to shine a light on the issue so we can start developing solutions,” he said.
No local alternative
Australian Industry Group represents some of the biggest manufacturers in the country and is working with Engineers Australia to draw attention to the potential closure. Senior Adviser – Standards and Regulation James Thomson said there was no easy solution to the problem, but that something needed to be done.
“It is vital this capability is kept in Australia,” he told create.
“From what we understand, it is unique in the entire southern hemisphere in terms of its capability and the experience of its staff.”
While there is a facility in Melbourne that can do similar testing, it doesn’t have the capacity or throughput of the Lane Cove site.
In fact, Engineers Australia has reviewed alternative testing sites in Australia and New Zealand, and none have the capability to replace the Sydney site. And it would likely cost tens of millions of dollars to establish an equivalent.
The Lane Cove facility is unique in terms of its purpose-built equipment and its co-location with an electrical substation and 132 kV connection, which means it can draw very high currents without disrupting the network.
“Work will have to be sent overseas,” Thomson said.
“This means substantially longer turnaround times and a great deal more cost because of the shipping involved.”
Shipping isn’t an option for electrical solutions provider Powins, which uses the facility to test products including switchgear designs for the mining sector.
Engineering Manager Stuart Kemp MIEAust said the firm would be forced to move testing overseas — probably to Europe — if the Lane Cove facility closes, and that limited timeframes for testing meant products would need to be sent by air.
“We don’t have the luxury of sea freight,” he told create. “This means some disassembly of our products for the purposes of air freight. It’s a lot more trouble than putting equipment on a truck and sending it from Brisbane to Sydney.”
As a small local business, Kemp said Powins doesn’t have millions of dollars to put into research and development like some of its multinational competitors. While government grants are available to fund product development, Powins still funnels a substantial amount of its profits into new designs.
The lack of a local testing facility could be a “tipping point” for similar small companies over whether they continue to operate.
“That might sound excessive, but when a company supplies electrical products to industry, the expectation is that they’re at the forefront of Australian and international standards,” Kemp said.
“A lot of product development is trial and error … You’re finding out what works, what doesn’t and redesigning, rebuilding and retesting. Imagine doing that overseas — you’re talking about several hundred thousand dollars just for a small project. It will be financially impossible for some companies.”
And the testing doesn’t end once a product hits the market. It is an ongoing process, as products must be re-tested every time a standard is reviewed.
“It’s a constant cycle, and a constant drain on both resources and funds,” Kemp said.
“To tell some companies they have to go overseas, that could be the point when they think it’s not worth it any more. And then what are we talking about? Jobs.”
Where to from here?
Jane MacMaster said Engineers Australia understands there are concerns for the financial viability and opportunity cost of the infrastructure at Lane Cove, but the ramifications of the closure are too great to ignore.
“Given the potential effect on employment, innovation, manufacturing capability and energy and critical infrastructure resilience, we believe it is important to consider options to retain the current test facility in the short-term, and to develop a longer-term plan for the continuing provision of this testing capability within Australia,” she said.
“Because of the breadth and severity of impact that the closure of the high current test station at Lane Cove would have for so many entities, there is a significant level of discussion occurring to fully understand the issue and to identify and explore options for its technical and commercial resolution.”
For Kemp, the best case scenario would be for a large testing organisation to take ownership of the laboratory.
“Control has to be given to an organisation that’s involved in research,” he said.
“You can’t look at the laboratory as a normal business, where you just expect it to make money. A laboratory like the one at Lane Cove provides a service to an industry — that’s the thing that’s been missed.”
This is very disappointing for Industries in Australia. We have our own standards and do not have facility to test equipment to those standards. Engineers Australia must raise this at higher level to make them aware that, shutting down this type of facility will not help to sustain other industries.
Suggest CSIRO or Snowy Mts Authority be approached as well as federal Govt ministers to ensure the commonwealth takes the initiative and keeps this facility open and in business. If we are be be a smart manufacturing country again,we need these facilities to stop more manufacturing going overseas.
The scope of “public” (I.e. needed jointly across a wide range of interests) infrastructure (that relieves competitive pressures on productive capacity), and the barriers to duplicating it, all indicate the need for government involvement and initiative. Once involved, good government must promote its efficient development and funding.
Maybe Engineers Australia could act as a ‘broker’ to encourage a consortium of Australian businesses to actually takeover and fund the running and management of the facility so that it does remain. I have been there some years ago and it is amazing when the tests are happening.
Considering the amount of Government Support for local businesses on show during the pandemic , it seems that a unique testing facility that supports product development and local industry would meet the criteria for Government backing. I don’t know if this business turns over $2m/annum or $100m but the economic viability of a testing facility may deteriorate over time due to 2 things , 1. The Service has become non-core to the parent company and they stop promoting and modernising the product offering 2. Payback on the Investment required to update the test equipment can’t be justified in the current market and the range/scope of services is eroded . Both of these can addressed by management with a new perspective and view of the bigger picture for Australian Industry
The report did not say why Lane Cove is closing. It will be disastrous for Australia to not have this facility. Australia needs to support the push for a national development bank who’s one main purpose is to fund manufacturing; This would be a perfect project for the bank to support.
What a perfect opportunity for some enterprising buisnessman to set up a new testing facility using some of the old machinery. I feel certain that many country sites would be scrambling to take over the new jobs which are involved. Go for it!
Government needs proposals with costs to act.
Our IEA needs to step up and seek and coordinate proposals from engineering companies and research institutions and make proposals to Governments.
Great development enabler service backed by expert staff. Presume that the impulse test facility also goes?
Here is another needed service that is threatening to close resulting in Australian industry at another disadvantage. If this service cannot be undertaken by the private sector, then put it in the hands of the public sector. Use some of the $1.5b industry fund setup for just this type of activity
Is funding the issue?
Much good fodder in comments, seems to be a clear case of short-sighted, single kpi type thinking – but article would be improved by clear statement of reason for closure and responsibility for the decision:
Question to IEAust: What has actually been done to represent this issue at government levels (and what response has been received)?
When the control of engineering organizations shifts from the engineers to the economists often the core values of the organization shift also.
With high property values in this area the PlusEs board have made a clear choice. Even if an alternative facility was planned it would be years before it could be of practical use, and by then the unique and specialized skills of the lab’s engineers would be lost forever.
This is a disaster for local manufacturing and will only force R&D offshore.
At a time of uncertainty and International unrest challenge and Climate Change , Australia is about to loose a hard won power electrical engineering measurement NATA testing and safety guarantee by test facility?
What is a Wool Fire Blanket ? To appreciate a little of the value in history and in the future of Lane Cove High Current Testing Station as a NATA Testing certified facility , a visit to Old Prospect to see the old open air skillion roof over with wood lattice open sided walls for HV circuit breaker explosion venting in old Prospect Substation Switch House behind the masonry relay building is illustrative of the then regular risks of oil switchgear explosion and diesel jet ignition of human operators in 1930’s. Central to the design was a wide gravel path way straight out to open air back yard, for switchgear operators when on fire with burning oil to run and roll , as their mate ran after them to try to put them out quickly to limit burns. That substation was part of the “Rural Ring” that supplied western Sydney Distributors with power in late 1930’s and through WW2 when wartime fortress Sydney included war time local manufacture munitions , aircraft , stores , fighter plane dispersed airstrips , etc. Later in WW2 , RAF and RAAF found 50% of pilots and crew on fire would instinctively roll and mostly survive if put out quickly , but 50% instinctively ran while on fire , taking longer to catch to put out and so mostly died or lived more badly disfigured for life. Many switchgear operators also did so.
Thomas A. Edison said innovation is 1% idea and 99% perspiration. He should know! An engineer who has not learnt the art and empirical practice of innovation testing , patiently and alertly diligent for science is effectively still a clerk or worse just a beancounter?
When you go for a critical medical procedure for a loved one , do you select the cheapest price only , a free op from the apprentice in a third world unaudited place ? What if your life or family depended on it ? You seek expert advice ? How and where did the expert woman or man train, what is the standard measure of competency ?
The subtle meanings differences in contract specification wordings , and testing methods and apparatus delivery are legion , ambiguity, translation , and most well above the time pressed tender analysing team of junior engineers and clerks. They rely on Australian Standards or IEC standards ? Which options ? How many of these have time to have read all the reference standards and Test Station audits ? They rely on certified Testing Stations ?
What if there is a problem lying in plain sight ? Who is testing in fact, witnessing in fact ? Who certifies there is no need to test or check , and still remains certifier to ISO9001, ISO14001 , or ISO/SAA AS 4801 ?
Would you launch a substation or a submarine with a LV switchboard rating problem untested , unaudited , unchecked ?
Switchgear may last 60-80 years in service but have warranty for twelve months ? Like aircraft problems may be undiscovered until long in service ? Is prudent avoidance decommissioning permissible in an economically regulated industry : any auditable test facts to show the economic regulator or its expert consultant ?
Substations , ships ,planes , trains even submarines need confined spaces capable electrical switches , switchboards . Can you import and test these in NAZI Germany in middle of WW2 ?
The NATA Lane Cove High Current Testing station was and is, and could in future remain the knowledge and capability child of decades of pioneering innovation , development and built experience since circuit breaker testing became essential for safety and reliability with that ” spare bay” kept for testing at new Bunnerong Power Station in 1930’s. NATA itself was invented to facilitate a shared auditabiity in science and test understanding between the Test Station in Sydney , those in UK for its manufacturers and others in the British Empire . Has anyone stopped to see why Electricity Network owners in USA and Europe , with climate change , are looking to Australian experience for bushfire safety innovations ? NATA tests at Lane Cove were instrumental and are critical for that legacy of developed tests experience as deployed in bushfire ignition risk mitigations, as well as electrical safety innovations in HV pressure plasma arcing , and like ratings of clamps and leads for Portable HV Safety Earths ( since 1985) . LV arcing faults arc burns, explosions, fires were the challenge in 1970’s and 1980’s , but no longer ?
Its not that in service or future electrical power equipment is not capable of test and engineered ongoing improvement for safety and efficiency both in Australia and abroad as imported or exportable , especially when local manufacture has no capability to independently certify tests and the one proud Power Engineering Teaching Universities have mostly recently abandoned Power Engineering HV and high current testing and training in their commercial haste .
Cull the tester expertise and facilities for testing developed in and from 1930’s as NATA certified in Sydney , NSW , Australia? Last one standing ?
If a facility of such unique National security significance & public safety , especially high current risks testing like power arcing fire and explosion withstand , bushfire ignition risks is to be terminated then the Australian law should provide duty of carte and criminal penalties , even Treason charges , for Managers , Board Directors, and foreign owners incapable of an Australian duty of care for the NATA Test Station by tender sale or deed transfer in kind, intact to a party competent and responsible to carry on the essential service for the Nation , the community , and the local industry , local innovators and future Power Engineering students learning and professional development.
This action shows foreign privatisation has failed Australian community safety and productivity needs for power engineering now and long term , and shows why National interest needs to extend the Treason Act to engineering to limit short sighted greed by liquidation in corporate decisionmakers for short term cashflow , especially in foreign purchased essential Australian public infrastructure .
The ability to locally test in a NATA certified facility is part of Australian NSW Power Engineering history to challenge and audit foreign sourced rated equipment both when new and when in service unexpected problems become urgent for diagnosis by fact rather than marketing smoke screens of silence.
Rather than close it , the NATA certified high current facility needs to be given up to an Australian entity capable , competent and patriotic control such as the National Standards Laboratory based nearby in Lindfield , Sydney.
The Lane Cove High Current Testing Station effectively measures short circuit rating of local and imported switchgear, especially HV drop out fuses , and has historically been essential for bushfire risk mitigation by local Australian ESI and Industry especially since the Victorian, NSW and SA bushfires Victorian 1983 Bushfire Royal Commission , and NSW Commissioner Frost’s Report following.
The reason for the existence of the Lane Cove NATA certified High Current Test Station is fundamental to Power Electrical Engineering innovation development and testing of power equipment in development since Bunnerong Power Station origins when need to test circuit breaker actual ratings was critical to safety and performance in imported equipment.
The act of challenging imported goods manufacturers with engineering science testing and the ability to do so as an accredited independently NATA audited facility has ben a hallmark local quality security capability and legal fact .
Why has such a NATA facility not been managed to earn an income like KEMA ?
Keep the list of names of those on the Test Station executioners list. They may have a debt to society to pay for lack of stewardship or commercial shortsightedness .
Donate the facility as a working asset to a worthy National provider – maybe the National Standards Laboratory to compliment the HV Voltage Calibration Facility just down the road at Linfield ?
Should Australian students read Electrical Safety Engineering Textbooks like Fordham Coopers, or learn to participate and witness NATA certified testing? Have you ever tried to read IEEE Standard 0001 , its 25mm thick A4 paper. Save the planet and let the Power Electrical Engineering students learn interactively in testing and witnessing testing locally with local skilled experts mentoring locally in Sydney , auditably to NATA , without fear of translation , transliteration error, or time limited ambiguity checks or war time hot or cold separations .
Me thinks some key long sightedness and/or wisdom for adaptive ongoing innovation is needed quickly to avoid local capability extinction?
At the end of the day, it is a business. It is not a public service. People who are upset about this should have given work to the lane cove test station to keep it running.
I have and had many hats in the electrical industry and been an active participant over the years. So I share some of my insights.
Prior to privatisation, Sydney County Council ran and operated the Lane Cove Testing Station as a service to the electricity industry, in part in self interest to ensure that equipment is capable of operating safely and to support local manufacture.
Since the 1980’s, I think that this is the third attempt that has been made to close the facility and each time there has been a huge outcry. Unfortunately, nothing has been done structurally to ensure its survival in the long term.
The sale of Ausgrid as it is now known to private overseas investors is now behind the next attempt as it is not seen as core business in the eyes of the investors. To some extent that is correct as it is core business for the whole industry.
However, this has been exacerbated by the fundamental regulatory failure that has occurred. The Australian Energy Regulator only sees network activities as being just the poles and wires of the business. Not the support services and NOT any research and development. Accordingly, there is no funding for innovation and development allowed by the industry. By definition the industry must whither on the vine. What commercial entity would survive long term without R&D?
It has not been helped by the Australia manufacturing industry no longer having a strong voice. International conglomerates such as ABB, Siemens, Hitachi, GE all have their own R&D.
As a result the AER has forced activities such as the Lane Cove Testing station to be ring fenced. This has forced it being stripped it of its famous brand name (Testing and Certification Australia) and forced it to be under some invisible brand of plusES and cut it off from the market. COVID-19 has cut if off from its overseas market which historically represented nearly 70% of its activity.
The facility should be under some national umbrella. CSIRO would be a good fit. National Measurements Institute’s high voltage facility would be complementary.
It is quite bizarre that at a time when the industry is going through fundamental transformation, it is being starved of the appropriate support services . The only source of R&D funding seems to be from ARENA and High Power Testing is not in their sights.
There is a lot more to say about this. However, it is a national disgrace if it is allowed to fail. A disgrace at a national government level, state government level, electricity supply industry level and at an Australian manufacturing industry level.
Alex, I appreciate the thrust of the comment but Ausgrid/PlusES are owned by IFM/Australian Super and the NSW state government. The sale to CKI/State Grid Corporation of China didn’t go through.