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.”