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British-built control panels serve the world

British-built control panels serve the world

Motor control is fundamental to most modern industrial installations and a small British company is building a big international reputation as the world's go-to people for the medium and high voltage panels for large scale infrastructure projects. Industrial Technology met Stuart Harvey, the much-travelled MD of Softstart UK.


Many UK electronics firms see Milton Keynes as their best possible location, with its strategic access to the motorways. But Stuart Harvey is a lateral thinker, so set up in Great Yarmouth - good rail links, jam-free major roads, close to Felixstowe Docks, and a gateway to the North Sea.

"There is a huge amount of engineering talent here," he says, "based on decades serving North Sea oil and gas - the most demanding industry in the harshest environment. We see our remit as transferring these skills to new industries and new territories."

And Softstart is being very successful. It has just built a control system for a Columbian mine, to drive the 4160kV, 600A main ventilation fan. The panel includes soft stopping and starting, low maintenance design and multiple layers of safety that will protect both the equipment and the miners.

Also currently on Stuart's desk is an order for six medium voltage soft starter panels destined for the vast El Abour sanitation project in Egypt, plus a separate €1.6M Egyptian project, called 6th October, for twelve city water pumps at 11kV 140A including power factor. In fact Softstart is playing a big role in long term infrastructure developments throughout the Middle East, having built and supplied control panels for several other major water installations. For instance, five 1.3MW soft starts for giant irrigation pumps were supplied to a huge Ministry of Water agricultural development scheme in northern Iraq, and six 3.3MW units were recently supplied to Cairo for water booster pumps.

"Reliable food production and sanitation are absolutely fundamental for large scale economic development," says Stuart. "These systems have life expectancies of 25-50 years, from which whole generations of people will benefit enormously as they build a modern, sustainable and secure standard of living."

Major international projects

Softstart UK is part of a very small elite; there are only six or seven companies in the world that can design, build and supply such large and sophisticated soft start control systems. And Stuart sees the effect of these major international projects reflected into Great Yarmouth's local economy. "The North Sea, fishing and farming are far from as profitable as they once were. But Great Yarmouth has built a foundation from which modern manufacturing can flourish."

Expertise such as Softstart's is in demand globally; the developed world is upgrading many of its infrastructure systems in line with modern energy efficiency expectations and the developing regions must build wide area infrastructure to encourage political stability and economic growth. It is not long since Stuart and his team were pulling out all the stops to support a massive clean water project in Nigeria, in double quick time. The technical requirements were seemingly intractable: a new water and sanitation system for Zaria City serving 400,000 people by 2016 and 500,000 (the whole population) by 2020.

The issue Softstart had to address was that when the large water pumps are switched on, they tend to drag down the (somewhat temperamental) mains supplies or generators, causing major power outages. The solution was to build a bespoke control panel for each pump, each incorporating a soft start which brings the pumps up to speed smoothly over a period of a several seconds. "We needed nine individual panels," says Stuart. "So to meet delivery dates on time we set up a 'mini production line' from initial order, through design and build, to testing and sign off. Starting in May 2013 we built them in 14 weeks - about half the usual time."

In fact the panels were produced in two sizes: there were six medium voltage 3.3kV, 400kW soft starts and a further three, based around smaller 250kW, 3.3kV soft starts.

Softstart UK's international reputation encompasses fresh and foul water projects, desalination plants, flood prevention schemes, mine and tunnel ventilation, quarry and mine conveyors, offshore, recycling plants, etc. "The principals of motor control and automation design are universal, so the potential market is global and enormous," says Stuart.
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