Analytical Instrumentation & Environmental Monitoring


The Spero Group- ground breaking example of defence expertise spin off

March 2000 Analytical Instrumentation & Environmental Monitoring

The Spero group, which includes Sperotek, Sperosens and Sperlon, had its humble beginnings in 1988 when four young electronics engineers with extensive experience in the defence industry, decided they could use their skills more effectively elsewhere. The founding vehicle was the company Sperotek, and the initial concept was the direct sale of engineering skills and project management through consultancy and contracting.

Today, three of the original partners, all BSc Eng graduates, Johan van Tonder, Alan Brodie and Johan Lombard, remain with the company as directors, and through their shareholder equity the sole owners. Johan van Tonder is MD; Alan Brodie is Engineering Director, while Johan Lombard is Business Director. All three play a role when it comes to solving technical problems. Stuart Truebody, with a vast experience of the instrumentation industry, joined the management team during 1992 as Sales & Marketing Manager.

In the beginning

As the Sperotek team had been involved with the defence industry (through companies like the CSIR’s NIDR, Kentron and Eloptro), this was a natural starting point to sell their expertise. Their previous associations and credibility soon led to their involvement in major defence contracts, including doing the instrumentation and control for a helicopter project. As one of the original reasons for going it alone was the awareness of the fickle nature of the armaments business Sperotek was soon looking for a new market niche, and their opportunity came when they were approached by Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) in 1991. RBM at that time had a specific problem with the monitoring of carbon monoxide gas (CO) in their smelter plant. Although they initially contracted Sperotek just to carry out a feasibility study for a facility-wide monitoring system, their competence in preparing the solution resulted in Sperotek being requested to also do the detailed design and system implementation.

This contract had a significant impact on the future business of the company as they saw the opportunity to broaden their base to include a trading arm for sensing products. In the RBM proposal they had recommended gas detectors from the well-known Oldham France company. It so happened that Oldham was looking for a competent local representative at that time, and Sperotek was their "answer to a prayer". To keep the trading business separate from engineering, a new company, Sperosens, was created to act as an interface to Sperotek and to sell directly to other end users. As a trading arm Sperosens has naturally added other key principals to its portfolio, but has been careful not to add distributorships just to create a "catch-all" portfolio. Besides Oldham France SA (gas detection and environmental monitoring) it has added Edinburgh Sensors UK (infrared gas sensors) and Weber Systems GmbH of Germany (flow and proximity sensing). The experience with RBM in the detection of CO gas also resulted in a sage new focus on similar problems in the SA mining industry in general.

Sperotek and Sperosens

While Sperosens does sell its principals' products direct to end-users, the company's choice of business partners has been strongly influenced by Sperotek's own internal needs. Where possible the local company does not attempt to reinvent the wheel, but instead will use reliable and proven sensing devices from its principals, repackaged to meet the specific environmental and other needs. The final system is also certified where necessary for use in explosive and other hazardous circumstances and will also comply with statutory safety regulations.

A somewhat different alliance was created in 1993 with another South African company, First National Battery. Here, the two companies joined forces to develop new gas sensing devices for personal use by miners. Attached to the traditional miner's cap lamp (for which naturally First National supplies the batteries and headpieces) the products were launched as the Toxalarm and Flamalarm for CO gas and methane gas respectively. These reliable and cost-effective products were to set a new standard for the local mining industry, and more than 8000 Toxalarm units have been sold. The Toxalarm is designed to be tamper resistant, and has been engineered so that it will operate continuously in relative humidity levels up to 95% and intermittently at up to an incredible 99%, practically equivalent to immersion in water, and demanding, even by military standards!

Spero conservatively estimates that the company has a 70% share of the local market for cap lamp gas sensors and the products are now being exported. While marketed locally by First National and Sperosens as an Oldham product, for export the Raylite trade name owned by First National is being used.

Another unique product developed by Sperotek for the local coal-mining industry is the MM100 mechanical miner monitoring system. Fully approved by the SABS for use in explosive environments there are currently more than 120 of these units installed. Collieries include most of the well-known ones, including the Matla, Kriel, Tavistock, Douglas and Khutala mines. The first of these systems was installed in 1995 and it was this that resulted in Sperotek creating its own service and support team.

One of the more unique of the many custom engineering tasks undertaken by Sperotek was the supply of a facility-wide computer-based monitoring system for the then new SANAE IV base in Antarctica. This is used for both scientific purposes and for facility/safety management, some 120 channels being monitored for such parameters as wind speed, air temperature, gas levels, door open/close status and even lateral building movement. The system, which was supplied in 1995, can communicate directly with Pretoria, allowing the base station to be remotely monitored. This is particularly important during the winter months when only a skeleton staff is left at the base. The environment under which the Sperotek system has to operate at SANAE is obviously as equally (if not more) severe as that in the mining industry, the military specification background again proving to be invaluable.

Sperolon

The mining industry was actually a natural market niche for an engineering company with the background of developing systems to military specifications. Although the immediate area around a vertical mine shaft might be ‘just-habitable’ for industrial PLCs and other equipment, the actual workings see much more severe conditions, with extremely high temperatures and humidity, water and mud. One of the major problems in this environment is reliable telemetry and communication and this is an area which Spero has successfully addressed. Their SL 2000 Harsh Terrain Telemetry System was originally developed for fire detection applications. Having proved so versatile, it is now being installed for a multitude of applications, including all important fire detection, but encompassing environmental and utility monitoring, personnel and asset tracking and operation of essential ancillary equipment such as conveyor belts.

Major advantages of the SL2000 are that existing cabling infrastructure can be used, including electrical power cables, fibre optics, instrument cable or even the popular leaky feeder cable. This can result in a massive cost saving for the mine involved, as in one recent installation the network extends over 88 km of installed cable with some 240 monitoring points. The first SL2000 installation went in during late 1998, and customers today cover a large segment of the gold mining industry, including Great Noligwa, Moab Khotsong, Kloof, East Driefontein, Blyvooruitzicht and the Bambanani mines. The SL2000 is particularly maintenance friendly and does not require highly skilled engineering support. The real intelligence of the system sits on the surface where it is easily accessible in a controlled environment.

While the SL2000 can be installed for one specific application (such as fire detection), it becomes very much more cost effective when the customers make use of its extended capability. With its suitability for hazardous mines it promises to be as successful in collieries as it is in the gold mining industry.

In order to be able to supply the best underlying technology for the SL2000, a new association was formed with the company Lontech, which is based in Potchefstroom. As a result of this joint venture a new entity called Sperolon was established during 1998 to market this product range, the interest currently being held fully by Spero.

The Spero Group

The Spero Group operates out of its custom-built premises in the Highveld Techno Park in Centurion, which it occupied in 1998. This location, adjacent to the major highway network in Gauteng allows it to most conveniently service its major customer base in Gauteng, Mpumalanga, North west Province and the Free State. The mining industry is of course highly focussed on both safety and productivity, both of which imply rapid response to equipment failure. As a result Spero operates a 24 h call-out throughout the year using five dedicated service technicians. In order to improve response even further three of these technicians are permanently located in the intensive coal mining area of what used to be the Eastern Transvaal.

Spero currently has a staff of 28 people, double that of 18 months ago, largely as a result of the success of the SL2000 and MM100. Of these personnel some 85% have technical qualifications, with five graduate engineers. While some production and all testing and quality control is carried out in-house, most services are contracted out, keeping the business highly focussed on its core activities, as well as lean and mean.

Sperotek has successfully made the transition from selling engineering skills to new product development, sales and support. Following on its success in the local market the company is now ready to enter the export market in a determined way. Retaining its mining focus the first major opportunities to be exploited probably lie in Eastern Europe, where this industry is similar in many ways to that in South Africa. While the company has significantly grown its engineering expertise, this resource has now been focussed on its own new product development. According to MD Johan van Tonder it would really require an extremely challenging project to make them diverge from their new mission.

While over 75% of the company,s business is in mining, it is also active in the heavy industrial sector. Here again the products of its select group of principals are highly suited. In this case Sperosens often uses the off-the-shelf solution, a good example being the latest in dust monitors from Oldham, the EP1000. This device, designed to operate in the industrial environment is a major technological advance over the traditional opacity meter, using laser-based back scattering (with no directional dependent reflectors) to measure dust concentration.

The Spero group is yet another example of true South African entrepreneurship and innovation, and through sheer tenacity they endured the birth pains in an era where venture capital financing was unknown. It is indeed refreshing that while the less well informed still refer to the 'brain drain', the really creative scientists and engineers did not become 'chickens' and managed to create new opportunities for themselves.

Spero Group

(012) 665 0317



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