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Spero Group - an example of South African entrepreneurship and innovation

March 2003 News

The Spero Group, that today comprises Sperotek (system design and manufacturing), Sperosens (environmental and process instrumentation) and Sperolon (environmental monitoring and control systems) traces its origins back to 1988. The company remains totally South African controlled and turnover and profits have been growing steadily over the last few years with 2003 expected to be even better.

Spero continues to operate out of its custom-built premises in the Highveld Techno Park in Centurion, from where it also provides its 24/7 call-out service for its mining industry customers.

One of the most well known products developed by Spero was the Toxalarm, a cap lamp-mounted CO warning device. Since its release in 1993 more than 12 000 of these units have been sold into the mining industry, with sales showing no signs of flagging. Spero is in fact proud of the fact that the Toxalarm has become the 'de-facto' standard against which all similar devices are judged, this being a result of its ruggedness and reliability, essential features in the harsh environment mining industry.

One of the other successes for the Spero Group has been its development, and continued enhancement, of the SL2000 harsh environment telemetry system. Originally developed for fire detection its versatility has seen it being used for a multitude of applications, including fire detection, but extending to environmental and utility monitoring as well as monitoring of conveyor belts. Having completed installations of the SL2000 system at all major local gold mines the new focus for Spero will be the coal and platinum mines. Note that the Spero Group also offers a wide range of environmental sensors specifically designed for harsh underground conditions to complement the SL2000 telemetry system.

SL2000 is of course based on the Lonworks protocol, acceptance of which is growing rapidly in the mining industry. Spero has for many years represented the French company Oldham, which supplies a comprehensive range of gas and flame detectors for the mining industry. These devices tend to be based on the older 4 to 20 mA output traditional to this industry, but Spero was recently contracted by Oldham to develop Lonworks interfaces for some of their gas detectors. This demonstrates the confidence that Oldham has in the local company's engineering strength in this field and Spero hopes that this international demand for its capabilities will continue.

Another area where Spero is investing significant time and effort is in the marketing of its MMA200 on-board, realtime monitoring system for continuous miners. This system has been in the development and optimisation phase for some time and the company just recently received its first firm order. Not only does the MMA200 lead to dramatically increased productivity, it can be used to monitor machine performance and with the correct choice of sensors such as bearing vibration and motor currents, predict when maintenance is required, before often-catastrophic failure. Spero has also developed the software and algorithms that allow accurate estimation of the tonnage actually cut, critical feedback where this is used to determine miners' bonuses.

The MMA200 is an entirely indigenous development and can be fully integrated into the mine's existing SL2000 systems. Although such on-board monitoring systems have recently been offered as an optional extra on new capital equipment, Spero's objective is the retrofitting of existing mine equipment. Here it is proving to be highly competitive, with a simple add-on integration at a fraction of the cost of a tenth of that offered by the mechanical miner suppliers OEMs. Communication to the mechanical miner is through the 1000 V trailing power cable.

While Spero has traditionally focused its efforts on the mining industry (approximately 70% of the business), its entrepreneurial management style and size allow it the opportunity to invest in other innovative markets. One of its latest products is a range of LED-based traffic signals. These are nothing new overseas but Spero seized the opportunity to locally develop a very cost-effective device that meets local conditions (such as higher than normal temperatures, bright sunlight, etc) and the relevant SABS specifications. They have also stolen the lead on any potential overseas competition through ensuring that its Ledguard traffic signals interface directly into the existing local signal heads with either 230 or 10 V a.c. connection. Fitting is as simple as connecting two wires to the existing connector.

With a seemingly increasing number of failed traffic signals the public is probably unaware that major municipalities routinely replace the incandescent bulbs every three months, in addition to attention to unpredicted failures. The operating life of an LED on the other hand is in excess of 10 years and Spero has designed its 85 LED element cluster with electronic redundancy so that a major failure (loss of one of three sectors) will see a reduction of only 30% in intensity, with the blacked-out LEDs being distributed randomly over the ball. The more likely (and still rare) failure of a single LED sees only a 1% drop in intensity and would be invisible to the casual observer.

Another major advantage of the LED-based system is the provision of an automatic low ambient dimming control (reducing glare at night) and the elimination of the sun phantom effect through use of clear lenses, colour being determined only by the LEDs themselves. The Ledguard range includes the various varieties of signals robot indicator, including red and green arrows, pedestrian signals and the well-known flashing amber.

For municipalities that convert to this new technology (pilot installations are in operation in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Windhoek and Pretoria) the investment should be recovered in just three years while the low power consumption (a mere 8 W per lamp) and virtually zero maintenance offer major long-term positive returns. Motorists benefit from elimination of the problem of total signal lamp failure while the dimmed operation of the traffic lights at night should reduce traffic fatigue. Spero appear to have a winner in this new product range thanks to its timeous investment in the development of the technology.

In terms of its immediate future, Spero will be expanding the implementation of its SL2000 and other systems outside of its traditional gold mining area, initial prime targets being the coal and platinum mining markets. In terms of its range of products for the colliery industry there has been significant interest expressed from Australia and negotiations are proceeding with a company in that country to represent Spero. While continuing with its own developments, Spero intends to work closely with its overseas business partners such as Oldham, Edinburgh Sensors (infrared sensors) and Weber Sensors (flow and proximity sensing), to ensure that local expertise can be integrated into its new product lines.



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