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Rand-Air’s oil-free compressors, portable generators and nitrogen generators ensure ‘well-oiled’ refinery shutdowns

An oil refinery is a very large and highly complex installation. Because of this complexity and the nature of the process, shutting the plant down for ad hoc repairs is not an economical option. Oil and gas refineries are designed so that they will run uninterrupted for a period of 18 months to two years, after which sections of the refinery are shut down for scheduled periods of repair and maintenance. During what is invariably a period of frenetic activity, all repairs, upgrades and maintenance are carried out. These pre-emptive measures prevent the eventuality of unscheduled (and extremely expensive) down time.

As a shutdown at a major refinery could disrupt the flow of fuel to the nation, these events have to be meticulously planned and timed.

This is according to Rudi de Vry, Rand-Air’s Area Manager in Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal.

“Before a shutdown, the oil refinery contacts all the repair and maintenance subcontractors that will be needed during the shutdown. In order to ensure that the shutdown proceeds as swiftly and smoothly as possible, these contractors need to ensure they have the tools and equipment with the correct capability and the highest levels of safety,” de Vry explains.

He adds that, to give an idea of the scale of a refinery shutdown, often thousands of contract workers are involved, who in many cases need to be supplied with temporary compressed air and power, as well as other tools and equipment.

For Rand-Air Durban, situated strategically near a number of major oil refineries, shutdowns are therefore critical events in their annual project hire planning.

“For these, before the shutdown starts, we need to assemble a specific ‘fleet’ of rental equipment which can include dozens of items. In terms of this, the logistics can be very challenging, as often equipment items have to be brought from our other branches in order to meet refinery shutdown requirements. Once in Durban, these will have to be checked to make sure they meet the refinery’s scrupulous quality, safety and reliability standards,” he advises.

“We been in business for some 46 years and, during this time, we have become the preferred rental equipment partner to many South African oil refineries,” de Vry continues.

For example, in July this year, South Africa’s largest refinery completed a month-long shutdown, during which contractors worked on site around the clock. With its reputation for supplying high quality, ultra-reliable generators and compressors, Rand-Air was called upon to hire out significant quantities of equipment to the refinery.

“With the immense deadline pressure, equipment downtime had to be avoided at all costs – something which Rand-Air managed to do with great success in this instance,” he adds.

During the shutdown, various sections of the refinery needed to be activated temporarily for testing purposes. Here, compressed air is used for driving the refinery’s control systems. Ironically, though the installation is an oil refinery, the air used in control systems has to be absolutely free of oil vapour and other contaminants. “Fortunately, we are able to meet this requirement with our Class-0 oil-free compressors. Our ability to supply absolutely pure, clean, dry compressed air has built up a strong niche for Rand-Air in the refinery market,” de Vry continues.

Similarly, during the shutdown, temporary power was also needed for various functions in the refinery. These included extensive welding for repairs and maintenance, the execution of which was also achieved more efficiently with the use of Rand-Air portable generators.

On a second refinery shutdown-related hire by Rand-Air this year, contractors working in the tank section of the refinery also needed compressors to carry out cleaning, shot blasting and spray-painting. Furthermore, this refinery’s alkylation unit was shut down completely for maintenance and upgrade, and Rand-Air’s generators were used for chemical washing in the alkylation unit and for the change rooms.

Apart from compressed air and portable power, Rand-Air – through parent company Atlas Copco’s global rental network – is also able to supply nitrogen generators to its refinery customers. Nitrogen is used for inerting, blanketing, and purging, the aim being to suppress flammability by reducing oxygen levels to a point where combustion is no longer possible.

“Refineries are, after all, in the business of producing highly flammable liquids – and therefore the potential for risk is high unless very stringent counter-measures are taken. Rand-Air recognises this critical operational and safety consideration – and therefore every single equipment item that is sent to a refinery is checked and double-checked to ensure that it meets with the customer’s safety, health, environmental and quality standards,” he comments.

De Vry also explains that Rand-Air goes to considerable effort to familiarise itself with the refinery’s safety standards, so that it can be 100% compliant with its customer’s all-important safety requirements.

“During nearly five decades of operation, Rand-Air has developed and nurtured a close relationship with South Africa’s oil refineries, including those in Durban,” observes Rand-Air’s General Manager Louwrens Erasmus.

“At Rand-Air, we have achieved this through scrupulous adherence to one of our fundamental business tenets – to always exceed what our customers expect of us, in every single area of the business,” he concludes.

Excellent service ensures Rand-Air is the supplier of choice in South Africa’s dry docks

Those who have worked in shipyards, harbours and dry docks will be familiar with the pressure and constant urgency, which is exacerbated by frequent delays due to anything from weather to a backlog of vessels awaiting maintenance or repair.

When it comes to corrosion control, it is not something one can simply postpone and do later. The shipping industry’s natural environment of saltwater means constant and precise corrosion prevention and maintenance is required.

This is according to Craig Swart, Fleet Manager at Rand-Air, a hire industry stalwart and provider of compressed air and portable power to a variety of industries – including the maritime sector – for the past 46 years.

“Proper corrosion control is therefore vital to every vessel’s safety, and its ability to perform at sea. One of the most effective means to remove rust and corrosion from the hull of a ship is through sandblasting,” says Swart, adding that Rand-Air is a longstanding supplier of compressors used for sandblasting in the maritime industry, with fast response times, superior standards of quality and safety, and a depot in close proximity to the docks.

“We understand the importance of corrosion control, as well as the challenges our customers sometimes have to contend with. Customers often cannot tell for sure when a vessel will dock, so we sometimes need to provide equipment a day or two before the vessel actually docks. Weather plays a vital role too – should it rain, the customer cannot continue working – so again, this poses a challenge to operational efficiencies.”

By making it their business to support maritime customers by offering a range of high-quality equipment and personalised service, Rand-Air has become the supplier of choice for many companies in the maritime sector.

“Our maritime customers place great importance on reliability, prompt back-up service and value for money. We work with them to ensure the necessary equipment and service is there when they need it. In addition to compressors for sandblasting, we also provide lighting kits for working at night,” says Swart.

Swart points out that, while typically in the local maritime industry, sandblasting is not done using oil-free air extensively, but rather using filters and moisture traps – possibly due to cost considerations – technically, and in the interests of optimal equipment efficiency and life, 100 % oil-free air is definitely preferable, and recommended, for the following reasons:

100% oil-free compressed air, which is a requirement in the maritime environment as any oil residue in the compressed air would contaminate the abrasive and blasted surfaces. Moisture in the abrasive blasting process causes flash rusting on the blasted surface and blast pot clogging. With 100 % oil-free air, blasting equipment efficiency and life is prolonged and equipment maintenance costs are reduced.

Compressed air volumes from 750 CFM to as high as 1600 CFM or more at 7-10 bar (100-150 PSI) per blasting set up are typically supplied.Diesel units are the predominant choice unless the term of the rent and availability of power provide the option for electric-driven ones.Oil-free compressed air is used throughout industry where the purest compressed air quality is critical to the end-product and to the processes involved.

“As the leading provider of portable power and air solutions in the country, Rand-Air has the right solution for our customers, in that we are able to supply oil-free compressors which have a TUV Class 0 certification under the ISO 8573-1 standard. With this assurance, customers can have peace of mind that they are guaranteed 100% oil-free compressed air,” explains Swart.

In additional to compressor, generator and lighting kits rentals, Rand-Air works closely with its maritime customers to ensure industry best-practice is adhered to. These include special attention to safety, environmental concerns, and security.

According to Swart “Our maritime customers appreciate that we understand their industry. We know that most shipyards and industrial facilities are extremely concerned about any materials that end up on their property. This emphasises the need for spill containment on the rental equipment; as well as electric-driven units were applicable. We also pay close attention to safety and security and ensure that proper identification and check in/out procedures are met.”

With its keen knowledge of the needs of the maritime industry, Rand-Air has built a reputation as the ‘go-to’ supplier when vessels require corrosion control and maintenance.

“We have worked hard to ensure we understand what our customers require in this demanding and fast-paced segment, and we are proud to be first on the list when they need assistance,” Swart concludes.

Rand-Air remains sustainable and ahead of the curve with ‘positively disruptive’ business ethos

The local market leader in portable air compressors and generator rental, Rand-Air, was established 45 years ago – long before the concept of so-called ‘positive disruption’ became a trendy topic of wider business discussion in MBA classes around the country and internationally. However, in many aspects, Rand-Air has in fact been a quietly efficient and self-styled ‘positive disruptor’ in the equipment rental business for over four decades.

“In the past, we actually built up a reputation for being something of an innovator, in that we have always sought to exceed our customers’ expectations – no matter how tough the requirement, or the innovative solutions we had to come up with – in order to provide unmatched service excellence,” says Rand-Air General Manager Louwrens Erasmus.

The company has been striving for continuous improvement, in line with its ethos, more recently too – particularly in the face of the avalanche of information and resulting change driven by today‘s social media and general digital interconnectedness.

“When it comes to customer service, we realised the people who hire our equipment have instantaneous access to information about competitors too; and are therefore able to make comparisons very quickly and easily. We protect our reputation as a leader in our field very assiduously; and offer customer service which stands up to, and exceeds, any comparisons,” he continues.

For this reason, the company ethos of ‘exceeding customer expectations’ is not merely a smooth slogan, but is translated into action every single day, by staff throughout the company.

The management echelon of Rand-Air has for some time intentionally driven an ethos and practice of ‘internal’ improvement within the company. “We are grounded and given direction by the intention of what we are doing, and gain much inspiration from the energy and momentum this provides within the context of our daily responsibilities and our longer-term goals,” adds Rand-Air Sales Manager Kim Coetzee.

At the same time, there has been a concerted effort by the company to ensure that this ethos is embraced at all levels of the organisation, and not just by its management; as globally, this is not a new idea, and it has been found many times over that companies with a more innovative, free-thinking and motivated culture – and which are also more open to the introduction of (positively) disruptive changes – tend to thrive.

Rand-Air General Manager Louwrens Erasmus

“However on a day-to-day, practical level, it does mean disrupting conventional ‘9-to-5’ attitudes; for example, delivering service excellence to our customers often means working unconventional hours and going to exceptional lengths,” Coetzee continues, adding that by the same token – and sometimes even in quite small ways – if one is not an agent of change, there is a real risk of very quickly falling behind and becoming stagnant and outdated.

Furthermore, to make any level or degree of advancement work within a company requires highly functional communication between all levels of staff: everyone must be aligned and support new initiatives, even though these may, in the short-term, mean taking the more difficult route ‘less travelled’.

Coetzee explains that the first step is the determination to make hard changes in the company environment. “Development does not mean discarding everything that has gone before; but it does mean looking critically at all areas of the business. There are some areas that will be doing extremely well and others that may be lagging. It is in these latter areas where positive disruption is likely to be highly beneficial,” she adds.

Furthermore, in a move contrary to the severe cost-cutting of recent years in the corporate world – which has often seen people development suffering as a result – Rand-Air invests substantially and consistently in superior staff training. By doing this, the people working for the company remain fully motivated and engaged – which is ultimately not only to their benefit, but that of the business.

Erasmus emphasises that international companies such as Uber and Airbnb are certainly the classic industry disruptors, which brought about completely new approaches and sweeping change to their industries.

However, he adds that the cumulative effect of small enhancements effected continuously over time, have contributed substantially to the company’s overall success.

“We have seen that many consistent, small changes or refinements really add up – to something maybe not as dramatic – but equally profound,” he adds.

“In addition, in Rand-Air, what we have encouraged is a culture where employees are able to question the status quo without the fear of negative repercussions. Within this environment, innovation, creativity and individual thinking is highly respected and valued; although any proposed changes must be based on a sound business case,” he emphasises.

In the past, in general, rental equipment had a second-rate reputation. Rand-Air realised many years ago that it also had to adjust this pattern and negative stereotypical perception. Today, if one hires a compressor or generator from the Jet Park-based company, the equipment features both the appearance and performance of being newly-purchased.

By very effectively changing or disrupting traditionally negative perceptions, the distinctive ‘Rand-Air experience’ presents customers with a positive route to conserving capital and limiting the number of depreciating assets on their books.

Rand-Air Sales Manager Kim Coetzee

“We conduct our rental business with a level of excellence that allows our customers the absolute peace of mind to concentrate solely on their core businesses,” asserts Coetzee.

“At Rand-Air, in 45 years of operation, we have always realised the importance of continuous improvement, as it has invariably allowed us to serve our customers more effectively. When they compare us to others in our field, we want to be known as the leading provider of mobile air and power, in which our customers can place their absolute trust,” asserts Erasmus.

“It is from this well-spring of trust that our service excellence, customer relationships – and the innovation and courage to make positively disruptive changes when required – have flowed – all of which have sustained our company,” he concludes.

Rand-Air’s training – investing in the ‘art of management’ to remain fresh and relevant

For any company to function successfully – and continue to be fresh and relevant in today’s ever-changing and challenging economic climate a range of skills such as those found in sales or in the technical disciplines are required. However, these will not be effective without effective management expertise to integrate and provide strategic direction and leadership – which is one of the scarcest skills in the corporate field today.

The art of management is a very particular asset and requires a wide range of capabilities. In addition, companies usually have very specific requirements of their management team, and therefore organically developing in-house potential and capability is often preferable to importing management expertise from outside.

Leading provider of portable air and power Rand-Air is part of the Atlas Copco Group, a company with a history dating back to 1873. Throughout its history, Atlas Copco has placed a strong emphasis on training, a strength that has seen it grow from manufacturing steam engines to the major industrial corporate it is today. The importance of training is also key to Rand-Air, which has long been known locally for its consistent investment in employee development and its people-centric ethos.

In late 2017, Rand-Air Sales Manager Kim Coetzee was selected to attend training at the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) in 2018. The SSE’s FEM Executive Management Programme is part of an international development programme for managers at a range of leading Scandinavian companies.

“There were participants from six different companies, and ten different countries who attended the course over a period of four months. The course embraced a variety of active learning approaches, such as case studies, group work, experience-based learning, structured reflections and project assignments,” explains Coetzee.

With the rapid industrialisation of Europe at the turn of the last century, the Stockholm School of Economics was founded in 1909 to develop Sweden’s management echelon. The purpose of the SSE’s FEM programme is to develop and enhance general management and leadership skills from a multi-financial perspective and thereby enhance the participant’s ability to lead a team in a multi-national context.

To be selected for this course requires two key characteristics from participants: a track record of successful management experience and high motivation for continued development.

Coetzee explains that the FEM programme developed the following key areas:

  • Business environment and global outlook
  • Corporate and competitive strategy
  • Business model development
  • Financial strategy and financial analysis
  • Business control and performance management
  • Industrial marketing
  • Innovation and the network economy
  • Leadership and personal development
  • Virtual distance leadership

These themes are woven seamlessly into the program forming an ongoing process of growth through dialogue, structured learning reviews and reflection. The delivery is provided through a blended learning approach.

“During the course, we were involved in short remote sessions and webinars to complement and complete the delivery done in the face-to-face programme days,” she continues.

“Another very beneficial aspect of this training is the global network that was created as a result of our participation. We connected and formed contacts with participants from companies all over the world.”

“As a result, you get new ideas on how to implement different things in your own business, because you are exposed to other environments and other ways of doing things. It enhances and enriches you as a person – and enables you to think differently and approach things from a different perspective,” she enthuses.

“When I returned from the training, I was very excited and keen to try new things within Rand-Air. We conducted a workshop within the company, and selected people from our various branches and operational areas.

From there, we looked at ways in which we could do things differently and improve. As a result, we have developed project teams, which are duly incentivised. This provides an effective and ongoing mechanism within the company to foster innovation and drive creativity.”

She explains that there are certain requirements that have been identified where Rand-Air could improve their customers’ experience. The company also has a team working to develop a viable solution to this challenge, as exceeding customers’ expectations remains a key organisational imperative for the business.

“Training stimulates new ideas upon which the current and future industry growth is based. You have to find new ways of doing things if you want to grow and ensure sustainability. We are fortunate in that Rand-Air has always seen the benefit of continuous learning, development and looking for new and innovative ways in which to improve our customer service and remain fresh and relevant,” she concludes.

Opening up on shut downs: Rand-Air takes the stress out of mine shutdown equipment hires

With the vast amounts of capital invested in them, the production pressures on major mines are immense and unscheduled production stoppages need to be avoided at all costs.

However, a mine’s major plant installations such as compressor and metallurgical facilities are pivotal to production. Breakdowns in these areas can be hugely expensive to recover from. Planned shutdowns provide a mine with the means to avoid unscheduled stoppages, as these allow for maintenance, repair and upgrading of plant and facilities, which, because they often work a 24/7 duty cycle,  cannot be taken out of service in the normal run of duty.

Rand-Air, during its 46 years of operation, has proven itself as a valued partner in the service of many mines during both planned and unplanned shutdowns.

“The keys to a successful scheduled shutdown are meticulous planning and effective communication,” says Rand-Air Internal Sales Consultant Adele Matthee, who speaks from vast experience as every year, for many years, Rand-Air has partnered with many of its mining customers to ensure their planned shutdowns are successful.

“With many of our mining customers, we have been involved in their planned shutdowns for many years and have a very good knowledge of the type and quantity of hire equipment they will typically need,” says Matthee. Many of Rand-Air’s mining customers have the foresight to start planning a shutdown months in advance. “This is immensely valuable for us at Rand-Air as we can plan to have all necessary equipment ready at the due date,” she continues.

Often with planned shutdowns, specialist contractors are brought onto site to carry certain specific contracts. However, to avoid the unwieldy situation of contractors hiring and rehiring equipment, mines tend to place a single order for hire equipment which they then put at the disposal of the contractors concerned.

However, even with planned shutdowns, the parameters involved can change from one year to the next. In the light of this, Matthee explains that experience has taught Rand-Air staff what salient questions to ask mine engineers who are planning a shutdown.

Having really good knowledge of a mine’s operations is very valuable when preparing for a shutdown, explains Matthee. One needs to know practicalities such as how hire machinery will connect to a mine’s reticulation systems or whether a mine will be able to use electric machines or not.

Rand-Air has a long-standing reputation for supplying high-performance, reliable equipment. This factor is critical during mining shutdowns as servicing or repairing a machine in the middle of one of these events would be prohibitively disruptive for the customer. “Even if it means servicing a machine prematurely, we would rather do this than risk interrupting a shutdown,” she continues.

With both planned and unplanned shutdowns, the volumes of air that a mine requires can exceed what Rand-Air can supply from its own fleet. However, Rand-Air has other trusted suppliers from whom it can hire additional compressors to make up the volume required.

Once the necessary hire equipment has been sourced, the next challenge is to transport it, often from various distant locations, to the mine itself. “Here, once again, we have years of experience of working with certain trusted logistics companies who we know will deliver safely and on time.” In this respect, Rand-Air’s knowledge of specific mines safety and permitting requirements is of great assistance. “Many mines are sticklers for safety and so truck drivers carrying out Rand-Air’s deliveries need to be equipped with the correct PPE and paperwork before they will be permitted to drive on to a mine,” she continues.

Once the machines are on site, should a mine hire more than a certain number of machines, Rand-Air will place a full-time technician on site as well as a containerised mini-depot stocked with all the spares that the technician is likely to need. Usually shutdown projects work around the clock to ensure rapid completion. When this is the case, Rand-Air will ensure that technical support is also available on a 24-hour basis.

Unplanned shutdowns place entirely different demands on Rand-Air. Matthee explains that the first notice Rand-Air often receives is a phone call asking for immediate help.

As Rand-Air hires out portable compressors, the largest being a 1,500 cfm model, this means sourcing and delivering many compressors to make up the volume on these occasions.

When Rand-Air receives an unplanned shutdown call, Matthee immediately consults with Rand-Air’s logistics section to establish what equipment is available within the company. “We have a computerised system operating throughout Rand-Air which we call our ‘fleet board’, which tracks the bookings and the availability of all our equipment. This is essential as we do not want to be taking a compressor, for example, from one of our depots for a certain hire when it has been booked for another,” she says.

And then again, if Rand-Air does not have the fleet available at that specific time, Matthee and her colleagues have the experience and know from which suppliers they can cross-hire reliable, quality equipment. In this instance, Rand-Air takes on the role of the project manager. “For our customers, it means that they can make one phone call and know that, for a shutdown, they can source all their hire equipment from one reliable supplier,” she says.

“Over time, the role of project consultant is one we are increasingly taking on,” Matthee explains.

As mentioned, continuous effective communication during the planning and execution of a shutdown contract is essential for success. Matthee explains that Rand-Air has developed a system which allows everyone involved from both the supplier and the customer sides to be fully apprised of exactly what is happening at any given time. If for example a compressor is being sourced from a distant site, the customer will know when the truck has been dispatched to fetch it, when the compressor is being loaded, when the truck is once again on the road and what the estimated time of arrival is. “This affords the customer peace of mind so they can concentrate on their core activities,” she says.

An advantage that Rand-Air has is that, for many years, the company has had a consistently low staff turnover. When a mine contracts with Rand-Air to supply equipment for a shutdown, it will benefit from the accumulated expertise of Rand-Air’s highly experienced staff.

“For us at Rand-Air, mine shutdowns, while they are challenging, are also very exciting as they give us the opportunity to show what our company is capable of,” explains Matthee.

“The achievement of finding 50,000 cfm of compressed air for a customer at short notice and getting it safely to site on time is a satisfying and rewarding experience both for ourselves and, ultimately, for our customers,” she concludes.