South African manufacturer Pratley has recently undergone an extensive revamp of its two main test and research laboratories, according to CEO Kim Pratley. This has bolstered its unique position among electrical-equipment manufacturers globally in that it has both the capability and facilities to manufacture base polymer materials in-house, in addition to the end products themselves.
Pratley’s two fully-equipped laboratories at its Krugersdorp head office are staffed by qualified, world-class scientists and technicians. One of these laboratories is dedicated to electrical testing, and has the distinction of having more state-of-the-art equipment than the SABS itself, even to the extent that other accredited laboratories approach the company to make use of its advanced equipment.
Equipment ranges from a salt-spray tester for corrosion testing, an environmental chamber that ages materials at different temperatures and humidities, a dust chamber to look at the ingress of dust particles into electrical enclosures, impact testers to gauge the impact resistance of electrical equipment, water ingress equipment to determine the level of water-tightness, and tensile-strength testing equipment.
The chemical research laboratory is divided into two main focus areas, namely inorganic and organic materials. The former mainly involves mineral analysis, including contract work for external parties. The advanced equipment used here includes two electron microscopes, one for imaging and one for analysis, an array of high-end optical microscopes, an X-ray diffractometer (XRD) machine, and an inductively coupled plasma spectrometry (ICP) machine.
The organic materials side focuses mainly on polymers, and hence adhesives. “The synergy with our electrical-equipment manufacturing side is due to the fact that modern electrical enclosures are based on plastics and rubber, which are polymers. Essentially adhesive science is a specialised polymer science.
“Hence, we have a cross-pollination in terms of our R&D capability that we can bring to bear on the electrical side. This not only represents a major competitive advantage for us, but makes us unique among similar companies worldwide,” Kim stresses.
Not only does Pratley manufacture the end products themselves, but all of the component materials as well. “This is integrated fully within the company, and gives us a distinct competitive advantage,” Kim comments. It allows Pratley to include a policy statement, signed by Kim himself, on all of its product packaging, whether adhesives or electrical, which states that they must outperform all other competing products on the global market.
“We really mean that, and it drives the R&D side of the business. You cannot achieve this policy without a significant and ongoing R&D investment. For the size of our company, we probably spend proportionately more on R&D than any other manufacturing company in South Africa,” Kim stresses. This ranges across the various divisions of Pratley, from adhesives to electrical, and minerals.
“Obviously our major focus is on the adhesives and electrical side, but we have done significant work in other areas as well,” Kim explains. The end result has been in excess of 350 patents filed worldwide to date, and applications as diverse as using its Perlite and Zeolite minerals for deep-level mining refrigeration systems to high-end catalysts for the petrochemical industry to methods of cleaning up nuclear waste. Pratley also invented Pratley Putty, the only South African product to go to the moon.
The R&D Manager on the chemical side is Sylvia Wilkin, who has a degree in chemistry and mathematics. She is assisted by scientist Tracy Sywood, who has a degree in biochemistry. They are ably helped by long-time assistant Bertha Modise.
Allan Arnold is in charge of the inorganic side, with degrees in chemistry and geology. Arnold is an acknowledged expert in mineral micro-analysis, and has even worked on analysing moon-rock samples as a NASA research assistant at Cambridge University in the UK.
Sven Breedt heads up the electrical R&D division. A world expert in the science of electrical equipment for hazardous areas, he holds a National Diploma in Engineering, while his colleague on the design side, Ryan Worthington, has a BEng degree (Cum Laude).
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