Tildy Bayar finds out how a flexible business model enables a UK-based firm to repair, maintain and refurbish power equipment including HV generators, motors and associated electrical systems, providing a valid alternative to the OEM

Quartzelec’s facility in Rugby, UK

Credit: Quartzelec

Power equipment maintenance and repair are ongoing concerns for plant operators, and aspects of their business that they need to get right to enable smooth operation and avoid costly downtime.

How to do each better is of perennial interest, and finding new ways to avert the risks associated with equipment breakdowns is a key theme that runs through these pages.

With original equipment manufacturers, an easy (although not always cost-effective) choice when maintenance or repair is required for the power equipment they supply, one company is challenging this choice.

UK-based Quartzelec is an electrical engineering firm with a grassroots history in the design, manufacture, installation and commissioning of rotating electrical machines and an enviable reference list that confirms support for a plethora of OEM equipment, proving it is well placed to develop a business model to challenge the OEM in the more complex repair and refurbishment projects.

Stephen Densley, Quartzelec Rugby’s general manager, introduces the company as “a business with an interesting heritage resulting in diverse interests in the key areas of electrical contracting and rotating machines”. Within the rotating machines ‘umbrella’, the Rugby business is the company’s flagship workshop facility while also the location of the organization’s headquarters. Typically, the Rugby business focuses on the larger-scale AC high voltage and DC machines and undertakes around 50 to 60 high value, intensive engineering repair/refurbish contracts per year.

Densley notes that “the cost of rewinding most large machines is less than the replacement cost, and unless a fully interchangeable replacement is available, then the rewind will usually be a quicker option than purchase of a new machine”.

In many cases, he notes, “opting for the procurement of a new machine may prove to be impractical, not only due to the lengthy time-scales involved but issues with electrical and mechanical interchangeability”.

The firm also offers preventive maintenance/long-term maintenance contracts, more typical for aging equipment or those with critical duties. “A machine may be 30 years old,” Densley says, “still operating as intended, but it will likely be beyond its design life as the winding insulation ages and if left alone will ultimately break down.

“Condition monitoring along with detailed inspection and testing can assist, and is often used as a tool to monitor key machines in a bid to predict and prevent possible failure, but ultimately, to ensure reliability and effectively give the machine a new life, a rewind must be considered.”

Non-competing

Densley is quick to note that “we don’t compete with the OEMs in terms of manufacture – we complement them”. Jon Burton, factory manager at Rugby, concurs: “We have a different direction and philosophy,” he adds. “We’re absolutely not an OEM, but a repair business, uniquely in this industry with an OEM heritage, that is committed to offering a valid alternative in maintenance and support services.”

In fact, says Densley, Quartzelec is able to work with the major OEMs as a service partner or sub-contractor. Densley notes that Quartzelec aims to foster good relationships with manufacturers, because “we need to co-exist, we prefer to find opportunities to support our potential OEM competitors as well as end users”.

He notes that while some areas of Quartzelec’s business, such as condition monitoring, diagnostics and electrical testing, “do compete well” with OEMs’ offerings, Quartzelec “has no drive in the direction” to be a manufacturer. While Quartzelec has made a handful of new machines in its Rugby factory over the past two years, these machines “have been made from legacy designs for which we hold the intellectual property. Increasing our capability to make new machines is not part of the company’s vision for the future”, Densley says.

Owner’s choice

When a machine has been in operation beyond the original warranty, its owners then have a choice. They can agree a further maintenance contract with the OEM, a practical move as “they know the OEM has all of the design criteria,” Densley explains. However, he notes that “there are other options, such as choosing to have maintenance undertaken by a company that’s prepared to be more flexible, cost-effective and competent”.

Flexibility, he says, is a key aspect of Quartzelec’s business model, and it is where the firm can differentiate. For example, he notes that “OEMs quite often dictate the detailed work-scope. Quartzelec is more than happy to discuss and adapt scope to suit.”

Quartzelec is able to work with the major OEMs as a service provider or sub-contractor

Credit: Tildy Bayar

At the Rugby workshop

Credit: Tildy Bayar

He offers an example: “A client’s generator experienced a winding failure. The OEM proposed a full rewind, which would have cost the customer in the region of £250,000.

“We discussed in some detail with the client a repair option: replacing seven coils in the stator at a cost of £50,000. The client ultimately chose to follow the repair route with the machine back to working order in weeks rather than months. The customer closely monitored the repair work and was delighted with the quality and the speed of the work.”

“Potentially OEMs”, he says, “find it difficult to deviate from a well-proven repair strategy because they typically take conservative engineering decisions.”

Densley explains that Quartzelec is “a small enough business that all of the decision-makers can sit in one room. It’s very easy for us to make quick decisions.”

A rotor at the Rugby workshop

Credit: Quartzelec

He continues: “We adapt our behaviour to meet opportunities. We listen carefully to our customer’s needs and we also can be much more flexible when it comes to contractual relationships. We don’t have the extent of ‘large business’ internal controls and, as a well-governed company, this includes not having rules which prevent ourselves from being flexible.”

Burton adds: “It has to be that way for us. Working like an OEM, we wouldn’t survive.”

Stretching support

In a white paper written for POWER-GEN Europe in 2014, four Quartzelec engineers described repair work to a severely damaged generator rotor as potentially “a first” which “could well replace current practice: rotor bodies which would normally be condemned can now be successfully repaired”.

“We’re quite prepared to take the risk that we will have the capability to repair a machine before we know the design details,” Densley explains, adding an example: “We undertook a rewind of a generator which was built in 1957 in Hungary. The winding of the stator and rotor were highly unusual.

“Our designers, with all of their wide experience, had not previously encountered such electrical connections or end winding design, but despite this obstacle they managed to re-engineer, upgrade the insulation and deliver the machine back to its original performance, with a much improved life for the windings.”

According to Densley, “we see every manufacturer’s machines, a variety of failure modes, wear and tear, lots of different design styles – a far greater variety of problems that require solutions than a typical OEM engineer, only exposed to their own company’s products, is likely to encounter.”

The challenges

When asked about the firm’s biggest challenges, Densley describes one: “We recently undertook to develop an existing product, a starting hub normally bolted to the end of a rotor shaft, to be mid-shaft mounted. This meant adapting the design to be split into two pieces and assembled on the shaft. This is a fairly complex assembly.

“We sold two to a customer in the Middle East, undertook detailed planning and design reviews and agreed a delivery schedule with the client. Regular communication was critical as we set about designing, prototyping and testing the new product. The end result was a success and the unique starting hubs were delivered to a happy client.

“Liaising with another client for the complete rewind of the rotor and stator on a 65 MW generator that the OEM was not able to fully support became a project that we secured, repairing and rewinding the rotor, as well as redesigning and renewing the stator winding,” he continues. “A project made more challenging due to the generator’s location with restricted access, which required a large crane to extract the machine from site to Quartzelec’s Rugby workshop.

“We often find that we have learned a lot from particular machines that help us to develop our knowledge of design intent and novel methods of solving problems,” he concludes.

Looking ahead

Quartzelec has over 600 employees worldwide. 2016/17 will, Densley admitted, “prove challenging for the business as the industry faces a global downturn”; however, he notes “we are a company which faces our challenges head on”.

Taking a local approach, Densley explains, the company is “keen to locally support major clients and new market opportunities. We fully appreciate the need to be physically close to our customers, and in some countries this means opening a branch, appointing local agents, or collaborating with local companies.” The Rugby facility handles repair and maintenance work as well as spares supply worldwide. Around 60-65 per cent of activity is attributed to the UK and Europe (Densley lists France, Sweden, Poland and Italy as active markets, as well as coil sales in Belgium, France and others). The firm is ‘active’ in Africa, Asia and Australasia, he adds.

Jon Burton, Rugby factory manager

Credit: Tildy Bayar

Quartzelec is upgrading its operation in Abu Dhabi, and is in the final stages of opening a branch in the Philippines. Africa is a key market for the company. Densley says: “We have a unique technical expertise in DC technology and historically we have previously been involved in the design and manufacture of large DC machines for the African mining industry.”

He adds: “If you’re an owner of a mine or a steel rolling mill and you’re looking for a company willing to service and support DC machines, you won’t find many. Considered unfashionable technology, OEMs moved away from DC to sophisticated AC technology and in doing so, left an existing base of large DC machines with few valid engineering support choices. Today, we will service old machines or manufacture new – there are not many organizations in the world with this capability.

“What’s helped define the markets we target is closely linked to the heritage machines we’ve built and where long-standing relationships are in place,” Densley adds. “As Quartzelec was effectively born from an OEM giant (reference: British Thompson Houston, AEI, GEC Alsthom…) we had insight into where machines have been supplied from the records we hold, particularly in the Middle East and Asia. We have found that businesses there are keen to work with an OEM alternative.”

Quartzelec reported growth consistently since 2008, throughout the global economic crisis. However, Densley sees some challenges ahead. “It’s only really now that we’re beginning to see, in our UK customers, some maintenance budgets under real pressure,” he says.

“We know the low oil price is having a big effect, reducing maintenance budgets,” he adds. “The next few years will be very challenging.”

Looking ahead, “We are very aware of the necessity to build and position our company able to meet the varied needs of our customers through our diverse skills set, a difficult task in the face of stiff opposition in our field. Our team of design engineers, site engineers, fitters and winders are the true life blood of our organization and one we continue to build upon and invest in.”