The company’s in line to meet greater challenges in the aluminium industry

The company’s in line to meet greater challenges in the aluminium industry

Masco proves its mettle

01 July 2008

A small Sohar-based company has been thrust onto the world stage as a potential supplier of state-of-the-art aluminium specialty products and consumables thanks to its successful completion of a challenging job for Sohar Aluminium Company.

Masco, a joint venture between Australian company Austin Engineering and Oman’s Specialist Technical Services (STS), was contracted by Sohar Aluminium to fabricate specially-designed aluminium busbars for its 1.2 km-long potline.  The joint venture had to beat international competition to win the order.
Busbars are a crucial element of aluminium smelting, connecting a series of reduction cells, or pots, and carrying electrical current from pot to pot – just like a gigantic car battery.  The electrical energy is used to separate aluminium metal from oxygen after the aluminium oxide (alumina) has been fed into the pots. Each potline is an environmental improvement on the last one, so is unique to the individual smelter. Sohar Aluminium’s 360 pots will produce 350,000 tonnes of aluminium per year.
“Sohar Aluminium is the first greenfield smelter in the world to use the Pechiney AP35 technology, so Masco had to ‘pioneer’ the correct technique for the busbar fabrication,” says Sohar Aluminium’s general manager – smelter project, Geoff Brookes. “From the beginning, it was clear that the busbar project posed significant challenges due to the precise nature of the work and the specialist techniques that were needed.”
Despite the combined efforts of Masco’s experienced engineers from Australia, India and Oman, the early prototypes failed the dimension checks. Masco project manager Rayner Fernandes readily admits that the first 12 months of the contract period was a very worrying and stressful time for the fledgling company, and attracted a good deal of attention from the multi-billion-dollar client whose business relied on this critical component.
“We had a commitment to Sohar Aluminium to deliver 360 aluminium busbars which are at the heart of the AP35 technology the smelter will use,” Fernandes says. “With this kind of technology there is absolutely no room for even the slightest flaw – each busbar must be absolutely precise in order to function correctly. We faced enormous difficulties in the early days, as many of the tolerances were less than 1 mm in a structure than is 20 m long.”
Masco project engineer Steve Warner echoes Fernandes’ memories of frustration as he recalls the testing months of trying to perfect the fabrication process.
“Fabricating busbars to fit with the AP35 technology was a very steep learning curve for all of us and we had some quality issues during the prototype development period,” Warner says. “AP technology is the most technically advanced of all technologies used for smelting aluminium, but we knew that if we were successful in creating these busbars we would be capable of doing anything.” 
That ‘never say die’ attitude eventually pulled them through and the months of frustration were replaced by a sense of jubilation as a breakthrough was finally achieved, thanks to the tireless efforts of the entire 336-strong workforce.
“Once we achieved the breakthrough in fabricating the first prototype, we charged ahead with production, building up to a seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day operation,” Warner recalls.  “We fulfilled our original contract four days ahead of the agreed client schedule.”
Sohar Aluminium was clearly delighted. “It is a key objective of Sohar Aluminium to support and develop local business ventures in Oman, especially in the Batinah region, and Masco is an excellent example of how a local business can take on a challenge and rise to become a competitive international supplier,” says Brookes.
“The busbars created by Masco are of world-class quality and this company can now go on to fabricate busbars for any smelter in the world. They are proof that you can get specialist quality products here in Oman.” 
Masco’s success in this area is even more remarkable given that many of their employees were untrained and, for most of the young Omanis, it was their first job.
“When we began we had to train everyone in how to use the specialised equipment and we also had to train people as fabricators, welders, machinists and forklift drivers,” Fernandes says.
Now that the Sohar Aluminium contract is complete some Masco staff have been absorbed into STS, and two have been employed by Sohar Aluminium. But with state-of-the-art techniques under its belt Masco is now in the position of being able to tender for other projects in the Gulf. There are excellent prospects as the aluminium industry is growing fast in the Gulf region.

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