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: Vac-Tech finds safer, swifter ways to clean industrial tanks

Removal of hazardous waste from large industrial tanks is no easy feat, but Singaporean company Vac-Tech Engineering (VTE) is making this safer and more productive by using robots and improving its workflow.

This is with help from Enterprise Singapore (ESG) to defray associated costs, as well as to get in touch with technology partners, said VTE's general manager Jimmy Chooi. The firm has also gained from other ESG-related schemes, from going green to leadership development.

Industrial tanks are found in industries such as oil and gas, specialised chemical, and even in some areas of medical manufacturing.

Traditionally, removing waste from such tanks used to be done by human labourers who had to physically enter the tanks to clean them.

Apart from time and effort, this approach also posed safety concerns, said Chooi. "The objective of us going into mechanisation and automation is really to improve on these safety features - to reduce man exposure to hazardous confined spaces and environments."

Established in 1995, VTE is a hazardous waste removal solutions provider, with services such as tank cleaning, heat exchanger cleaning, and centrifuge treatment systems for hazardous waste.

While it has loyal customers - about 85 per cent of clients have been with the firm for more than 10 years - it has not stopped evolving.

In 2019, it introduced an automated tank cleaning system to remove hydrocarbon sludge from tanks. The traditional manual workflow was restructured and mechanised, with tasks - from lowering oxygen levels to hot-water cleaning - carried out by a system that involves 11 different machines and components, said managing director Mark Lee.

Later on, after a two-year pilot trial, VTE introduced automated robotic cleaning solutions in 2021, in which robots enter tanks to remove sludge and waste.

We really changed the rules of engagement now. We provide a higher level of safety, not just to the customer, but more importantly to our team," said Lee.

Climate change and rising global temperatures are leading to more heat build-up in tanks, making it more difficult for humans to clean them, he said. This is where the use of automation and robots "provides a better way of solving the problem".

Cleaning industrial tanks, as part of routine maintenance or upkeep efforts, can take anywhere between 2 weeks to 2 months, depending on the size of the tank, pointed out Chooi.

But with the current technology and a streamlined workflow, the time taken to clean a 70-metre tank, for example, has been reduced by around 3 weeks, he added.

Productivity and enhancement grants from ESG have helped in deferring some of the costs associated with the new technologies, said Lee. "ESG is also introducing us, at the same time, to robotics companies locally to see how we can work together to deepen our collaboration with these partners."

The company, which has 137 staff at present, had earlier ventured into overseas markets such as Australia, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. With its new capabilities, VTE has also entered the Philippines, doing about 8 projects there in the past 2 years.

Over the past 2 years, VTE has also been developing an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, which it expects will "go online" by the end of the the first quarter of 2022, said Chooi.

The ERP aims to integrate all the different aspects of VTE's business. For example, the system will allow the human resource team to easily track the health and safety of their workers, and ensure all the staff are paid on time.

"With the implementation of the ERP system, the connectivity between the different departments in the company will be smoother, more transparent, and the access to data and metrics can be easily available and visible to everybody (within VTE)," he added.

Separately, in January 2021, VTE was one of the first firms to join the LowCarbonSG programme, supported by NEA and ESG.

Between January and June 2021, the company had cut its diesel consumption by 4.6 per cent, electricity usage by 2.2 per cent and water usage by 7.9 per cent, by using tools to track its emissions.

"The incentive is not a financial one, but also more of corporate responsibility," said Lee.

"Our client base is also active in the energy sector, and especially in the chemical sector. The mega trend is very apparent: they are also trying new ways to be more ESG-responsible," he added, referring to environmental, social and corporate governance.

In addition, Chooi is currently undergoing ESG's one-year Enterprise Leadership for Transformation (ELT) programme, which supports business leaders of promising small and medium-sized enterprises to develop business growth capabilities.

"The ELT programme has been quite enriching. The way they do it is very different. There are academics who come in to conduct the lectures for us for the knowledge part, and subsequently we are paired with senior advisers… who carry domain and industry experiences in growing companies across different disciplines," he added.

Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.