Boxing Clever

ICS Industries

ICS is not a simple company to categorise. Melbourne-based ICS Industries Pty Ltd makes transportable communications buildings, switch rooms and sheet metal cabinets; practically anything intended to house electrical or communications equipment and keep it safe and working in harsh environments. But if that sounds like simple steel fabrication, prepare to think again, as we discovered recently when we spoke with Managing Director Michael Lennox and General Manager Jon Cogdon.

At its most basic, what ICS makes is an enclosure for electrical and electronic equipment. Clients include railways, police and emergency services, major mining and resource companies as well as the likes of Telstra, Vodafone and Optus (the Bureau of Meteorology is another client – sharing the basic need for housing communications equipment safely in often remote places). However, the secret is that there is a lot more to the enclosure that the company designs than just containment.

“No matter whether this is a small cabinet or a [free-standing] room, what goes into it is equipment that needs to be in a secure environment,” says Jon. “You have to keep moisture and dust out.” By its very nature the equipment is generating heat but is required to be in a stable atmosphere with regard to both temperature and humidity, so a number of clever cooling techniques have been developed to protect the equipment inside. Clients are also increasingly concerned about how much they are spending on power consumption to cool the equipment, so ICS makes it “as efficient as possible and where we can, we use natural elements from the environment to our advantage.”

“Innovation is a key part of what we do,” explains Jon. “We are very good at working with long-standing clients, understanding their needs and the directions in which they want to go, then developing ways to support new technology as it arrives and make it all come together for them.” ICS considers it important to be proactive, not simply wait until clients come along with new requirements and then try to solve the problems. “Our internal attitude is that if we keep doing what we do the way we do it now, we will lose the business. We need to be coming up with advances all the time, understanding where the industry is heading.” Typically, ICS puts together a complete package solution – including cooling (or thermal management) systems – and designs more functional and clever ways of doing things to make it easier to set up on site.

Often these products, especially free-standing rooms, are required to be installed in remote areas without grid power. They need to be easy to assemble once shipped so as much of the installation as possible is done at ICS’s own factory. Currently the company is spread over several buildings in Thomastown, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, where the company started up in 1999. Rapid expansion has created the need for a new facility, so a new site has been acquired nearby which will be ready by the end of 2013 to house the growing business all under one roof.

ICS can supply and install throughout Australia and even beyond – overseas customers have included public authorities in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Cocos Islands and New Caledonia. “There are other markets in the world we would like to get into but as yet we have not done so,” says Jon. The company, mindful that it must not spread itself too thin and neglect valuable customers at home, believes further expansion abroad is likely, but at a measured pace.

Installations in many of these places, as well as in areas of Australia, need to be cyclone-proof in addition to all their other virtues; accordingly, ICS builds in that kind of protection. You can even get buildings that are fully ballistic rated that will stop a bullet from three metres, but these are – we were relieved to hear – primarily for remote areas where they simply need to withstand a wide variety of additional hazards.

As things stand, says Jon with pride, “whenever Telstra, Optus or Vodafone build a mobile phone base station anywhere in Australia that requires a transportable comms building then they come to us for the building that will be installed there.” Already the company has secured a number of contracts for work on the National Broadband Network which will of course require many more such units around the country. All projects are designed, to an outline specification from the client, by ICS’s in-house engineering team though they are often passed to external sources for validation; sheet metal fabrication is done in-house too, as is electrical design. The company builds its own switchboards and control units for managing internal temperatures and climate control, with appropriate built-in reporting and alarm systems to alert for high temperatures or break-ins, for example.

Michael and Jon say this wide-ranging and comprehensive service provision is what has enabled the company to keep making its products in Melbourne instead of abroad. The client also has far greater control over the progress of their project. It is also important to note that these are not standardised rooms and enclosures but are almost all individually designed – there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ production line. They include different internal technology and different types of cabling that must be managed; locations have differing or unique conditions like radio interference, for example, that must be overcome on a case-by-case basis. In mining areas, there can be high corrosion, fine dust, and cyclones to be withstood. Power availability, stability and requirements change in different locations and the basic climate in Australia varies from alpine with snow to desert with sand. “Usually the client has a site engineer to determine the exact site suitability and what they require there. At that point they come to us and we work with them to design a building that precisely meets their needs.”

ICS is also engaged in power use mitigation for its clients. “A client may have existing infrastructure but the equipment they are putting into it is changing as the technology advances, while the cost of power is increasing. The air conditioning system they used previously to control the environment in the room may no longer meet their requirements or may be too power-hungry, so we have been developing more efficient cooling solutions tailored to their business. These can also be modular so they can be scaled up or down to fit requirements. We make the components here in Melbourne, and that has been a significant part of our business.” ICS makes nearly everything except electric motors and the air-conditioning systems themselves, which are made abroad to the company’s own specification.

Without neglecting the important telecoms sector, ICS is eager for more business in the mining and resource sector, which like railway orders grows apace – from virtually zero five years ago – and is keen to get more involved in providing cabinets and related equipment to the road and traffic management business.

In any sector, though, ICS takes the time to understand what its clients really need. “Our point of difference is that we get to understand what they are trying to do with their project and offer a tailored solution,” that is hardly if at all more expensive than a less useful off-the-shelf solution. It is better all round if the client has the right amount of room for the equipment to be installed in the cabinet or room rather than having to squeeze it into a standard enclosure that may not be ideally arranged. “With our own manufacturing and sheet metal fabrication plant, we are able to prototype really well and create solutions that are highly functional for the client out in the field – without compromise. That is what really adds value.”

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September 19, 2018, 2:05 PM AEST