An engineering breakthrough

Posted on October 2nd, 2008 in Opinion,Technologies by Julian Edgar

In this time of very large companies investing tens of millions – sometimes billions – of dollars in research and development, it seems almost inconceivable that a relatively tiny company could make a groundbreaking invention. Especially in a field with well over 100 years of constant innovation.


But the other day I was able to witness what can only be described as an engineering breakthrough.


The engineering field is nothing to do with cars: instead we’re talking bulk handling. Bulk handling is where materials like grains, pellets and sand need to be moved in large quantities. Typical equipment includes bucket elevators, pneumatic systems and screw elevators.


The breakthrough innovation is the development of a type of screw elevator that, rather than rotating the screw, rotates the casing that surrounds the screw.


But before we look at that idea in more detail, why was I in a small engineering works in Maryborough, Queensland, watching a 78 year old man declaiming on his invention?


In short, it was purely by chance.


I was in Maryborough with my wife, Georgina, and 4-year old son, Alexander. We’d come up from the Gold Coast to watch the Holden Maryborough Technology Challenge, a fantastic event that brings school students together in an environment of innovation and competition. In addition, I wanted to visit a local foundry to do a story on how casting of metals is carried out.


While I was at the foundry, Georgina and Alexander saw the sights of the very attractive small town. They discovered a replica – but full-size – steam engine running on a track in a park near the centre of the town and went for a ride. One of the volunteers supervising the train – Alison – got chatting to Georgina, and when Alison learnt that I was at that moment visiting a foundry, she suggested I’d probably be very interested in visiting another Maryborough company – Olds Engineering. Olds Engineering, apparently, had been operating since 1918 and still used lathes with open, overhead belt drives. They were also founders, doing their own metal casting.


When I returned and heard all of this, I was very interested – especially since I’d be able to observe another small foundry at work. A pre-arranged tour of the works happened to be occurring that very afternoon, and I was welcome to tag along.


The engineering works was small but bustling. In a showroom – actually a couple of showrooms – they had on display many examples of the work they had done in the last 90-odd years. This varied from the manufacture of their own single cylinder marine engines, to casting patterns for everything from bearing housings to garden seat frames. Also on display were some very nicely built 5-inch gauge model live steam engines.


Peter Olds, the managing director, joined the tour group and proceeded to talk about his company – and his proudest device, his Olds Elevator. So how does this device work?


Like anyone interested in engineering, I am aware of the Archimedes Screw principle for moving materials. Basically, the material to be moved is fed into the end of a coarse screw that rotates in a tightly-fitting casing. The screw rotates and transports the material along (or up) it.


But what Peter was showing the group was rather different. Firstly, the screw was a very loose fit in the casing – a gap of perhaps 15mm surrounding the screw. And secondly, the screw remained still and it was the casing that rotated!


At first I couldn’t see how this could work – what drove the material to enter the screw? Then Peter, working with a small demonstration rig moving fine sand, pulled the casing out of the sand to reveal two small feeder scoops built into the base of the casing.


So what happens is that the casing rotates, pushing the material onto the screw. The material then winds its way up the screw, aided by the ‘push’ from material below and the rotation of the casing. (It’s actually much more complex than that, with two possible movement modes occurring. For a technical discussion, see here.)


Olds Engineering has developed prototypes over a range of sizes; it’s a technology that seems to work on all scales.


Over conventional bulk-handling methods, the Olds Elevator appears to have these advantages: less energy use, less dust production, lower noise levels, and a more ‘gentle’ handling of the materials. Furthermore, some bulk materials simply unable to be handled by conventional means (eg bread crumbs) can be moved by the Olds Elevator.


I am not sufficiently qualified to pass judgement on these claims; however watching the device in action and skimming one of the published tech papers seems to support these points.


A patent is pending for the technology, and very wide interest for production licenses is being gained from major multinational companies. Already a number of elevators are in use around the world.


I thought Peter was a wonderful old gentleman, an engineering man of the old school. His passion for his device was always tempered in his discussion with an engineering reality – this was certainly no armchair enthusiast but a hands-on man with literally a lifetime of mechanical experience in what can and cannot work.


I hope the Olds Elevator revolutionises bulk handling techniques around the world.

One Response to 'An engineering breakthrough'

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  1. Paul Nelson said,

    on October 13th, 2008 at 8:31 am

    A couple of comments, first I used to work at Olds some years ago and Peter is a great bloke and has some fantastic ideas. One of which was the delivery of a tilting bed that they developed to the previous Pope when he broke his leg. The other thing that I would say is that this technology has been more widely deiseminated than you think with an article being published in the August issue of Engineers Australian Magazine on pages 48 and 49. Basically the article confirms you assesment that this is a new look at the way that we move bulk material but also that the University of Wollongong is doing more indepth research and computer modelling. I look forward to seeing the results.