The quality and ingenuity of their work won electronics engineers Svetlana and Alex Zatsepin early admirers in Australian defence and architectural circles. Mining, though, helped them triple the size of their Melbourne-based family business over the past 10 years – and could bring even faster growth this decade.
Coolon has been manufacturing and supplying solid-state lighting to mines since BHP asked it to make a more robust version of its urban LED product in 2008.
It’s established a large market footprint in Australia, supplying to BHP, Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metals Group, Glencore and other industry heavyweights, and broke through in key South American mining markets after many years of pouring money into the region for modest returns.
An architect of that success, regional account manager for South America, Gabriela Safrankova, was recognised with a GOVEA Victorian Women in International Business Award earlier this month. Her single-mindedness and smarts in turning around Coolon’s fortunes in Chile and Peru pretty much repeats the formula the company’s Ukrainian immigrant founders employed to swim against Australia’s receding manufacturing tide in the 1990s and 2000s when, ironically, miners were drawing thousands of skilled workers from Victoria to drive trucks and diggers in Western Australia and Queensland.
Coolon has built more and more electronic intelligence into its “indestructible” mine lighting, improving operational and maintenance efficiency. Now it is collaborating with European and other technology firms to position itself to tap growing mining internet-of-things (IoT) technology investment.
Position being something that is already very much in Coolon’s favour.
“We have lights – hundreds, thousands of lights – at most of the mines in Australia,” says Coolon business development manager Andrew Orkin, who has been with the company for more than 18 years.
“Coolon has consistently pushed boundaries with the technology in the lights. Our new-generation lights have wireless modules inside that connect automatically when they detect one another, within a range, and form a mesh. That mesh can actually form a backbone for digital communication.
“We have spent a lot of time at mine sites as we have got deeper into the sector. All the sites want digitisation now – everything needs to be connected and transparent.
“In the fixed-plant environment it is challenging to add cables; Wi-Fi is a nightmare. Coolon lights are scattered throughout the plant, permanently powered and elevated, so we realised that these lights are ideally positioned for hosting wireless mesh networking nodes.”
There have been countless reports released in recent years with projections on climbing mining-sector investment in digital technologies. One that put the value of the “global smart mining market” at US$6.8 billion in 2019 suggested it could expand to more than $20b by 2025. “The IoT has had a considerable impact on transforming multiple industries by forging real-time connections between machinery, environmental conditions, people and business processes,” it said.
Over in the solid-state lighting (SSL) market, which LED advances and affordability have helped grow into the tens of billions of dollars, so-called high-performance buildings and other civil structures have given companies such as Coolon plenty of scope to be creative and add value through advanced design and manufacturing.
The portable lighting segment of the mining market is seen as being highly commoditised. On the fixed lighting side, as more smart home and building technologies make their way into industrial lighting, it is becoming less of a consumable. Increasing its connective utility could elevate its value further.
“The Coolon business has been around for 25 years and moved into lighting from a semiconductor and electronics manufacturing background, which is why it’s had a different approach than traditional lighting companies that have come from conventional lighting and gone into LED,” says Coolon director, partnerships, Taya Permezel, who joined her parents in the business six years ago after working in the banking sector.
“There is a lot of advanced equipment here in the Melbourne manufacturing base that is unique for a light manufacturer in Australia.”
The company has invested more than A$10 million in the past three years on R&D largely to extend its technological leadership in smart mine lighting and open up channels to broader network possibilities.
“Our first generation of smart lights used Bluetooth to connect to mobile phones,” Orkin says.
“Ultimately what we were doing was enabling radio communication between the lights.
“We started to improve the communications technology and we picked up a protocol that has a lot of industrial IoT devices already coming up on top of it. That became really interesting. So we started opening up to the protocol and to everyone else working on that protocol. Now what we are offering is to bring in all these other services to run on top of our network.
“Think of it as an app store for IoT applications … for people, work, assets in the vicinity of our lights, which can form a network that will help the service run. How easy is that to deploy? As you replace old lights with new lights you can be deploying network capability to support current and emerging IoT auxiliary applications.”
“We’re standing on the threshold of a convergence of technologies. When you get past that a vast range of options emerge, like with the iPhone”
The wireless “protocol” comes “straight outta Tampere” from Finnish company, Wirepas Oy. If you haven’t seen this company’s website, do yourself a favour.
“This new [communications technology] stack is self-healing, self-morphing: it’s a self-forming network,” Orkin says. “As an industrial protocol it’s unique, which is why so many other firms are adopting it. From a network point of view, it’s a massive achievement. They’re basically infinitely stretchable, so you can form a network with, like, a million nodes in it. We wanted to create our own [technology], but then when we found Wirepas we decided to go with them.
“There are just so many services you can deploy and this is growing rapidly because it’s a fairly new technology but it is proving itself so useful that the whole field is expanding, like the whole IoT field is expanding.
“We’re standing on the threshold of a convergence of technologies. When you get past that a vast range of options emerge, like with the iPhone.”
Orkin sees commercial network deployments occurring from next year. COVID-hit electronic component supply lines, and general travel restrictions, have created headwinds in the past 12 months.
“We’re trying to introduce more technology at a time when technology is scarce. But we’re looking over the horizon, too,” he says.
“When the shortages are resolved, electronics are going to get cheaper and there are going to be more components available.
“We’re going to iron out all the bugs now, and run our test trials, and then later when everyone wants to adopt it it’s going to be primed and ready to go. We’re trying to take the game to the next level. We’ve done it before. But this time it’s a big shift, so it’s really exciting.”
Mining accounts for about 80% of Coolon’s business. It has 75 employees in Melbourne and is hiring more. Offshore sales have been widely dispersed outside of the concentrated growth in Latin America. Orkin says overseas interest in what the company is currently building is promising.
Coolon’s defence links remain. Permezel says it remains a market that attaches strategic importance to domestic advanced manufacturing capability.