The world’s first carbon fibre tanker

Drawing on more than half a century of experience in the field of commercial vehicle manufacturing, southern German OEM, Kurt Willig, is no stranger to the use of carbon fibre-reinforced polymers in modern trailer design. Until now, however, the company has used the high-tech material to create aerodynamic and structural componentry only, without ever venturing into tank building itself. 

With the help of Australian carbon composites expert, Omni Tanker, that is now about to change. Joining forces, the two family businesses have formed a jointly owned company named Omni Willig Carbon GmbH (OWC), which is set to launch Europe’s fully-fledged carbon-fibre tanker at Germany’s PetroTrans expo in Kassel next month.

While aimed at the European market, OWC Managing Director, Karlheinz Stern (pictured below), says the actual tanks will be manufactured in Sydney for the initial launch, with plans to move production to Germany once sales have gained sufficient momentum. Final assembly, sales and marketing are already managed out of Kurt Willig’s German home base. Global Trailer met Stern as well as Omni Tanker’s Managing Director, Daniel Rodgers (pictured bottom), to find out more about the fledgling enterprise. 

Q: Omni Tanker is one of the few local Australian manufacturing businesses exporting to Germany – and not vice versa. How does it feel to turn the tables and represent Australian transport technology in Europe?
DR: Naturally it took a lot of work to reach a stage where we could export a manufactured product from Australia to Germany, and we are very proud of the team and the technology that have enabled us to finally get here. The vision of the company has always been to see the Omni Tanker sold overseas, so the strategy was to prove the technology performance in the Australian market first, which we have done, and on the back of it commence entry to sophisticated export markets such as Germany.

Q: What has enabled you to get to that point? Why did Omni Tanker succeed where other businesses failed?
DR: It all goes back to company founder, Bill Rodgers, the inventor of the Omni Tanker product and the technology behind it. Bill spent more than 50 years working in fibre-reinforced composites, travelling from Australia to the UK as a young mechanical engineer to work with British Racing Engineering. It was here that he was exposed to the relatively new field of fibre-reinforced polymer technology and developed a passion for the material’s low weight and strength. Bill returned to Australia in 1960 and spent many years developing and manufacturing structures for the chemical process industry, laying the foundation for the Omni product as we know it today.

Q: What does that mean in detail?
KS: Bill’s technology has solved a major challenge in composite materials as it enabled structural bonding to so-called polyolefin thermoplastics – resulting in a lightweight tank structure with very high chemical resistance and minimal absorption, allowing a fleet to wash out a tank effectively without residue. The transportation market for corrosive liquids here in Europe currently uses rubber lined stainless steel tankers, which are not only heavy, but also tend to absorb the liquid transported, causing the tanker to be dedicated to the product. The technology effectively eliminates that problem.

Q: How did you meet?
KS: In 2010, Omni Tanker Chairman, Jock Murray, and Daniel travelled to Germany with an advisor to investigate the local tanker manufacturing market and see if there was any interest in the Omni Tanker product. Germany was selected as the best country to approach due to its reputation for manufacturing excellence and commercial reliability. Our young, dynamic team stood out, especially since we were actively innovating in the space of aluminium tankers at the time. Our experience in using carbon fibre composites in C-Rail manufacturing for trailer axle sets also helped, of course. In turn, we were quite excited about the opportunity to expand on that knowledge, so we ended up meeting Daniel and Jock in Sydney and together, we decided to co-operate.

Q: Talk us through the development process that ensued – how did the project take shape from the moment you decided to extend your reach beyond the relatively small local market?
DR: As you would expect, it has not been a straight road, with plenty of twists and turns. The Omni Tanker range developed for the Dangerous Goods road tanker market in Australia is not directly compatible with the respective European standards. In Australia, for example, we use free vented tanks, while Europe operates pressure vessels instead. The rules governing ullage and baffles are also different, which means that baffled single compartment tanks are more common in Europe, while multiple small compartment tanks are more prevalent here in Australia. As a result, we had to invest significant resources in engineering and machinery development for the European version of the Omni Tanker. Luckily, the team at Kurt Willig and the network of customers it brought on-board has provided some high level input into the design stage.

Q: How did you experience the German certification process as an Australian professional?
DR: Let’s say it was a very comprehensive process. The tank was certified by the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und –prüfung (BAM), the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing, under the United Nations’ ADR code (European Agreement concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road, ed.). Local certification agency, TÜV SÜD, was selected as an approved body to assist in the writing and assembly of the type approval, to perform preliminary design assessment and check for compliance of the tank to the ADR code, as is standard practice when applying for a type approval with the BAM. Following completion of the work required by TÜV SÜD, the approval documentation was transferred to BAM for approval. It’s been incredibly complex and also costly, but at conclusion of the whole process, we had a high level of confidence that the BAM would accept all documentation and testing.

Q: What is your vision for the OWC venture come 2020?
KS: At this stage, the manufacture of the tanks takes place in Australia, but we are expecting significant growth in demand as the European market moves to capitalise on the benefits of lightweight transport equipment, so our long-term goal is for OWC to establish a manufacturing base in Europe to service the market more directly. As such, the Omni Tank line-up we have developed for the European market is initially focussed on demountable and portable tank applications, where the tank is mounted into a frame and then suited for a specific road and rail application. This kind of tank is highly standardised and can be used in many different markets worldwide as a result of the certification to ADR/CSC/RID standards. Dedicated road tanker products will follow – with the benefits of customisation to market needs.

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