Toyota case study: Fighting fires at Altona

Industrial fires are one of the biggest threats to the safety and ongoing production of manufacturing operations, causing damage to capital equipment, production loss, and sometimes even death.

A study performed by the US National Fire Protection Association in 2002 estimated that production downtime can account for up to 65% of the total damage incurred in a fire-affected manufacturing operation. The National Research Council of Canada estimated in 1995 that loss of output ranged from 10 to 15% of direct property losses in terms of fire, which in Australia equates to about 12.5% of the property loss, or $68 million.

[Image, above right: Shows smoke sampling within the substation electrical switchboards.]

It is clear that fire protection ought to be a mainstay in any industrial business. But with hazards including chemicals and furnaces present in many manufacturing operations, protection needs to involve more than just a few fire blankets and hose reels; it must be built in to a manufacturer’s control system if a business is to have any chance of safeguarding itself from potential disaster.

One company that has taken the initiative is automotive manufacturer Toyota Australia, which recently commissioned a site-wide fire protection overhaul at its Altona, Victoria premises, as part of its Engine Plant Renewal Project announced in September 2010. The car-maker will: construct a new furnace house; upgrade its entire 20,000m2 floor plan; install new, energy-efficient manufacturing equipment; and overhaul its fire protection services – all in the name of manufacturing more fuel-efficient engines for its locally-built Camry and Camry Hybrid sedans from late 2012.

Consulting engineering firm, Norman Disney & Young (NDY), has been brought on-board to manage the fire protection systems upgrade at the soon-to-be-launched engine and casting shop facility, as well as to rationalise the existing fire services water supply for the site, and upgrade the fire suppression and fire/smoke detection system within the existing Dyno and Engine Test areas.

Three-pronged approach

Performing a project of this magnitude is no small feat. But for a customer as large as Toyota, with global production expectations and delivery times to adhere to, NDY certainly had its work cut out for it.

“The engine/casting shop upgrade was evolving on a daily basis, and keeping up with the changes that affected the design of the fire protection services was quite a challenge,” said NDY senior fire protection services engineer, Jeremy Donohoe.

[Image, above: A typical aspirating smoke detector mounted to a column within the Engine/Casting Shop.]

NDY became involved in the project in mid-2011, when the team was asked to audit Toyota’s existing fire protection services. This phase, which Donohoe refers to as ‘Project No. 1’, is expected to wrap-up in late 2012 when the new engine and casting facility is complete. 

For Project No. 1, NDY was responsible for designing and installing a high-sensitivity aspirated smoke detection system and new furnace house, which was then networked to the existing site graphics and control software, reducing cabling cost. According to Donohoe, this enabled Toyota fire safety officers to control and interrogate the smoke detection system for the entire facility, from a single location.

The next phase of the overhaul, Project No. 2, saw NDY liaise with the Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board (MFB) to audit the existing water supply infrastructure for the entire Altona site. According to Donohoe, an important element of the brief was to ensure there was no effect to the plant’s uptime, so a large portion of the works, which will begin in June this year, will be scheduled outside of normal production hours.

“Toyota commissioned this project given that some components of the fire services water supply infrastructure was ageing and nearing the end of its life. Toyota also realised that the rationalisation of fire service booster pumps, water storage tanks and fire brigade booster facilities would save on ongoing maintenance costs,” said Donohoe.

The key objective of Project No. 2 was to provide an integrated and reliable fire service where water is sourced from a site ring main, designed to supply the concurrent water supply requirements of both the fire sprinklers and hydrants/hose reels.

The final stage, Project No. 3, saw NDY recommend an alternate, ‘people safe’, fire suppression system within Toyota’s Dyno and Engine Test areas. According to Donohoe, the legacy system involved C02 gas, which presents a health risk to workers. Design works for this stage of the project are expected to be completed by June.     

“A medium pressure water mist fire suppression system was recommended on the basis that the system is suitable for use on expected fire hazards found with engine test cells, is safe for use in occupied areas, and offers advantages for integration into existing buildings,” Donohoe explained.

Systems integration

It was imperative that the new safety systems equipment could integrate seamlessly with smoke detectors that were already installed in a number of the buildings across the site. It was also important that any new equipment was easy-to-use from an operator point-of-view.

[Image, above: Smoke signals are processed and presented via a bar-graph display, alarm threshold indicators and/or a graphic display.]

Toyota commissioned Xtralis, an early warning safety and security solutions provider, to supply an aspirated smoke detection system, called VESDA, for the new engine and casting plant, and also for the new furnace house.

According to Xtralis regional sales manager Michael Hart, Toyota chose the VESDA suite due to its early detection capability; this had been lacking in the car-maker’s previous fire protection system, he said.

“The existing system consisted of thermal detectors and a sprinkler system; these systems required flaming fire or a significant thermal event to activate. The VESDA system is capable of detecting fire events at the earliest stage,” said Hart.

The Xtralis team installed 26 VESDA Laser Plus units at the Toyota plant, each treated as a detection zone, making locating and identifying an event location more effective. These detection zones were wired back to a fire indicator panel and a VSM4 management system, Hart explained.

“VESDA works by continuously drawing air into a distributed pipe network via a high-efficiency aspirator. The air sample then passes through a dual-stage filter. The first stage removes dust and dirt from the air sample before it enters the laser detection chamber. The second, ultra-fine stage provides an additional clean-air supply to keep the detector’s optical surfaces free from contamination, ensuring stable calibration and long detector life as well as minimising nuisance alarms,” said Hart.

“The VESDA units provide ‘Absolute’ detection, meaning the sensitivity of the detector can be confirmed and configured to best suit the environment that it is protecting.

“From the filter, the air sample goes through a calibrated detection chamber where it is exposed to a laser light source. When smoke is present, light is scattered within the detection chamber and is instantly identified by the highly-sensitive receiver system.

“The signal is then processed and presented via a bar-graph display, alarm threshold indicators and/or a graphic display. VESDA detectors can then communicate the event information to a fire alarm control panel, a software management system or a building management system, via relays or a High Level Interface (HLI).”