AWTA’s focusses on automation to improve raw wool testing and remain efficient and viable

Headshot of Aidan Smith
Aidan SmithCountryman
Australian Wool Testing Authority raw wool general manager Brendon van Rensburg.
Camera IconAustralian Wool Testing Authority raw wool general manager Brendon van Rensburg. Credit: Aidan Smith/Countryman

The Australian Wool Testing Authority is focusing on automation as it continues its extensive in-house research and development program to provide accurate, efficient and certified testing to facilitate the trade of Australian wool globally.

Robotics and other technological advancements have proven too be useful tools for achieving energy and labour cost reductions, which will ultimately enable the AWTA to minimise wool testing fees.

Three months into the top job and Australian Wool Testing Authority general manager raw wool, Brendon van Rensburg, is excited about the future of the industry, with the in-house designed and 3-D printed robot’s applications being tested and evaluated on the floor.

“We are working hard to implement robotics and Radio Frequency ID technology — it’s about managing our labour, but also energy costs,” Mr Van Rensburg said.

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The Bibra Lake site is open to woolgrowers, schools and other industry groups for tours, to see for themselves the high-tech testing process at the purpose built facility.

“We often get grower groups and students from universities and Ag colleges — we are happy to take people on tours and show them what we do,” he said.

General photo of bales of wool.
Camera IconGeneral photo of bales of wool. Credit: Bob Garnant/Countryman

Mr Van Rensburg travels between AWTA’s two wool testing sites in WA and Victoria, working with the management group to oversee operations, while constantly looking for areas of improvement.

South African-born, he undertook his tertiary studies in semiconductor physics at the University of Port Elizabeth, before taking up a role in laboratory operations at the South African Wool Testing Bureau from 1995-2002.

“I thought, ‘this wool testing thing, how complicated can it be?” he said.

“I walked in there and ‘holy smoke!’, I didn’t know there was this much to it.

“It’s much the same reaction people have when they come and see what we do during tours.”

While he started as a “laboratory controller” he fairly quickly got into equipment design and manufacture, and then commissioning the equipment and machines at various overseas facilities.

After moving to Napier, New Zealand, in 2002, and working at the NZ Wool Testing Authority as the technology development manager, he became involved in the Merino industry there, and was also part of the project team to build a new laboratory in North Wales, in the UK.

“I spent a long period of time designing, fitting out and commissioning that lab — about 5-6 months,” he said.

In 2006 he moved to AWTA’s then Sydney laboratory in Yennora, as a sampling manager for NSW and QLD, and in July 2010 relocated to Fremantle as the laboratory operations manager.

From 2012-2023 Mr Van Rensburg was the senior manager for WA, before taking on his current role as general manager raw wool.

He said while he is responsible for the raw wool side of the business, he is “ably supported by a team of experienced, capable managers”.

“This includes the wool testing operations in WA and Victoria, as well as the engineering and research staff, who also report to me now,” he said.

Strength testing a staple of wool.
Camera IconStrength testing a staple of wool. Credit: Laurie Benson

The core business of AWTA remains testing greasy wool accurately and efficiently, to client expectations, while supporting the trade of Australian wool globally.

“The focus is not on operating profits, but rather managing expenses,” Mr Van Rensburg said.

“Naturally it is in the industry’s interest that AWTA, which is effectively industry-owned, remains a viable business, so any profits are reinvested into projects that help us keep testing fees down.”

Mr Van Rensburg said there were other “exciting projects in the pipeline” too, which were part of AWTA’s constant pursuit of improving efficiency and service.

The WA facility recently had 1100 solar panels installed on the roof, so in peak times close to 40 per cent of its power comes from the sun.

Last season the Australian average lot size was ~6 bales/lot, and for a yield and micron test for such a lot the AWTA charges $48.68 including GST.

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