Inspired by nature

This is a copy of a feature article from tt100, written in response to Air Blow Fans winning their Innovation Concepts Award in 2022.

The word “unique” is one that’s bandied around a lot but Gavin Ratner can use it with absolute confidence. The MD of Air Blow Fans knows the company’s new industrial-strength fan design is one-of-a-kind because any similarity to its predecessor would land it in very hot water.

“We sold the intellectual property to a Canadian company and any hint of copying would see us being sued,” says Gavin.

So, on returning to South Africa four years ago, Air Blow Fans started designing a new fan completely from scratch. “The concept is so unique and different that a client in Ghana phoned to ask me what was wrong with it,” he says.

The client was worried about the strange “bumps” on the blades of the new product.

Gavin explained that the bumps were there on purpose and had been inspired by similar protuberances on the fins of whales – a nature-inspired technique known as biomimicry.

“The bumps help with the flow of water over the whale’s fins so that they glide more efficiently through the ocean. We applied biomimicry, fluid mechanics and every other computational model you can think of to ensure performance meets expectations.”

The fan design also benefited from new codes, new processes and the collective expertise of five full-time R&D team members, including a technical director with a PhD in turbomachinery and an aeronautical engineer with a master’s in aeronautics. Such skills are not for show: the fans we’re talking about here could be compared to a low-pressure jet engine.

Aeronautically dynamic and nature-inspired, the new fan system “performs better than anything else that’s available and is more efficient at all levels”, says Gavin, including noise (less not more), speed (much faster) and monitoring maintenance capabilities (proactive).

This can save clients significant amounts of money.

“We have a client who previously had to shut down the whole plant in order to shut the fan down so that it could cool down and be cleaned, balanced and started up again. This system predicts when something is out of balance on the fan and corrects it on the fly,” says Gavin, adding that it has already saved this client two shutdowns that would have cost millions.

“This concept has taken a long time and cost a lot in investment in R&D, and we are introducing it to the market slowly because we don’t want to oversell and overpromise,” he says. “If we are not completely happy with the design of one of our fans, I would rather phone the client and say we won’t deliver. This is not a short-term game.”

Gavin Ratner with tt100 award
Air Blow Fans, winner of the Innovation Concepts Award in the category for medium enterprises