SPARKS fly in the modest workshop as a one-armed mechanic is polishing down a heavy
yellow-painted cylinder with a grinding machine. In the garage next door, somebody
is banging away on an array of steel objects, while his overall-clad colleague has
stuck his head and a couple of wrenches into what looks like the jaws of a giant
The Tempest brushcutter.
The technicians at the Development Technology Workshop (DTW) are hard at work, doing
maintenance and repairs on one of their brushcutting machines.
It's been out in the field, chewing up bushes, trees and branches for the demining
organization Mines Advisory Group (MAG), and needs a routine checkup before it goes
back into service.
And the brushcutter is back in the workshop, having proven itself to be a success
in the minefields.
One big problem for mine clearance operations has always been that a minefield has
to be cleared of vegetation before the deminers and their metal detectors can move
in. With many minefields in forests or overgrown fallow fields, vegetation clearance
can take days or weeks, wasting precious time that could be used on actually finding
and digging out the mines.
The brushcutter, which goes by the name "Tempest", makes mincemeat of that
problem. Inside a big square housing - the hippopotamus jaws - at the front of the
machine, heavy metal chains rotate at great speed, crushing every bit of vegetation
that gets in its way. What is left in the Tempest's wake is nothing but a fine layer
of ultra-light splinters.
Rolling steadily along on its four jagged metal treads, the Tempest will clear at
least 1,000 square meters of land in a day. When MAG initially tried the machine
out in the field, they found that it increased demining efficiency by 50 to 70 percent.
On top of that the Tempest is locally produced. Except for a few delicate components
like the remote control system, most components of the machine are bought in Cambodia
and assembled in the small DTW workshop outside Phnom Penh. The staff consists of
eight Cambodian technicians - including two amputees - and two British engineers.
"The first prototype of the Tempest was produced in England; when we brought
it out here, all the Cambodians were standing around, looking at it, scratching their
heads and saying 'No, no, cannot make in Cambodia'," remembers Program Manager
Harold Pearson, who started the DTW in October 1998.
"But of course it's possible to make machines like this in Cambodia. It's just
a question of training people the right way and using the right materials. We were
aware of problems in other countries with having correct maintenance and spare parts
for machinery. That's why 80 percent of the Tempest's parts come from Cambodia and
it's assembled here, by Cambodians."
Originally, the plan was that Pearson and the other British engineer, John Wright,
would hand the entire operation over to DTW's Cambodian staff, but the way things
are going, both Pearson and Wright may stay around a while longer.
the chains inside its hippopotamus-like jaws that make mincemeat
of everything in its path.
"We keep developing the features of the machines. Right now, MAG has asked us
to try to fit magnets on the Tempest to try to gather up surface metal while it's
cutting. So far our training of Cambodian staff has concentrated on producing the
machine. We haven't yet done enough training on design and construction to hand this
aspect over to the Cambodian staff," Pearson says.
Currently three DTW brushcutters are rolling around in Cambodia. Two others that
were mainly produced in England are working in Bosnia. And another two have just
been tested in the United States and will soon be put into service with the Thai
demining agency TMAC.
Using machinery to aid human deminers is nothing new, but the Tempest has a number
of advantages over other brushcutters in the market. It's remote controlled and can
be operated by a team of three people, one of whom is always resting, so the machine
can run continuously.
The most important feature of the Tempest is its size: at 3.8 meters long and weighing
a mere 2.6 tons the Tempest is probably the smallest and most handy brushcutter in
the market. Other models are normally based on tank designs and weigh between 10
and 20 tons.
"Some organizations seem to think in terms of magnitude," says Pearson.
"'There's a big area to clear of mines, so we need big machines,' they say.
But a big machine is not necessarily more efficient, if the deminers can't keep up
with it. Also, you need special vehicles to transport these machines.
Wright adds: "I don't know how anybody ever imagined that they will get any
of the big machines down the Cambodian roads - or over the bridges for that matter."
By contrast, the Tempest can be loaded on to a normal truck and moved quickly to
a new location.
Yet, for all its advantages, the Tempest and DTW have one major problem: money.
DTW started out in 1998 as a humanitarian organization on a grant from the British
Government, but is now surviving primarily on revenue from selling the brushcutters.
Cash flow is restricted, and DTW has no core funding, so it simply can't afford to
produce a new machine unless it has already secured a buyer. Production takes three
to four months, and the buyer has to pay in advance. This has scared off potential
John Wright says: "We've had inquiries from Israel, Mozambique and other places,
but they all fell through because the customers can't wait four months to get their
machines. They may also be on a time-limited contract and can't afford to be delayed
DTW could solve that problem if it constantly had one finished machine ready in stock.
The machine could immediately be shipped off to the buyer, and a new brushcutter
could be produced from the revenue.
However, DTW has not been able to find a sponsor who would fork out the $85,000 to
produce a stock brushcutter. Pearson speculates that donors may be hesitant because
DTW is a little too involved in private sector business.
Wright adds: "But that doesn't really make sense. I thought most people have
realized that if you want to do sustainable development it has to have a commercial
element in it. It simply has to be profitable."