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  1. Technology
July 15, 1991


By CBR Staff Writer

As reported briefly, ICL Plc last month put into action its new underground computer test site in Winsford, Cheshire (CI No 1,703). The new site, which will operate in addition to the existing open field facility in Kidsgrove, near Stoke-on-Trent, and the screened testing in West Gorton, Manchester, is located 600 feet below the surface, in a previously unused section of the only remaining working salt mine in the UK, which ICL has leased from ICI Plc. Putney, London-based ICL signed the lease last September and has spent the last nine months cutting salt, investing UKP1m in converting its allotted 110,000 square feet into a largely automated subterranean testing zone, where electromagnetic radiation emissions can be monitored without inteference from cellular radio and television frequencies. Screening from ambient cross-frequencies means faster time to market, since there is no longer the need for the tedious manual task of differentiating between computer and alien emissions ICL estimates that test times will be reduced by a ratio of five to one, or to a matter of hours rather than days or weeks. The site will also be used to test ICL machines’ succeptibility to electromagnetic radiation emitted from other electrical items the salt environment ensures that this radiation is fully absorbed, so not harming the poor souls that have to work down the mine. And the sheltered site maintains the temperature at 14oC all year round – no more windy and wet days spent in remote open field test sites. ICL believes that the trouble and expense of setting up the salt mine laboratory will be justified when January 1992 comes around and the European Commission implements its new directive on user-friendly electrical goods – from January, manufacturers of all electrical items will have to bring their products in line with new European regulations covering noise, heat and radiation emissions and power consumption.

By Susan Norris

With its new site, ICL reckons all its products will be up to scratch by January, and therefore deserving of the European Committee for Electromagnetic Standardisation, CENELEC, CE stamp of approval – an incentive for manufacturers to put some speed into bringing their EC regulation-compliant products to market. Those manufacturers that are slower off the mark will have until 1995 to bring their products in line with the new standard, but ICL hopes to gain market share by being the first to conform. The company has erected a huge sterilised plastic circus tent in the salt cavern, where the testing can be carried out without fear of salt particles getting into the circuitry. A screened room contains an ICL Series 39 Level 35XP mainframe, which can be linked to the products being tested to simulate working office conditions. Going into the mine requires the same safety precautions as entering any mine, and working down there can’t be a lot of fun, despite ICL’s assurances that employees are fighting to get down there, because the working conditions are so good – there is no pay incentive for working underground, because ICL reckons it is reward enough for lab experts to be able to conduct product testing in such ideal conditions. The new testing site doesn’t create any new job opportunities, since the new ease of monitoring radiation frequencies has enabled the automation of much of the testing process – small teams of around seven electronics experts work down there in one shift. Tom Hincliffe, director of ICL’s corporate systems division in Manchester, says there is every possibility that ICL will sub-lease some of its underground estate to Fujitsu Ltd, or to any other company that comes up with the right offer – but of course these companies are equally able to lease their own underground sites from ICI.

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