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S.A. Steel Construction Industry Poised for Growth

In terms of product quality, design capability, manufacturing technology and customer service in general, the South African steel construction industry competes favourably with most of its first-world counterparts. This is the opinion of Southern African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC) executive director, Dr Hennie de Clercq. “In the past few years the local steel construction industry has invested heavily in modernising its processes and in creating additional capacity. In so doing, it has become one of the most capable industries of its kind in the world,” says de Clercq.

He says that although there has been a significant reduction in the demand for steel structures over the last year or so because of the world economic situation, most of the larger local companies, as a result of the expansion in infrastructure, most notably the new power stations, have more or less maintained their output levels.

On the question of the role of the Institute at this time de Clercq says it is essentially two-pronged: to assist the industry to survive these difficult times and to assist in enabling the industry become more of a world player when the economy recovers.

With regard to the former de Clercq says the emphasis at the moment is to protect the local market against foreign competition. “We have proved on several projects, like the power stations for example, that we can do this and we are constantly pursuing several projects in and around South Africa to ensure that they will be built by South Africans, with South African steel and labour,” he says.

To succeed in this, says de Clercq, we need to ensure that state-owned enterprises can make use of local suppliers with more confidence.

“Working with the government’s Competitive Supplier Development Programme (CSDP) and our involvement with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) is an integral part of the process.

The SAISC is collaborating with UNIDO in benchmarking the South African steel construction industry against other steel construction industries in the world. “This will help us establish where our industry can institute improvements that would make us even more successful both locally and internationally,” says de Clercq.
De Clercq says that a world class and continuously improving local steel construction industry will play an important role in the future development of South Africa and that the Institute is doing all it can to ensure this. He added that it’s not only the local steel construction industry that should be keeping up with world standards, but all local industry.

“In spite of these efforts,” says de Clercq, “there are still large projects where state-owned enterprises are seduced into using foreign steel.” Over the last two years 20 000 tons was imported from India for a state project prompting the SAISC to launch a specific initiative to prevent a reoccurrence in that particular industry and others. “We’re constantly monitoring imports to see which ones we cam match locally,” he says.

With respect to the export market, de Clercq says that while the current strength of the rand is certainly problematic, the local industry is sufficiently skilled and has enough spare capacity - which it did not have in recent years - to be competitive in foreign markets.

“In conjunction with the South African International Steel Fabricators (ISF) we have made significant strides in recent times in the development of new markets across the globe.”

An excursion earlier this year, where ISF took three of its leading members, Cosira, DSE and Vital Engineering to South America to network with a variety of steel construction players, is a good example.

“In developing export markets, meeting people face to face is essential,” says de Clercq, and this has paid off for our industry. South African fabricators have an excellent name in South America and many other regions - and our ability to serve these markets is known by most of the industry there.”

De Clercq adds that relevant projects are being monitored worldwide and one in particular that is being followed closely is Canadian miner Barrick’s Pascua Lama project on the borders of Chile and Argentina. Barrick says the mine will produce 750 000 -800 000 oz/y of gold and 35M oz/y of silver in its first five years and where startup capex now stands at almost US$ 3 billion. “This is a massive project and will alone require more than 20 000 tons of structural steel for the fabrication of the plant, materials handling and other infrastructure.”

Training and education is fundamental to the ongoing success of any industry and their successful promotion and implementation in the steel construction industry is a responsibility that the SAISC takes very seriously. “We facilitate the improvement of the industry and the smooth running of the processes through extensive training programmes,” says de Clercq.

This year alone training courses included: Basics of Steel, Light Industrial Buildings and Connections, Best Practice, Design of Heavy Industrial Buildings, Design of Structures for Conveyors and Chutes, Protecting Steelwork against Corrosion and Fire and, in November, a world-first conference on the design of mining-related structures that has attracted many leading experts in their fields both local and foreign including Anglo American’s Drs Geoff Krige and Alvin Masarira, Lincoln Electric’s Duane Miller, Hatch Australia’s Sabaratnam Logonathan, Hatch South Africa’s Francois du Toit and many others.

Another important initiative is the Assemblers course (see article in this feature), which is on the point of becoming a fully fledged national qualification and an RPL (Recognition of Prior Learning).

De Clercq says that one of the crucial functions of the Institute is to help the professions become better at design and specification of structural steelwork. “Steel should be the preferred material for architects, engineers and quantity surveyors. It’s easier to work with, less risky and generally more lucrative than other materials and a lot of our training and much of the information we disseminate focus on developing this consciousness.”

Steel in construction has grown significantly in popularity in recent years, says de Clercq and, given that the market is now past last year’s hiatus of unusually high steel prices resulting from excessive demand, the steel industry, both local and global, is ready to respond favourably to any upturn in the demand for steel structures.

“It remains only for us to continue our work on the image of steel as a construction material, of the local steel construction industry and of the Institute itself,” says de Clercq. “This will be achieved through many avenues including our most important promotion – Steel Awards.”

Steel Awards 2009, attracted a record number of entries with the overall winner, the Moses Mabhida soccer stadium in Durban, attracting worldwide attention. “The standard of the entries was phenomenal,” says de Clercq. “This showed both the magnificent prowess of the local steel construction industry and the exceptional and economical nature of steel as a construction material,” he concluded.

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