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The future of steel construction in South Africa

The great movie maker Sam Goldwyn said "Never make forecasts, especially about the future." And that was in an era when the future was a lot more predictable than it is at the moment, especially for the global steel industry - including South Africa - which seems to be in a constant state of flux.

Nevertheless, it is of value to think about the longer term future from time to time, and to make sure you are prepared for both the opportunities and the risks it holds, at least those that you can identify. (The 'known unknowns', in Donald Rumsfeld's words.) This is exactly what happened during the recent SteelFuture conference of the SA Institute of Steel Construction, when we had authorities from all over the world discussing the issues facing the steel construction industry. The conference dealt with only a segment of the steel industry, but some 45% of the steel produced in the world goes into construction; more in developing countries, where the majority of steel will go in future. So what was discussed at the conference was of great importance to the steel industry.

The slowdown in the world economy seems set to last for some time, with a very negative impact on the steel industry. But in the longer term, the outlook for steel looks very bright. The population of the world is growing inexorably – the adults of the future are already born, while billions of young people are having children. People are flooding into the cities of the world, especially the big ones, and their standards of living are rising as people become economically more active. So it's all on the cards: huge volumes of housing, places for work or entertainment and relaxation, factories, facilities to generate energy and every other thing you can think of will be required. And these constructions will have to be executed with a minimum of impact on society and the environment.

Steel looks like the obvious candidate material for the construction of future facilities. There's an abundance of steel, and steel is actually very cheap (about the same price per ton as soft drinks). Steel is also very sustainable, especially because it can be endlessly recycled and because one needs to use a relatively small mass of it to achieve a certain objective, like building a multi-storey building.

But it became clear during the conference that steel's strength lies in the fact that it is so strongly aligned with the emerging technologies of the world. A term heard repeatedly during the conference was 'BIM' (Building Information Modelling), referring to computer software that allows the three-dimensional modelling of projects, with a fourth dimension (time) and a fifth (money) added. Another aspect that received much attention was new generation equipment for the fabrication of structural steelwork, and innovations with respect to construction. Adding these things together, one can look forward to a time when the fabrication process will require a fraction of the present man hours with complete facilities being built in a fraction of the time now required.

Some of what was discussed during the conference is already reality, if only at the leading organisations of the world. But much work needs to be done in order to realise the full potential of steel in construction. As a first step, what now happens only at the pinnacles of development needs to be popularised and made into common practice. Some of this willrequire somewhat of a fight against 'human nature'. For example, it became clear that in order to realise the full potential of BIM one needs a collaborative approach to construction projects and contracts. Otherwise the advanced technology could  merely become a tool for taking the traditional conflicts between the parties on construction projects to a more sophisticated level. Much work also needs to be done to advance the available technologies. Robotic welding, for example, holds much promise for streamlining and mechanising the fabrication process, but it is not yet user friendly enough or sufficiently integrated into the BIM process to make it economical on relatively short runs.

It is important for the steel construction industry to realise that the world of the future will not need stronger steel columns and beams, or even ones that are very efficiently fabricated and erected; it will need solutions to its housing problem, its transportation problems, its energy problems, and many others. Anybody who can make a significant contribution to the solution of these problems stands to make a huge amount of money, while those who just supply beams and columns will be in the commodities business, having to accept what they can get in the face of intense local and international competition.

It is against this background that the SAISC has embarked on a project to develop an entirely new way of constructing office buildings of up to six storeys – by far the majority of office buildings in the world. Development work has already progressed quite far, and we are currently engaged in full scale testing to ensure that all aspects of the system work as intended. We hope to unveil the system to the public before the end of 2013.

The approach the SAISC is working on is not limited to fabricating and erecting a structure, but to enable the rapid creation of a whole building, ready for occupancy and with exceptional sustainability credentials, including complete reusability of the structure. This, we believe, will allow the steel construction industry to take a step away from a singular emphasis on tons of steel, towards adding more value to each ton.

The potential for steel in the construction industry of the future is huge, but it will require leadership. The big steel mills are no longer engaged in research and development as they used to be in times past. Steelwork contractors, including the biggest among them, are not doing much R&D. So the question is: who will lead the industry to develop the products, systems and approaches to enable steel to be the preeminent material of the future?

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