Archive: November 30, 2023

SAISC warns local sector to steel itself for knock-on effects of ArcelorMittal’s Newcastle mill closure

The imminent closure of the ArcelorMittal Newcastle ‘long’ steel products operation in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, is likely to cause considerable turbulence within the local steel sector, with potential projected ‘knock-on’ effects including product shortages, quality issues and even price increases, according to Southern African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC) Chief Executive Officer, Amanuel Gebremeskel.

Commenting on an announcement by ArcelorMittal South Africa in which the company advised that it had had exhausted all options and could not save the mill from closure, Gebremeskel warns that shutting down the only remaining fully integrated mill – and the largest producer of long steel products in South Africa – could have serious repercussions.

Economic challenges and supply shortages

According to ArcelorMittal South Africa’s board and management, aggressive cost-saving initiatives, improved raw material cost-savings, asset footprint adjustments and other productivity measures had unfortunately not managed to counter the combined impact of a slow economy,  difficult trading environment, high logistics costs and protracted grid energy supply issues.

“The production and supply of all long products will be affected, including UB, UC, IPE, angles, channels and rods. This will no doubt affect the local and regional market considerably, especially for those products such as UB and UC profiles where ArcelorMittal SA is the sole remaining local producer.

Mini-mills, merchants and service centres are likely to play a crucial role in making up the shortfall that will be left by the mill closure, having to expand and ramp up their production accordingly to procure new sources of structural steel in the case of merchants and service centres, and billets or scrap metal in the case of the mini-mills. However, this will inevitably take time.

In addition, while we have several mini-mills producing good quality long steel products, their range may be limited. The mill closure may also have an adverse effect on the price of steel. In turn, various projects which are in the planning stages may be adversely affected both in terms of cost and scheduling,” Gebremeskel observes.

However, he adds that the engineers, detailers, merchants, fabricators and contractors who know how to design, specify and procure steel in such a way that the market disruption does not negatively affect their projects, will succeed despite challenges moving forward.

Benefits of beneficiation

The Newcastle mill is the only remaining fully integrated mill in South Africa which converts iron ore into long product steel. Other mills either recycle steel, or use billets as their input material when making long products.

Gebremeskel points out that this is significant when it comes to the local beneficiation of South Africa’s abundant iron ore resources, which are mainly exported to steel manufacturers around the world.

He also laments the projected 3 500 job losses, in an area where unemployment is already high. “These are very worrying – particularly considering the already high levels of unemployment in South Africa. The steel industry provides well-paid, quality jobs and any manufacturing facility closure is therefore of great concern. Various jobs at value-adding service providers that are linked to the Newcastle operation will also be adversely affected,” he comments. 

Steel quality and availability

Just as concerning, he adds, is that the SAISC – which is the acknowledged industry authority on South African structural steel material availability, training, technical specifications and standards – will have to reconsider the quality and range of steel products which are available locally, and communicate its findings to the market.

“Steel specifiers will also need to follow the market closely to ensure that the steel sections that they require are available, in the desired quantity and quality. Alternatively, they will need to think about redesigning their structures using substitute steel sections until the market stabilises,” he advises.

“Fabricators will have to communicate very closely and frequently with merchants, service centres and specifiers early in the design phase, so that only sections that are available in the desired timeframe, quality and quantity are specified. Contractors will also have to communicate very early on in the project life-cycle with fabricators, merchants and service centres – to ensure that material shortages or quality issues do not delay projects,” he continues.

Gebremeskel advises project owners to be aware of the inevitable transitionary challenges, and to make sure that they allocate sufficient budgets and set realistic lead-times when it comes to the structural steel required for their projects.

Quality supports sector sustainability

Most importantly, he also cautions the entire steel supply chain to be aware of quality issues that could potentially arise, and to support the SAISC in its ongoing quality initiative; as well as its mission and objective to develop and promote high standards within the industry.

“The closure of an established and high-quality long product manufacturing steel mill means that we will have to diversify our sources of long product steel. Inevitably, this means we will – more than ever – need a quality regime to closely monitor the steel which will either be imported, or be manufactured by smaller mills.

As the designated custodian of all technical matters related to structural steel, the SAISC spearheads this quality initiative on behalf of the South African steel sector, as the promotion of quality throughout the sector contributes to its ongoing viability and sustainability. We therefore call on all players in the steel value chain to support this vital initiative, so that we can maintain our lead in the design, manufacture and construction of high-quality steel projects locally and Pan-Africa,” Gebremeskel concludes.

Expanding its roots and growing the tree of knowledge: DEKRA IOL celebrates local success and Pan-African expansion

In theory at least, a qualification helps a person get a job. But not everyone is cut out for university or college and, very often, tertiary education does not equip a person directly for the workplace. The DEKRA Institute of Learning (IOL) develops people who are not just qualified but employable, according to Chris Mörsner, Head of Training at this groundbreaking QCTO-accredited educational institution.

“One of our most pressing goals is to address one of the biggest challenges faced by South African industry today: building up a base of skilled employees, who can successfully navigate daily operational challenges,” says Mörsner.

He concedes that it is hard work, but the already enormous and ever-increasing demand for occupational training indicates just how important a gap DEKRA IOL is filling.

“This is also a step-by-step process, starting with the training and wellness of our own employees. By putting down sturdy roots through the development and empowerment of our people, we are establishing an ethos and setting an operational example of hard work and dedication for our students. That is why – every day – we strive to live by what we say,” he explains. 

The mantra and ethos that DEKRA IOL lives by is encapsulated in the concept of building a strong foundation by establishing strong roots. It is these very same roots which are the reason for the Institute’s incredibly successful year, Mörsner believes.

Deep roots for a bright future

Notwithstanding its alignment with the latest learning and educational trends and developments in the workplace, DEKRA IOL has deep roots which are nearly 100 years old. Part of a 98-year-old global group, and with a formidable reputation built up over the years and an innate understanding of the demands of local industry, the IOL’s parent company DEKRA Industrial is a Pan-African leader in inspection services, non-destructive testing (NDT), material testing, laboratory services, advanced NDT, asset integrity services. DEKRA IOL leads the field in terms  of occupational skills training and adult-based education.

Skills training provided through DEKRA IOL is applicable within a multitude of industries, including power generation, oil and gas, construction, petrochemical, manufacturing, fabrication, pulp and paper, rail, mining, steel industry and foundries.

For Mörsner, the true value to be found in this wide range of  skills training, industry-related full qualifications and occupational education comes through the combination of practical, theoretical and workplace components – which is always geared towards gainful employment. This also reflects the IOL’s 2028 vision to offer all forms of training and skills development, and to making a sustainable difference in reducing unemployment.

“In light of this, the roots metaphor is so apt. It refers to the tree of knowledge – a symbol for education – and also a tree that shelters and gives life. This all starts with us putting down roots, investing in our own people, training our own staff, so that each one gives the best they can, every day.

Currently, we are very successful, however that success comes with responsibility. Once you set the standard and reach the top, it takes an effort to stay there. Therefore, you have to remain humble, stick to your beliefs and keep returning to your roots,” he maintains.

Growing the tree of knowledge, expanding roots

Looking back over 2023, Mörsner says the greatest demand has been for instruction as a forklift operator which DEKRA IOL is able to offer through its partner Willco Safety and Training, which specialises in machine operator training. 

Another growing area which he expects to become even more sought-after next year is First Aid training. Pending changes in rules and regulations governing first aid accreditation have seen new elements being added to the training offered. Once DEKRA IOL has received its accreditation to meet these requirements, it will be the first occupational training institution in the country to offer the updated courses. 

An even more exciting growth spurt involves DEKRA IOL’s expansion into Africa, starting in Uganda and then expanding into 17 African countries over the next few months, providing process safety consulting and training including zone calculations and flammability source identification for a large Pan-African distillery.

In addition, the Institute is finalising a proposal which – if accepted – will secure a training deal for 2 500 branches of a large local retail group in aspects such as visual merchandising, and logistically-related training on facilities and warehousing management, including receiving and dispatching of goods. 

Mörsner says training for staff at the distillery will be relatively specific to that sector – such as atmospheric testing. However, tuition for the retail company will involve the provision of a wider spread of skills, which are also sought-after in many other industries.

He admits that DEKRA IOL’s push into Africa will test the company’s educational approach. While digital or online training has really gained popularity in South Africa, African clients prefer in-person training.

“This is what we will provide to the Pan-African distillery client. However, for the retail company, we will provide all 3 learning methods in a hybrid ‘blended learning’ model: a combination of classroom-based, in-person and online modules,” he points out.

As an enthusiastic custodian of the ‘tree of knowledge’ and excited by the imminent expansion of our roots into Africa, we are looking forward to meeting the adult education and occupational training requirements of many different industries locally and throughout Africa, in 2024 and beyond!” Mörsner concludes.

Steel Awards Pan-African Trailblazer sponsor Macsteel supports steel innovation and reinvention across Africa

Innovation, quality and capability are hallmarks of a Pan-Africa trailblazer, and therefore no surprise that Macsteel, a leading manufacturer, merchandiser and distributor of steel and value-added steel products was first in line to take up the highly sought-after Pan-African Trailblazer sponsorship opportunity at the 2023 South African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC) Steel Awards.

Trailblazing innovation was also the mainstay of one of the Steel Awards’ most exciting category winners. The Azmet Reactors project – which won the Mining and Industrial as well as the Best Export Project categories – comprised a combination of six colossal reactors in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

This distinctive project was recognised for its precision engineering, use of steel and overcoming seemingly insurmountable logistical challenges. It also represents the innovation, tenacity and foresight – which

Macsteel’s CEO Mike Benfield believes reflects the spirit and essence of what it means to be a pan-African trailblazer.

Pursuing reinvention

In addition, the project is closely aligned with Macsteel’s operational ethos of ‘Pursuing Reinvention’ which, in turn, reflects and supports the Pan-African Trailblazer sponsorship concept.

Benfield believes it is important to support organisations such as the SAISC, which provide a platform for members of the steel value chain to drive a common agenda in the  sector, while also fostering a ‘Team Africa’ approach to  quality and collaboration across the continent. This is increasingly important, as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement becomes a reality.

“The SAISC Steel Awards also encourage innovation, which is the ethos and mantra we live by. We are role players in a very old field, and so we need to continuously innovate and improve the way in which we do things. The whole steel sector needs to reinvent itself. We need to make people think about steel in different ways,” Benfield points out.

Not reinventing the wheel, reinventing steel

In the Macsteel ethos, steel touches every aspect of people’s lives and indeed society as a whole. The best feature of the Steel Awards, according to Benfield, is that the entire steel supply chain is recognised: not just suppliers, but also the architects, fabricators and contractors involved in projects. 

“Furthermore, in pursuing reinvention, Macsteel advocates for the entire steel value chain – including clients – to consider steel in ways which are different, unusual and more cost-effective. We have to begin thinking of steel as more than a material of construction: rather, as a construction innovation, or an architectural feature, emphasising safety and aesthetics. Any construction – from the mining to the residential sector – can showcase the innovative use of steel, elevating and reinforcing its relevance throughout a broad spectrum of sectors,” he continues.

“There are several examples in our own operations where we have successfully combined innovation and reinvention. A recent high-profile example is the Pick ‘n Pay Distribution Centre East Port project, joint winner of the 2023 Steel Awards Factory and Warehouse category, the Innovation and Sustainability category and recipient of the Best Project Gauteng award.

One of the stand-out features of this project was the need for extremely long roofing sheets, and a unique roof curvature. Both of these factors or challenges were easily overcome through the application of Macsteel’s innovative ‘sky-forming’ method to roll and shape the roofing sheets accurately and cost-effectively. A crowning achievement was that this earned the project a place in the Guinness World Records for the longest continuous roof sheet.

Another innovation example is a product we produce, cellular steel beams, a modern version of the traditional castellated beam, made from a patented double-cut profiling process to achieve greater load carrying capacity and stiffness. Cellular beams offer a far wider range of applications to achieve long clear spans, service integration and shallow floor depths. The product is also aesthetically pleasing – an appealing trait for architects! These are the kinds of solutions we can provide while steel projects are still in the design stage,” he explains.

Africa ‘under construction’

Another key factor in Macsteel’s eagerness to be the Pan-African Trailblazer sponsor is the fact that it focuses on Africa, and the capabilities of the South African steel sector in completing excellent Pan-African steel projects. Benfield emphasises that with a vast amount of infrastructure required, Africa is still ‘under construction’ – which creates massive opportunities for local steel companies.

“In Africa, the fundamental building blocks are there, but further beneficiation must be targeted for Africa to achieve its fullest potential. Only  basic commodities are currently being produced – however beneficiation is now almost a requirement for viable Pan-African economic growth. Therefore, innovation and reinvention are needed more than ever before! Beneficiation will grow the economy and, when this happens, it drives the demand for steel. This then becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of demand.     

African economies depend on commodities, and steel has a crucial role to play in driving further beneficiation, downstream of the basic commodity. The use of steel is integral to mining, and the lives of mines can be extended when costs reduce. Through the use of steel and innovating around it, this can also be achieved. The ore body becomes more viable when a mine becomes more efficient. In this way, the entire future of the mine is extended, along with the entire mining community which it supports,” Benfield points out.

However, he concedes that in Africa, the greatest challenge is that cost remains a determining factor: 

“The prevailing view seems to be that ‘tomorrow will be better, but today there is only so much to spend’. As a result, from the South African steel sector perspective, we should be fabricating and supplying innovatively, highlighting the benefits of steel as a material of construction. We need to focus on the pain points our clients will encounter during design and construction – and set about finding creative new ways to use steel to meet those challenges.”

Steel challenges and opportunities

As Benfield notes, most African governments tend to be vague and contradictory when it comes to economic policy and the consistent application thereof, which can be a grave impediment to  the contribution of steel in growing the economy. On this point, although the evolution of a buoyant steel industry can create jobs, stimulate manufacturing and localisation, a stable local economy is definitely a prerequisite.

There is also a pervasive distrust of the private sector, which often prevents governments working together with companies to constructively address pressing infrastructural and developmental issues. 

“Governments need to collaborate with the private sector to build Pan-African economies. The private sector has capital, can secure financing, absorb a certain amount of risk and has the relevant experience and skills to invest in a discernible trajectory. However, when economic growth is predicated on state-owned enterprises (SEOs) which are hamstrung by corruption, progress stalls. Governments need to change the way they think,” he advises.

This brings him back to the importance of the Steel Awards, which celebrate the role of steel in the economy and showcase excellence and reinvention.

“When excellence and high standards become the baseline of a project, opportunities abound as the demand for quality grows, and the cost of quality reduces due to economies of scale. This needs to start right at project inception, with the architects, specifiers, designers and fabricators. By setting high standards from the outset, and investing in lowering the total cost of the project, over its entire duration, a far higher value is achieved for its owners and stakeholders,” he emphasises. 

He furthermore acknowledges that local steel sector companies cannot compete with their Asian counterparts when it comes to the price of steel. This requires Africa to fix its internal issues to become more competitive and build an export footprint. Here, the ‘Team Africa’ concept will play an important role.

“By working together, we can pool our skills and resources, build relationships and improve competitiveness. South African-based steel value chain participants must also remember that their greatest asset is that they are resilient, resourceful – and that they know and understand Africa.

As Macsteel, we always pursue reinvention. It is our core ethos and value proposition, and we will wholeheartedly support any project which reflects this. Given this, we view our Steel Awards Pan-African Trailblazer sponsorship as more than just an event sponsorship – but as the embodiment of our support for South African steel sector innovation and excellence across the Africa,” Benfield concludes.

A Cut Above The Rest – GSI and First Cut showcase S.A.T. welding system at Essen Welding and Cutting

The Essen Welding and Cutting show in Germany made a remarkable return in 2023 after a six-year hiatus, showcasing significant change in the industry, says Ian McCrystal, CEO of First Cut and Peter Rohlssen, MD of Gas Safety International (GSI). McCrystal and Rohlssen were in attendance, representing First Cut and subsidiary GSI at Messer Cutting Systems’ extensive exhibition stand. Rohlssen also had the opportunity to demonstrate the patented oxyfuel S.A.T. system to delegates.

“I was truly impressed by the overwhelming interest sparked by the oxyfuel S.A.T. system. In a matter of minutes after commencing the demonstration, the number of attendees at the stand increased from just three or four delegates to an audience of fifty or more,” says Rohlssen.

First Cut and GSI first launched the new S.A.T. system at the Safety Unites Compressed Gas Safety conference in Johannesburg last year.

The system represents a significant advancement in the field of compressed gas safety, thanks to the three patented Safety Advanced Technology (S.A.T.) components: the process, valve, and cutting torch. By incorporating advanced safety measures and technologies, the system significantly reduces the risks associated with working with compressed gases, including the risk of leaks due to improper handling, external damage, and normal wear and tear.

Human error, insufficient training: a global challenge

“The prevalence of severe accidents within the mining and industrial sectors can largely be attributed to human errors,” explains McCrystal. “These errors often result from inadequate training, and this is not confined to a local issue – we have observed the repercussions of sub-standard training on a global scale.”

Both McCrystal and Rohlssen say that the international exposure at the Essen show was critically important: not just for the advancement of First Cut, GSI and the oxyfuel system – but also to raise awareness about compressed gas safety at a global level.

“Two significant and real barriers still obstruct the path to substantive transformation in compressed gas safety throughout industry. The first challenge pertains to insufficient training and awareness, as previously highlighted. The second hurdle is the continued resistance to change. Take, for instance, the positioning of the cutting lever on European welding torches, which is typically at the top. In South Africa, they are often found at the bottom,” Rohlssen explains.

“While this may appear trivial, achieving buy-in is essential for widespread adoption. This is one of the rationales behind GSI’s ceaseless innovation, and exploration of alternative designs which aim to achieve higher levels of safety and reduced risk.

For example, we have encountered requests from a large South African mining company for a tailored system with safety features that cannot be bypassed. Overcoming these challenges demands unwavering determination and ingenuity, but our commitment to enhancing global compressed gas safety through innovation remains resolute. We aim not only to improve safety for welders and other industrial users – but also to accommodate the needs of our customers – to attain our objectives and remain competitive.”

Oxyfuel (Sur)passes Rigorous Tests

McCrystal and Rohlssen say that they had also made significant strides in terms of industry compliance ahead of the Essen exhibition.

“Compliance to international accreditation standards  is a significant consideration when engaging with European clients. We therefore subjected the oxyfuel system to the rigorous technical criteria of the ISO 5175-2 standard.

Based on our prior assessments, we were confident that the S.A.T. system could effortlessly endure pressures of up to 25 – 27 bars. However, when we submitted the valve to independent third-party testing in Germany, they conducted evaluations at 60 bars of pressure – and it passed!” Rohlssen enthuses.

The independent testing also subjected the valve to an internal leakage test using helium (a thin and non-flammable gas, ideal for testing even the slightest leaks), an external leakage test and a reverse-flow test measuring its performance when subjected to reverse gas flow. This is crucial for preventing gas flow in the wrong direction, as it ensures that gases only flow in the intended direction. The S.A.T. system  successfully met the required criteria, showing its  conformance to compressed gas safety requirements.

“The exceptional performance of the S.A.T. system during testing unequivocally underscores its readiness for adoption by international companies – and its capability to meet the most demanding standards and specifications,” Rohlssen adds.

South Africa Can Lead The Way In Cutting Technology Safety

“While engaging with conference delegates, I had a renewed perspective on the relatively modest size of the South African market. One of our major clients here produces around 10 000 appliances each month. In contrast, during our discussions in Germany, we encountered manufacturers with monthly production figures in the millions. Yet, despite the size of the local market, we are confident that we are at the forefront of driving welding and compressed gas safety development.

We expect that the oxyfuel system will soon receive ISO 9001 accreditation, and First Cut and GSI intend to reveal a further new innovation in the coming months. All I can say is – watch this space!” says Rohlssen.

“The Essen show provided a unique opportunity to connect with high-level executives and technical experts, paving the way for future collaborations,” says McCrystal. “What was particularly inspiring too, was witnessing innovation – such as our S.A.T. system – emanating from South Africa and influencing Europe, rather than the reverse. We find ourselves at the vanguard of this race!” he concludes.

‘A go’ at AGOA

South Africans were also able to view the S.A.T. system in action and gain insight into this – as well as GSI’s compressed gas and welding safety training – at the highly successful AGOA show in Johannesburg in early November. Both GSI and First Cut were delighted with the response as well as the turnout at the event.

Steel Awards sponsor B.E.D. shines a spotlight on versatility and role of steel with iconic table décor

“We hold things together. Nine times out of 10, if something has to be connected with bolts and nuts, then we are part of that supply chain,” explains founder and CEO of Bolt and Engineering Distributors (B.E.D.), Mike Giltrow.

At this year’s South African Institute of Steel Construction’s Steel Awards in October, B.E.D. sponsored striking table décor which reflected the Game of Thrones theme that had been chosen to represent the role of steel through the ages at this iconic annual steel industry showcase at Emperor’s Palace in Johannesburg.

This is the second consecutive year that B.E.D. has been a Steel Awards sponsor. In 2022, they were a Premium Partner sponsor.

“The table décor – for which B.E.D. supplied the steel that fellow SAISC member General Steel Works cut and welded – demonstrated the versatility and value of steel in infrastructure and construction projects across the ages, and indeed in this day and age, across a number of different sectors,” Giltrow comments.

B.E.D.’s relationship with the SAISC has always been an extremely positive one and goes back several years, punctuated by a hiatus due to the economic austerity measures which were unfortunately required in the aftermath of the impact of negative mining industry events such as Marikana in 2012.

Having returned to the SAISC fold last year, B.E.D. has once again found membership to be very beneficial – and has not only participated in events such as the Steel Awards and other networking events, but also been invited to do training presentations on new products.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary in November this year – and although the B.E.D. Group started out supplying a comprehensive range of locally produced and imported fasteners – the company has diversified into quality tools, welding and cutting equipment and consumables, bearings, personal and protective equipment (PPE), industrial paints and thinners, oils and lubricants, and lifting products during that time.

“Our input and participation in forums such as the SAISC has always been well received, because members are like-minded, equally motivated people who all want the Institute – and the entire steel value chain – to benefit in some way,” says Giltrow.

“This year, more than ever, I was blown away by the quality of the projects which were nominated for the Steel Awards. The projects are world-class, and show that South African steel companies can compete with the very best. We are very proud that  award recipients are some of our customers and, in many instances, our products – specifically fasteners – played a pivotal role in those projects,” he adds.

Next year the B.E.D. Group would like to ramp up our support for the SAISC Awards and perhaps even sponsor a category award.

“We have always felt comfortable that any sponsorship we provide will always be put to good use and benefit all members. There is also a substantial amount of PR, marketing and media coverage around the Awards and winning projects. Therefore, in 2024, we would like to be involved with a specific Steel Award category, as we will get even more mileage from that,” he points out.

Giltrow says that industry should never underestimate the value of the SAISC as an Institute, which is one of just six worldwide.

“The SAISC is up there with the best of what such Institutes can offer  the steel sector, and we can all be so proud of the hard work that they are doing for our industry to develop and showcase the South African steel value chain locally and Pan-Africa !

Through our challenges over the years, we have all proven that we are resilient. A huge amount of value and intellectual property resides in the SAISC and the steel value chain – and B.E.D is proud to be part of that,” Giltrow concludes. 

AES places energy efficiency at the top of the menu in the food and beverage sector

South Africa’s food and beverage sector plays an important role in maintaining food security. Conversely, this energy-intensive industry is under considerable pressure from retailers and consumers alike, to absorb ever-growing input costs and help curb rapidly increasing food price inflation.

Associated Energy Services (AES), South Africa’s leading operations and maintenance service provider to the steam and boiler sector, believes that it can help food and beverage sector manufacturers deal with their many challenges.

AES Commercial Director Dennis Williams sums up the sector’s key production-related performance challenges in three words: efficiency, quality and reliability. Consequently – and as one of the country’s largest users of thermal energy – Williams says the food and beverage industry needs an energy management ally.

“One of the idiosyncrasies of the food and beverage sector is that not only is thermal energy a key input in the beneficiation process, but this usually exceeds electricity requirements – by two or three times.

Electrical energy is dense and easy to use and – except during load shedding – is there whenever one needs it. But thermal energy has to be converted into a usable format on site. That is where AES comes in,” he explains.

The complexities do not end there. The applications for energy in the food and beverage production sector are vast, and can include everything from spray drying coffee creamers to the heating of raw materials ahead of processing, as happens during beer production. One manufacturer may use steam for cooking and canning vegetables; while another – such as the dairy industry – uses it for pasteurising. Temperature control of work spaces and ‘clean-in-place’ (CIP) processes, which include cleaning and sanitation to meet stringent health and safety standards, are also important. This means reticulating steam throughout the food and beverage processing and production facility to operational areas.

To add to this, different manufacturers and product categories come with their own specific requirements which means creating bespoke solutions for individual clients.   

Food for thought

At food processing and production facilities, AES is responsible for the whole chain of control, starting with selection and availability of the right fuel and continuing on to the actual generation of steam and its delivery to the processing plant.

Strong and longstanding relationships that depend on good communication and education – and include an on-the-ground understanding of exactly how a particular plant and business operates – are paramount in this process.

Williams says that proper design and planning of reticulation systems are crucial: “In older plants, AES often finds that, because of space and time constraints, processes are not ideally situated when it comes to energy supply – and may even include thermally active pipelines which are actually just dead-ends due to haphazard expansions over the years, reducing efficiencies,” he advises.   

Addressing such design and operational footprint inefficiencies and limitations needs to be done in partnership with the client.

While AES can generate a thermal energy carrier efficiently, it is down to the client to use it optimally. “We can generate the thermal carrier, but if the client wastes it – or uses it poorly in their production process – then they negate our efforts at the front-end. They will need more steam than necessary, and we will need to burn more fuel to provide it. That is why the partnership between AES and our clients is so pivotal, and why we strive to build a mutually beneficial understanding and synergy at all times,” he explains.

Serving up solutions

Williams says that AES has a number of success stories in the food and beverage sector. 

“AES took over operations at a large FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) client’s pilot facility, which was struggling with overall energy efficiency due to a lack of technical expertise and resulting challenges with the plant and equipment on site.

We guaranteed an improvement in the operating efficiency in the boiler house and a reduction in the use of heavy furnace oil. We put one of our own boilers on the site to bolster their capacity, installed further capacity to support their production, took over management of and trained their staff and implemented AES’s operating practices and management systems,” he recalls.

These combined efforts reduced fuel consumption and carbon footprint at the facility by an impressive 21%.

AES went on to operate a second – and larger – site for the same company where the situation was even more dire in terms of skills shortages.

“There, we delivered a 35% reduction in cost of fuel and carbon footprint. Over the years, that has enabled us to expand our footprint within the company to five sites.”

During this time, AES has reconfigured steam generation facilities, introduced changes to fuel and ash handling systems, addressed health and safety issues and improved the general reliability of the plants.

Although cost constraints remain a priority, Williams says that sustainability – especially for multinationals operating in South Africa – is becoming a big focus. The reduction of emissions and waste, the choice of environmentally-friendly or ‘green’ fuels such as biomass or natural gas and water-saving as priorities.

Frozen foods go ‘green’

On this point, AES recently assisted with an evaluation of conversion to natural gas by an internationally owned frozen foods manufacturer, which had made commitments to reduce the carbon footprint of its South African facilities.

“Our involvement extended from specification of a suitable boiler for the gas burner systems, site location, reticulation of the gas pipeline and engaging with gas vendors regarding price and availability of fuel,” Williams says.

An ongoing project at a much larger sister plant began with identifying a sustainable and cost effective biomass route. The AES team has travelled to Europe and South America, reviewing between 12 and 17over 15 fuel and technology options in detail. Risk and fuel supply assessments culminated in a preliminary roll-out plan.

When it comes to saving water, Williams says that managing condensate, an inevitable by-product of the process, is “the low hanging fruit”.   

“Even in instances where it has a much lower temperature, that condensate still has value. We can include this with any make-up water that goes back into the boilers and reduce water, fuel and chemical consumption for treatment purposes,” he notes.

Future-proofed energy and food processing

Change in the food and beverage processing and production industry requires ongoing and constant engagement with clients, Williams maintains. 

“We walk through the reticulation process. We do thermal imaging and talk to them about whether or not steam traps are functioning correctly, make recommendations about things like reticulation dead-ends and where they can be isolated. Strategic input includes conducting a high-level energy audit – which provide very high-level cost impacts,” he says.

Then comes the innovation component, as demonstrated during a recent project: “We operate a biomass boiler with an economiser (or heat exchanger). Hot flue gas coming out of the boiler passes through this before it goes up the stack. We now circulate water going into the boiler through that heat exchanger to heat it – which reduces fuel usage.”

Williams believes that most food and beverage manufacturers are aware of the need to maximise efficiency and ensure that operations are sustainable. Although there are many high-tech operations in South Africa’s food and beverage sector, there are even more that have to continue to do the best they can with what they have.

However, small changes can have a large impact.

“AES’s role is to help optimise expansions and improvements to existing food and beverage production processes. It is very much a supportive, synergistic partnership. Together, we can make these companies more competitive in the market place both locally and internationally,” Williams concludes.