Archive: January 31, 2024

Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in Chad: an emblem of hope for steel in Africa

The restoration of the Notre-Dame de la Paix cathedral in N’Djamena, Chad – which won the Light Steel Frame Building category at the Southern African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC) Steel Awards 2023 – stands as a lasting monument to resilience and hope. Synergising the building’s history with contemporary design is a significant achievement, and a powerful testament to the tenacity and innovation of South Africa’s steel industry.

SAISC CEO, Amanuel Gebremeskel, makes the following observations about this miraculous achievement: “Through this project, we have demonstrated that our industry can do what others cannot – and, of course, that steel is the best solution. The project team could have used treated timber or even concrete. The fact that they went with a light steel frame structure shows that the local steel sector has moved towards solutions that are better suited to these sorts of projects.”

One of the key aspects of the project brief was that the roof should be constructed using a non-combustible material. That is because the cathedral, originally consecrated by the Catholic church in March 1965, burnt down during civil unrest in 1989.

The once beautiful building waited until 2014 for its restoration to officially begin.

Restoring hope

Local steel company MiTek Industries believed it could achieve what others thought was impossible. The remote location required on-site fabrication, and its Ultra-Span product’s precision cut-to-length capability proved to be the ideal solution. This prefabricated, light gauge steel roof truss system is both lightweight and compact, enabling the weight of the roof to be split across 1100-millimetre centres with trusses clustered close together. This effectively minimises the impact on the original foundations and addresses other key factors such as wind load.   

During construction, the 21-metre frames were laid out on a jig adjacent to the cathedral. Two frames were arranged on top of each other with bracing placed between them. Cross-bracing was added to ensure a stable structure so that it could be hoisted into place using a crane that had fortunately been left on site and was available to use.

Once lifted into place onto the concrete ring beam, additional braces were fitted between each pair of trusses, creating a shell structure for the whole cathedral. The curved end at the back of the cathedral was critical, with difficult geometry to overcome.

“The distinctively curved roof design is actually very beautiful, but it is certainly not an easy one to construct. That, of course, speaks to the standard of the architects and the engineers, who were very involved in the process – from start to finish – working closely with the fabrication and installation teams. Together, they explored many different material options, with light gauge steel ultimately chosen as the most appropriate,” Gebremeskel observes.

He points out that working on an existing structure such as the cathedral is always more complicated than working on a new build, because one has to deal with whatever inherent errors are already present.

“The project team did an excellent job. The cladding work was also relatively complicated, as the overall geometry and design of the building is complex. It would be a difficult job to do even here in South Africa – let alone in Chad, close to the Sahara desert,” he explains. 

The next challenge was that, with a roof structure clad in light gauge steel tiles, the cathedral’s interior could become very hot in the local climate. A robust insulation solution and underlay were therefore used to keep the building cool.

The restored cathedral is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also serves as a reinvigorated place of worship and community.

Celebrating project management excellence

Gebremeskel notes that the Our Lady of Peace Cathedral not only had a troubled history, but that its restoration was executed under particularly difficult circumstances. 

Logistics was the major challenge. The town of N’Djamena is 1000 kilometres away from the nearest port. All the components were shipped via Spain to Cameroon, after which the project team had to contend with extremely poor roads to reach their final destination.

Chad is not only a landlocked country, but is also a region where there has unfortunately been a lot of conflict for a long time, which meant that getting the materials safety to site was not an easy task. As the parts were premanufactured and only assembled on site, there could be no errors in measurements when it came to the components transported from South Africa. Then, an excellent installation and erection team was also required. This is really about top-notch project management and the logistical capability of our steel sector,” Gebremeskel points out.

Steel is ideal for Africa

MiTek Technical Director Mike Newham points out that in a location such as this, Ultra-Span trusses ensured longevity and durability due to their galvanised coating and resistance to borer, vermin and fungus.

Benefits of the use of steel in this application included cost-savings on shipping and transportation due to the lightweight nature of the product, streamlined on-site installation and fabrication processes, reduced waste – and the commitment to environmental sustainability by ensuring 100% recyclability of this steel roof at the end of its life.

Further demonstrating that steel is the building material of the future in Africa, MiTek is most proud of how it employed innovative design and technology to address the structural complexities and logistical demands of this project. The company successfully leveraged its Ultra-Span product’s exceptional capabilities to ensure this innovative project excelled beyond conventional parameters – not only locally, but also in the heart of Africa.

A new era for steel across Africa

Gebremeskel believes that the Our Lady of Peace Cathedral project also signals a new era in the use of light steel frame throughout Africa. Whereas there was a time when lower quality steel was used across the continent, the complete opposite now applies.

“What we are now finding is that the more remote and challenging the site, good quality steel is the best solution. The project team could have tried many other materials, but these were just not viable. This proves that steel – and, in this case, light gauge steel – is the ideal solution in environments such as this. We are definitely entering an era when there will be many projects with similar applications for light steel frame across the continent,” he concludes. 

First Cut’s product offering: ensuring customers get quality and affordability

For many companies throughout industry, a tough economic climate in recent years has inevitably meant tightening their belts and looking for more cost-effective products and services.

This is why First Cut – a leading distributor of cutting, welding and grinding consumables and equipment – has met halfway with suppliers to ensure that cost-effective products are not inferior products.

“With the current market pressures in South Africa, we know that customers are looking for affordability, while still wanting quality,” says Zelda Vorster, First Cut’s Commercial Director.

“Therefore, we have negotiated with our suppliers to ensure that the products we distribute are affordable – but at the same time, we are ensuring our customers get the best of both worlds by selling well-priced products that do not compromise on quality.”

A proudly local, quality product

Looking at First Cut’s extensive product portfolio – including a range of locally-manufactured blades – their Messer welding electrode range is a good example of a ‘proudly local’ product. 

These popular, high-quality electrodes can be used for every application and material, from galvanised steel to stainless and even so-called ‘problem’ steels. Furthermore, as this is locally produced, First Cut has been able to control stock levels. There are also no import taxes and freight costs, with a knock-on pricing benefit accordingly. 

“We are therefore able to focus on producing a quality product at a very competitive price,” says Vorster. “New customers test these electrodes and always come back satisfied. As the electrodes being locally manufactured, it also means we can create job opportunities for South Africans.”     

First Cut’s product range is sold and distributed to multiple sectors: from mining and fabrication to agricultural, timber, food and beverage and many others. It is the DIY sector however, where First Cut is really looking to expand their current footprint, with their hand tool range. “Approximately 10% of our product range services the DIY market, and we are hoping to really get into this market sector,” says Vorster.

Two globally renowned and popular brands in First Cut’s portfolio of hand tools and power tool accessories (PTA) are Eclipse and Starrett respectively.

‘Eclipse-ing’ the DIY market

The range of Eclipse hand tools includes pliers, nippers, bolt cutters, various clamps and vices and swivel bases.

As hand tool specialists, Eclipse is continually enhancing their range and adding new and innovative products to it to meet market demand. Interestingly, some of this demand arose directly due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.

“Many people engaged in home improvement during the pandemic, as they were working remotely and therefore more flexibly – and many were also confined by national lockdowns to their own properties and gardens. Eclipse has launched a fantastic range of home and garden tools as a response to customer demand accordingly,” notes Vorster.

“This range is well known in the DIY market. We have strengthened our relationship with Eclipse and structured the pricing accordingly, so that it is very competitive – but again, we are not compromising on quality.”   

“We have significant stock of the full Eclipse range and are confident we can serve the needs of our DIY customers moving forward.”

Reducing cost-per-cut

Starrett saws come with specialised bimetal saw technology. The advantages of this technology are higher resistance to tooth breakage, smoother and faster cuts, longer blade life and reducing cost- per-cut.

In-house training and technical support from suppliers such as Starrett have ensured that First Cut staff know what product to supply for specific industry applications. It is certainly not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to blades, says Vorster. 

“We have all of this knowledge available to ensure the customer uses the correct product to get faster and better cuts – so that ultimately, they can boost their productivity,” she adds.

Power tool accessories – with an edge

First Cut offers a diverse assortment of hand tools and power tool accessories locally. This includes drill bits, hole saws, jig-saw blades, band saw blades, reciprocating saw blades, levels and tape measures.

Power tool accessories (PTA) have been a part of First Cut’s range for some time, but the range has been extended and is receiving very favourable attention in the market.

“We have always associated ourselves with specialists in cutting,” adds Vorster. “The combination of our suppliers results in us having  the best quality products in our PTA stable.”

A final word on ‘safety first’

First Cut is in continuous negotiations with suppliers to ensure customers get the quality and affordability they need. This also means supporting the smaller businesses which may not be able to absorb major price increases. Another consideration in the supply-demand chain is, of course, safety – which is vital to First Cut, with its ‘safety first’ ethos.

“Our suppliers have very high safety and quality standards and controls in their manufacturing processes, which is very important to us. When a customer works with one of our products, we want them going home safely to their families at the end of the day,” Vorster concludes.

Azmet Reactor project: a precise and praiseworthy victory for South Africa’s steel sector

Fabricating six massive reactors that are over three storeys high in Gauteng and then transporting these more than 2 500 kilometres to a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – where all 3265 parts fitted perfectly, with not even one of the 26 900 bolts out of place – is a massive achievement. 

This is according to Southern African Institute for Steel Construction (SAISC) CEO Amanuel Gebremeskel, commenting on the Azmet Reactor project, a collaborative effort led by Viva Engineering,  an innovative and deserving 2023 Steel Awards  Mining and Industrial category winner.

“The project entailed the detailed design of complex geometry with finite element (FEM) modelling, and integrated support frame and platform. As such, it exemplifies precision engineering, showcasing intricate design and fabrication processes.To appreciate the complexity thereof, one has to consider how to plan, design and fabricate such huge modular structures ahead of time, in such a way that they can be moved through four or five different countries by road to install on site at the mine,” Gebremeskel says.

He goes on to explain that the more conventional approach would be to use heavy concrete tanks; or set up a substantial design office and fabrication works with a highly skilled team, both of which are not readily available locally in the DRC. Using an established South African fabricator based in Gauteng therefore provided a viable alternative – allowing for a controlled environment and close monitoring to ensure that all construction materials and structures met the required quality and safety standards.

Poring over the project

The Azmet Reactor project not only involved creating six huge reactors – but also, several other complex tanks, as well as platework and plant buildings.

From a technical point of view, engineers had to consider the design of the vessel in relation to permanent, material, equipment and wind loads. Due the nature of the spliced connections, these had to be modelled in detail, including all the bolts. Furthermore, as the vessels had to be transported and erected piece by large piece, a lifting study first had to be performed. This focused on the selection of the most appropriate lifting methodology, considering that the reactor components would need to be loaded onto conventional heavy-duty transport vehicles.

On the opposite end, at the mine in the DRC, careful consideration was given to the constructability of the project.

Shaping up and shipping out

Gebremeskel says that the aspect of this project that stood out the most during the judging process was the logistics: “They designed each large structure in a modular fashion, for ease of transport and installation. However, bear in mind that these structures have a diameter of 9.9 metres and a height of 11.6 metres – which is almost the size of a 3-story building!”

The road transportation therefore necessitated exacting tolerances to ensure safe and timely delivery to site in the DRC. 

Transport jigs were designed and built to brace the components and reduce vibration during transportation, while meticulous load packing optimised weight distribution for the lengthy trip.

All the components of each reactor were packed so that upon arrival on site, it could be assembled from the designated package. The components also had to be carefully packed in specially designed cradles to optimise each load and minimise the number of loads to site

“The essential brilliance of this project lies in the smooth coordination and orchestration of design, fabrication and erection. This process was perfectly choreographed by the project managers who oversaw the planning down to the finest detail,” Gebremeskel observes.

Reactors are essentially large tanks that are custom-made to remove precious metals from mined ore, and must tolerate a variety of different temperatures and chemicals. A rubber bladder required to protect the steel from these compounds therefore also had to be installed prior to leaving the Viva Engineering workshop in Gauteng.

Here too, Gebremeskel says, adjectives such as ‘innovative’ and ‘ingenious’ come to mind.

“The lining is put on the inside to protect the steel from whatever solvent is being used. As one can imagine, it is necessary to do some fairly detailed mockups and even trial assemblies to test this. The reactors were eventually bolted together. This meant that the lining had to work in a bolted tank rather than a conventionally welded one,” he points out.

Maintaining the continuity of the rubber lining between the bolted faces of each component was successfully addressed, as the project brief explains: ‘The first reactor was trial assembled to prove that the jigs and manufacturing was correct. All six rubber-lined reactors were installed without a single flange hole out of place. Rubber lining is continuous on the bolted faces. This required that the fabrication details incorporated the lining thickness. During fabrication, spacer plates were also inserted in the connections to simulate the lining. Corrosion protection was furthermore applied to the external surfaces of the component’.

Joining quality with manufacturing excellence

Yet another innovative aspect of the Azmet Reactor project is the precision welding required to join the panels during the fabrication process, so they could be bolted together once on site. The level of welding precision and accuracy had to be very high, as the structures could not distort during the transportation process.

“A lot of the design had to cover exactly how to lift and maneuver these large and very heavy modular structures. The most significant load is during the lifting process – as opposed to when they are in use – entailing a very different kind of engineering. The entire design is driven by how one plans to construct and then transport each structure – as opposed to its ultimate application,” Gebremeskel continues.

The benefits of steel in this project were numerous, as detailed in the project brief: ‘The complexity of the reactor geometry is best suited to fabrication in steel. Construction of the reactors…in concrete would not be viable due to the complexity of formwork and deployment of plant onto a site of limited size. The benefit of steel for this application is a relatively lightweight structure (compared to concrete), which can be preassembled and trial-erected before being transported to site. This allows for fast and accurate erection in the final location’.

A precise and praiseworthy precedent

One of the chief challenges, according to Gebremeskel, was completing the project on time – as late delivery would have resulted in substantial penalties. Needless to say, timeous delivery was achieved against all odds.

“The Azmet Reactors project represents a veritable feat of engineering – showcasing brilliance of design, logistics and installation – and demonstrating the South African steel sector’s capability to execute structurally and logistically complex projects with praiseworthy precision.

This is indeed a victory for our industry, which could certainly not have been achieved elsewhere on the continent. Considering the number of mines being constructed throughout Africa, the good news is that similar projects will no doubt be required, which our local steel supply chain can certainly deliver,” he concludes.

Galvanizing the future: HDGASA says training pivotal to ensure project excellence and industry success

The Hot Dip Galvanizers Association Southern Africa (HDGASA) plays a pivotal, lynchpin role in liaising across the entire value chain as it seeks to develop the market for hot dip galvanizing as the preferred and cost-effective corrosion control technology. In line with this key objective, training and skills development for the sector are among the most crucial aspects of the Association’s multi-focused strategy, according to Executive Director, Robin Clarke.

“We wear many hats: industry advocate, custodian and champion, interacting with many different role players throughout the steel and galvanizing value chains, and acting as a lynchpin, linking different role players. A large degree of our success in doing so can be attributed to training,” Clarke states, looking back over a proud history which dates back to 1965, when the Association was founded to serve the needs of end-users, specifiers, architects, engineers, contractors, fabricators and hot dip galvanizers throughout Southern Africa.

Investment in training

Notwithstanding an excellent industry track record, the Association has faced substantial challenges in the past few years: for example, the struggles of the South African steel industry, coupled with the economic and industry-wide impacts of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have seen tremendous contraction in the steel and steel-related industries during this time. Steel consumption has shrunk, which has impacted on hot dip galvanizing locally. Unfortunately, many marginal plants did not survive. However – now that the steel and galvanizing sectors have come through this period of contraction and consolidation – we are starting to see encouraging signs, including ‘green shoots’ of growth. One of the most important has been an increased demand for – and investment in – training,” Clarke points out. 

“This strong industry participation signals a strong level of optimism about the future. The galvanizing plants processing the majority of the tonnage in South Africa are engaged in ongoing internal, and external, customer-facing developmental training. Our hot dip galvanizing courses benefit all employees of companies that are committed to career development and transformation,” he adds. 

An industry voice through training

While certainly an industry advocate and champion, the HDGASA realised that training and education was at the heart of establishing industry credibility: of hot dip galvanizing and duplex systems as the most cost-effective, preferred corrosion control technology, and of the Association’s members.

“We found that the most effective means of promoting the technology was educating end-users, architects, specifiers, designers and project managers on exactly how the zinc coating protects iron and steel components against corrosion. Arising from this, various technical presentations were developed; and, as with all educational tools, these evolved. Over time, these were refined and  ultimately transformed into the formal training courses which we now present,” he reveals.

The ‘listening lynchpin’

Importantly, ensuring that the information and skills shared in this training are of the required quality, level and relevance is achieved through effective listening:

“We listen carefully to the challenges, pain points and requirements of the steel and galvanizing value chain – including the Association’s members, industry partners and end-users.

To this point, we find that many value chain participants, including engineers, architects, specifiers, fabricators and other professionals – still need to be educated about precisely how the technology works. This includes aspects such the development and application of the corrosion control coating, so that materials and processes can be correctly specified to achieve the best outcome. Once that outcome has been achieved, industry role players need to understand the standard against which the outcome is judged,” he explains.

By the late 1990s, elementary training courses had become the Level 1 and Level 2 training courses which today form the foundation of the HDGASA’s training offering. In addition, the HDGASA also offers bespoke training to meet the specific needs of members and other members of industry.

A custodian of skills and standards

Clarke explains that the HDGASA represents its members through participation in TC 107 – a technical committee which sets national standards through the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).

“We are also positioned to provide training on this, because we are part of the team that writes the standards. This reflects an evolution of our partnership with the international galvanizing community, members of which have representation on the International Standards Organisation (ISO) board. They write standards for hot dip galvanizing internationally, and we then play a monitoring role in the local transfer and adaptation of these by representing our members at the SABS. This, in turn, gives us the credibility to deliver lectures on these standards – and to explain why they are written in the way that they are,” he continues.

The HDGASA also partners with the South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM) which ensures that professionals attending these courses are awarded the relevant career development points (CDPs).

Closing the training circle and the skills gap

Clarke points out that, while customers or end-users need to understand the required specifications and standards, the galvanizers themselves also need to understand the same specifications and deliver projects to standard.

“For example, we have developed courses for supervisors and galvanizing employees to ensure that they are upskilled on a regular basis. The way to deliver successful galvanizing projects and build faith in the technology does not end with people knowing how to specify and measure outcomes correctly. The galvanizers themselves need to be well-positioned to deliver in accordance with quality and safety specifications and standards,” he says.

At the end of its Level 2 course – where the HDGASA concentrates very heavily on standards and how to measure compliance or non-compliance – there is a 3-part examination, including a dummy inspection. Those that pass earn a card from the HDGASA that permits them to inspect hot dip galvanizing against the SANS121:ISO1461 standard.

According to Clarke, although the HDGASA is not a regulatory body, it provides this recognition of skills as a means of maintaining the high standards which it helps to set.

“A large percentage of the steel and galvanizing value chain have attended our training courses and graduated over the years. Mindful of the skills gap in the engineering, construction and other sectors in this country, some of these courses are done by our members in order to qualify and develop their own people. Some even extend this to their customers. This enables their customers’ quality teams to formulate their own independent opinions as to whether they received galvanizing which was up to standard or not,” he explains.

Exporting local galvanizing training and skills

The HDGASA’s training material has been globally recognised by the International Zinc Association (IZA), which has partnered with the Association to utilise its material as the basis for similar training in South America and parts of Asia, including Japan.

The technical elements which account for two thirds of the course form the foundation thereof, with small adaptations to suit differing regional standards that are added at the end, Clarke explains.

The Association, which has a sub-Saharan African footprint, has seen hot dip galvanizing move successfully into Africa through the work of its members – and has also provided advisory services and support in Namibia, Sudan, Angola, Botswana and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The best way to market hot dip galvanizing as a preferred corrosion control technology is to consistently deliver good projects, and these depend on the knowledge, confidence and skills of the key participants within the sector. As the HDGASA, we are proud to provide a diverse range of training, resources and skills to ensure the delivery of galvanizing excellence, now and into the future,” Clarke concludes.

AES: powerfully positioned to provide impactful energy generation

As one of South Africa’s leading operations and maintenance (O & M) service providers to the steam and boiler sector, AES occupies a flexible niche where it can optimise existing power infrastructure for heavy industries, while charting gradual sustainability transitions which match clients’ risk profiles and commercial drivers.

AES’s Commercial Director, Dennis Williams believes that the company’s technical breadth, collaborative approach and commercial pragmatism provide differentiated value at the intersection of legacy thermal systems and emerging ‘greener’ fuel sources and technologies.

Against a background of an economy under strain from unreliable electricity supply, he points out that AES is in a particularly good position to provide impactful power generation to customers looking for reliable alternative energy sources and management. 

As a specialist in integrated efficiency and sustainability solutions for industrial power generation assets, AES can support heavy industries which rely on thermal technologies and have large steam, heating and electricity demands.

“AES focuses firmly on combustion and thermal technologies rather than renewables like solar, wind or hydro. This allows us to create solutions tailored to the typical load profiles and operating patterns of industrial facilities, which have significant process heating and power generation requirements,” he explains.

Pragmatic approach to power

According to Williams, AES takes a pragmatic, commercially-focused approach to navigating the ‘green versus greener’ energy source or fuel debate. Rather than promoting an ideological stance on renewables and advocating overnight transitions, AES provides realistic, customised guidance which matches clients’ risk appetite, infrastructure constraints and commercial drivers. Drawing on its mix of expertise and experience, AES can develop asset-specific strategies which enhance site performance – while planning gradual transitions to more sustainable energy mixes over reasonable timeframes.

Although these days much of the energy debate hinges on government’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP),  the so-called ‘BOOT’ model of funding and recent legislative changes governing small-scale embedded generation – to counter the national utility’s increasing wholesale and retail tariffs, system reliability challenges and green economy policy objectives – AES’s on-the-ground experience predates these initiatives. As a result, the company has several solid case studies which illustrate the challenges and demands of small-scale power generation. With each project, the company has gained deeper and more layered knowledge.

Powerful examples

A nine year sawmill co-generation project in the Eastern Cape highlighted the types of challenges that AES faces when it comes to large and complex energy operations. 

“The sawmill was an existing operation with 1950s-era boilers and turbines. They were using their own by-products for fuel, so energy-saving was not a priority. However, their recovery percentage improved so dramatically that we started running short of fuel, and the sawmill had to start transporting wood waste products from other less-efficient sawmills. This added transport and other costs to the operation, so power generation became something of a moving target. The project ended when changes in mill ownership meant power production was no longer deemed a priority,” he recalls.

AES also did a detailed proposal for a biomass power project in 2008, for which the company did extensive groundwork, taking the project right up to the implementation stage.

“We gave substantial input in terms of fuel, which would have been a considerable percentage of biomass. We advised on the quality of the biomass and what the steam generation would look like.  The designs were done, and we assisted with carbon credits. We also found and refurbished the steam turbine, worked with the various project contractors and oversaw the environmental assessments.  We were able to answer all the technical questions about emissions and the traffic management plan. It was all done, and we were ready to go – and then the funder put on the brakes as a result of the global financial crisis. At the time we thought the pause was temporary, but unfortunately it turned out to be permanent,” Williams adds. 

Although AES’s development work included all the technical preparation for plant layout and integration, the company does not regard the project as a failure even though it was not implemented. 

Williams says that, despite the set-back, AES still has strong relationships with the client and other project role-players, and gained a lot of insight which has been used during other projects. The experience and knowledge gained has been adapted to other applications and,  the turbine which AES sourced was sold off and used successfully by another client.

AES continues to research and develop new techniques for power generation to mitigate waste and improve combustion efficiency. An example, according to Williams, is pyrolysis – which employs heat without oxygen to break down feeds like biomass into solids, liquids and gaseous fuels. Though currently niche in application, pyrolysis syngas could potentially displace coal or enrich biogas for generators.

“Normal combustion takes place when fuel is burned in air. But pyrolysis is thermal processing  in the absence of air.  We have done deep technical assessment, and there would be a carbon residue and a pyrolysis gas, some of which could be condensed into pyrolysis oil,” he explains. 

Powerful ‘own-generation’

Williams furthermore highlights the potential viability of  own-power generation from an industrial perspective, despite the typically higher costs when compared to current grid supply. Production pressures, reliability concerns or emissions constraints may all incentivise  self-supply – even at modestly uneconomic tariffs. This is because upfront costs are not the only relevant factor. Preventing lost production output often results in higher profits – regardless of higher energy costs.

In light of this, AES suggests a hybrid structure with renewable power purchase agreements supplying bulk needs – backed by generators burning diesel or gas for outage resilience. Though more carbon-intensive, limiting backup to a percentage of overall site consumption can still enable sustainability benefits.

“Manufacturing and industrial plants need to realise is that small-scale industrial power generation is expensive, but it also opens up possibilities. What is expensive for one company is not necessarily expensive for another. One company might need cost-effective power because they can adapt around a variable supply; while another company needs power – at any cost – because their production output is vital and they can recoup their costs through sales,” says Williams.

He notes that small-scale power generation also has other limitations: “It could mean a complete replacement of grid-supplied power. However, some companies only want replacement power to run during loadshedding. Notwithstanding this requirement – and depending on the technology – one cannot start up small-scale power generation and shut it down quickly. This typically takes a long time to start up and  is ideally suited as a base-load system, especially if there are steam turbines as part of the power generation configuration.  For many clients, their base-load power can be supplied by wind or solar – and they can supplement it using gas or diesel.”   

Powering the future

Williams concedes that almost every single energy-intensive industry in South Africa – from mining to the tyre industry and rubber processing to the food and beverage and dairy industries – is seriously considering power replacement. Most are looking beyond cost to other factors such as reliability and sustainability.

He points out that South Africa’s renewable IPP (Independent Power Producer) programme caters to large, grid-connected solar and wind projects which exceed AES’s scale and current interest.

Nonetheless, the company tracks independent power developments closely, to ensure that they are in the best and most informed position to advise clients.

“The reality is that most small-scale plants could never generate power more cost-effectively than the national utility, because of economies of scale.  We have done numerous assessments for clients, and there are a few projects in the development phase to supply reliable energy – but not less expensive energy.

We are very happy to do these assessments, however, because we keep learning as things change.  We want to run these plants when they are finally built.  As a result, we have a rich and extensively layered wealth of experience and capability to draw on, to the benefit of our clients,” Williams concludes. 

First Cut and Messer Cutting Systems: a sharp, cohesive and longstanding synergy

Teamwork works best when it is built on a solid foundation of trust. Such is the foundation of the partnership between First Cut and Messer Cutting Systems. With over 67 years of industry experience, First Cut is a leading South African provider of cutting, welding and grinding consumables and equipment. Messer Cutting Systems – with headquarters in Germany and active in more than 50 countries – is a global supplier of cutting-edge solutions for the metalworking sector. Since 2019, First Cut has been working with Messer Cutting Systems – after First Cut took over the local distribution agency and to manufacture Messer welding electrodes locally.

What has transpired is a strong relationship built on connection and cohesion. However, First Cut and Messer Cutting Systems have a history going back much further than 2019.

A decades-long relationship 

Messer had been in South Africa for a number of decades, under the name Messer Griesheim, and manufactured industrial gases.

The company subsequently changed its name to Messer Cutting Systems. When First Cut took over its local distribution agency this was a great move for both companies, given the great synergy between the two entities.

“We have had a great partnership over the years – selling Messer’s capital equipment, and doing some complex installations,” says First Cut’s National Sales Director Stuart Beck.

“Messer Cutting Systems is a highly respected and accredited global cutting industry company, which believed that First Cut would do justice to their brand locally. As First Cut is synonymous with providing quality products and service, we were definitely up to the task, and we took on the existing Messer customer base and have worked hard to grow since 2019.”

Family ties with a ‘safety first’ approach 

Beck refers to Messer Cutting Systems as a being like “family” to the First Cut team; and as such, he talks with fondness about their regular visits to South Africa – and really appreciates the product updates and remote training sessions which the supplier also conducts. 

“They are just an absolutely amazing company to work with,” Beck enthuses. 

Of significance in galvanising this excellent partnership was the Compressed Gas Safety conference in Johannesburg in 2022. The launch of the patented leak-proof oxyfuel S.A.T. (Safety Advanced System) at this conference was a game-changer for compressed gas safety and for First Cut, and has had great traction in the mining and welding sectors.

First Cut’s initiatives with other distributors and the development of new products for the mining and industrial sectors has been pivotal in their relationship with Messer Cutting Systems, as they both continue to work together to strengthen overall market offering.

“We have for example invested in stock and in ensuring we have all the correct local and international safety, quality and other industry accreditations. We see this as an investment in our customers,” says Beck. “Having the right stock and the right international accreditations is huge for the product range we offer and the customer base we want to tap into.” 

Beck cites the BAM oxyfuel code when giving an example of a highly-regarded safety accreditation which Messer Cutting Systems holds.

“When you sell oxyfuel, and there is an area of concern, these are assurances which put your mind at ease – particularly when third parties are involved in terms of risk and liability,” he says.

“This is where Messer Cutting Systems has accreditations and quality assurances in the background to mitigate risk. It is all about having a ‘safety first’ approach, and is also a benefit to our customers.”

Never compromising on safety and quality 

Messer Cutting Systems’ oxyfuel technology has taken pride of place in First Cut’s welding offering and in particular, regulators remain the most popular items and a benchmark product.

Running through some of the specifications of these top sellers, Beck highlights the oxygen/ acetylene regulators – sold in both single-stage and double-stage – as well as the Constant 2000 cylinder pressure regulator for nitrogen (with outlet pressure gauge), which works at maximum pressures of 10, 20 and 50 bar.

“When a customer comes to us with an order for a regulator, we also have to ask them if they have hoses, torches, nozzles…all of which we supply. Having a Messer Cutting Systems range in our product portfolio ticks every single box – and the safety and quality aspects are also always impeccable. We look forward to representing this excellent company for many years to come,” Beck concludes.