Archive: May 31, 2024

Cousins Steel International: strong steel succession and synergy

In South Africa’s dynamic and frequently volatile steel sector, succession planning and the creation of robust synergies are often the exception to the rule, but dynamic structural steel company Cousins Steel International (CSI) demonstrates that these can indeed be successful and enduring.

The company – which adeptly blends its decades-old legacy with modern steel technology and insights – is very proud of its roots and track record, and equally, of its current synergies which energise and drive the business forward.

Strong steel relationships

Cousins Steel CC, a 55-year-old fabrication company located in Pietermaritzburg was started by brothers Lynton and Craig Cousins. Highly experienced structural steel fabricators, and well-connected, savvy businesspeople, the brothers grew their business into a respected large-scale fabrication facility with a sound reputation.

Meanwhile in Durban, professional engineer Mike Oldfield had opened his own business on the Berea, specialising in residential, commercial and industrial projects – and building his own very successful civil and structural engineering practice, completing many successful projects.

Oldfield began exporting steel structures into Africa in the early 2000s, and numerous distinctive structural steel projects – from prawn farms to mines – followed, predominantly in Madagascar.

A long-standing relationship with the Cousins brothers saw Oldfield outsource the fabrication of the more than 2 000 steel structures from 2001 onwards – bound mostly for the Madagascan ammonia sulphate mines – to the Pietermaritzburg-based operation.

This mutually beneficial relationship culminated in a joint venture for the Madagascan and other pan-African export projects, known as Cousins Steel International (CSI), in 2001. The latter acted as a design office, with the fabrication taking place at Cousins Steel CC’s Mkondeni facility.

Steel serendipity

In the ensuing years, the volatile political climate in Madagascar meant that CSI shifted its market focus to the local design supply sector, which was gathering momentum. Then Adam Oldfield, who had followed in his father Mike’s structural engineering footsteps, joined CSI and went on to become a company director.

The CSI – Cousins Steel CC relationship and collaboration prospered for a further 20 years, until Lynton and Craig Cousins stopped fabricating in 2021. “As CSI, we had to make some tough decisions. Should we find another fabrication partner or – in a somewhat revolutionary move at the time – should we take on the challenge of fabricating in-house ourselves?” Adam Oldfield recalls.

Backed by all he had learnt from his father’s effectiveness on-site, and practical, inclusive approach to all disciplines involved structural steel projects – but taking into account that he was wanting to retire – the Oldfields had to quickly decide if he had the energy to take over the reins at CSI with a new fabrication arm – and to introduce a whole new element of the business into the mix.

“We decided to go for it – and quickly began making calls, as there was no time to waste! We struck a deal with Lynton and Craig to purchase their surplus steel, vehicles and fabrication equipment, but not the CC itself, as we were effectively going to start fabricating ourselves as CSI,” he adds.

Looking around for larger premises, given that CSI needed to start fabrication at the beginning of 2021, Oldfield found what he describes as the ‘perfect structural steel facility’ in Mount Edgecombe Industrial Park: “We had constructed a number of buildings there, and was told that one of the tenants was in business rescue and would be vacating a facility which was ideal for steel fabrication,” he recalls.

In a case of ‘steel serendipity’, CSI relocated to the facility, and undertook the monumental task of moving all the ex-Cousins Steel CC fabrication equipment to the new facility in Mount Edgecombe, where they currently operate from, having recently signed a second lease.

Steel succession

Although Cousins Steel CC closed when the brothers’ retired in 2021, its proud steel fabrication legacy lives on in Cousins Steel International, which has innovatively combined design, engineering, fabrication and supply  into a strong steel synergy, while remaining true to its safety, quality and client service ethos.

“In 2021, we worked hard to consolidate fabrication into CSI’s operations, and to proactively market the company and reassure the structural steel sector – which is a small, tightknit community  – that although Lynton and Craig no longer looked after the fabrication side and sold their Mkondeni premises in Pietermaritzburg, Cousins Steel International was very much still in operation – and going from strength to strength,” Oldfield emphasises.

In just three short years, he and his team have built up an enviable track record of structural steel project delivery – including several award-winning projects – extending from Riverhorse Valley to Phoenix and the Dube TradePort, which is expected to grow into the R1 trillion Durban Aerotropolis.

Currently, CSI is putting its stamp on Durban’s most recent industrial park, Brickworks, at Avoca. Recently completing a 40 000sqm superstructure that will feature in this year’s SAISC Steel Awards.

Oldfield leads the company with seasoned fabrication and steel industry professionals at his side: CSI’s factory manager, experienced fabricator Lee-Roy Britz, and well-known steel industry stalwart Gordon McNeill, who has been in the sector for over 50 years, starting in Ireland at the age of 16.

“Lee-Roy was a natural first choice. He is a meticulous fabricator and is doing what he loves. We have a wonderful synergy and blend of competencies, experience and personalities. This is built on a solid foundation of trust and, because of their experience, I am always willing to receive their input and guidance,” says Oldfield.

With this strong management team in place, and his now-retired father available to consult if required, Oldfield is excited about CSI’s prospects, and is confidently looking to the future.

“The multiple synergies and the rich, multi-layered and multi-disciplinary legacy at the core of our business benefit not only CSI itself, but also very importantly, our valued clients and industry partners.

We are proud to be a company where engineering and design do not reside in an ‘ivory tower’ – separated from the realities of every day structural steel construction – but rather, prosper at ground- and project-level, alongside fabrication,” Oldfield concludes.

Steel sustainability is hot! Hot dip galvanizing and the circular economy

Hot dip galvanizers can contribute to the circular economy, moving away from the ‘take, make, dump and generate waste approach’ to one in which items are repurposed, conserving important resources and energy, says Robin Clarke, Executive Director of the Hot Dip Galvanizers Association of South Africa (HDGASA)

In South Africa, where many businesses are in survival mode, the concept of a circular economy is nevertheless gaining traction and – as a forward-thinking industry association, the HDGASA encourages members to embrace the important role that steel can play in this groundswell of sustainability, advises Clarke.

Steel takes a circular route

Referring to an article entitled ‘A bright future for hot dip galvanized steel in the circular economy’ by Bruno Dursin (published by the HDGASA following a presentation at INTERGALVA 2018), Clarke says it is time to move away from linear business models where products are manufactured from raw materials and discarded at the end of their (perceived) usefulness. 

Dursin points out that the steel industry is already contributing to a circular economy. It is actively promoting and developing the use of high-strength and advanced high-strength steel grades which means less steel is needed to achieve the same strength and functionality.

Stepping up to sustainability

The role of hot dip galvanising contributes by further extending the service life of steel, says Clarke.   

Hot dip galvanizing controls the corrosion of carbon steel in two ways: it forms a barrier against the environment and – should this barrier be compromised – the remaining zinc forms an anode and provides cathodic protection to the steel substrate.

The thicker the galvanized coating, the greater the level of corrosion control and the longer the service life says Clarke: “When increasing the service life of carbon steel, two elements must be considered – the environment (the quality of the air, soil or water) and the thickness of the coating.  In a relatively gentle or benign environment with modest levels of pollution and rainfall, a galvanized coating can provide a service life of over 80 years. In more aggressive environments, we need to look to guidelines from ISO 9225/3 and ISO 9224 to predict the service life – which can be between 15 and 25 years.”

In highly aggressive (corrosive) environments, the HDGASA recommends the use of duplex coating – a galvanized coating which is supplemented with a paint system – to extend the service life of a galvanized item.

Ideally, Clarke adds, buildings should be specifically designed for reuse, to the point where the same building can even be relocated.

“When you demolish a traditional building, you end up with a lot of rubble that cannot be repurposed. If you had a building largely constructed from steel, you would be able to reconfigure it differently – or design a building using elements which can be reused with minimal rework,” he suggests.

A great example is The Green House in Utrecht, The Netherlands, which was built as a temporary structure on land identified for reuse. The Green House is a ‘circular’ hotel / catering concept with conference facilities. This two-layer pavilion was designed as a generic-construction steel frame comprised of hot dip galvanized profiles, able to be disassembled and rebuilt at another site. The design’s agile ability to be relocated to another location is facilitated by a modular construction system which can easily be reassembled, featuring a steel main load-bearing construction. Thanks to a high degree of precision, steel components are easy to assemble and disassemble. The square grid design also facilitates multiple configurations and reconfigurations during repurposing.

A second good example is that of a temporary parking garage in Leiden, The Netherlands. Here a 410-square metre parking garage – constructed to meet Leiden’s long-term urban planning requirements – can be disassembled and all steel elements (columns, beams, cross-members cladding and fencing) are designed and selected for minimum maintenance – and ultimate repurposing – after a decade.

In South Africa too, Clarke reports that designers have become more forward-thinking: “People have always wanted corrosion control – but only in the context of the current project on which they are working. Now, they are thinking beyond the immediate return-on-investment and extending this to repurposing it for the next project – or even the one thereafter. They are specifying high levels of corrosion control to ensure that the steel is still in good enough condition to be used again.”

Zero-ing in on zinc

Clarke supports Dursin’s point that zinc, which is integral to the hot dip galvanizing process, can be recycled over and over without any loss in quality. It differs from many other synthetic materials, where recycling degrades their quality (‘down cycling’). 

However, there are challenges in South Africa. Here, zinc ash or zinc dross, as by-products of the hot dip galvanizing process, are regarded as hazardous waste despite the fact that they can be recycled back to pure zinc – or into oxides which can be used to make tyres, fertilizer and medical products such as sun block and burn treatment creams.

Zinc-fortified fertilisers are particularly useful in parts of Africa where the soil is zinc-depleted and zinc-deficient crops do little to counteract malnutrition.

The HDGASA has assisted with an application to remove zinc-related wastes from the (hazardous waste) register two years ago – and is still awaiting an outcome.

Meanwhile, other changes are also gaining traction: “Locally, while some operations still rely on electricity generated using coal – there has been a concerted conversion to ‘greener’ natural gas, with approximately half of the country’s galvanizers having followed this route.

Overall, South Africa’s hot dip galvanizing sector – like its counterparts globally – is now more efficient in capturing and controlling emissions, and ensuring that all chemicals, chemical elements and molten metals are managed in accordance with best practice,” Clarke concludes.

Shaping up to ship out: Dekra Industrial SA launches local vendor inspection and expediting services

As extremely active importers and exporters of goods to boost and grow the economy, South African businesses require high-calibre inspection and expediting services. Dekra Industrial SA has recently launched a division dedicated to meet this growing requirement.

With decades of experience in non-destructive testing (NDT) and inspection services, the company brings a wealth of inspection-related expertise to a broad range of clients in industry sectors such as power generation, petrochemicals, steel, fabrication and mining.

JP Muller, the Business Line Manager spearheading Dekra Industrial’s vendor inspection and expediting services locally explains: “In addition to meeting the requirements of the country’s import and export sectors, we saw an opportunity to expand the services provided by DEKRA Industrial in South Africa.

The fact that as a country, we export and import creates a multi-billion rand industry, and a great need for supply chain inspection. Companies want to know the correct quantities of their goods coming in and going out of the country – and that they are also receiving the correct product as per their original order.”

Seamless collaboration and support

Globally, Dekra already provides inspection and expediting services in more than 60 countries, with over 2000 inspectors worldwide.

“It therefore made sense that we would also launch this much-needed service locally, as we can leverage our extensive global network, collaborating seamlessly on a daily basis – particularly in key markets such as India and China, with which we work closely,” says Johan Gerber, DEKRA Industrial SA Managing Director.

“The decision to provide vendor inspection and expediting services to our South African and pan-African clients also aligns with our commitment to delivering quality inspection and testing services worldwide,” Gerber says.

“We also recognise the importance of agility and adaptability in today’s fast-paced business environment, and our goal is to empower South African businesses with the tools and resources they need to thrive in an increasingly competitive global market.”

Quality inspections

Internationally, Dekra’s inspectors are highly trained, and adept at providing accurate and dependable product verification. Collaborations with global transport and logistics stalwarts such as DHL further enhance the vendor inspection and expediting service offering.

To this end, Dekra Industrial South Africa will engage only the best inspectors locally with sector-relevant experience, providing quality, dependability and consistency, as well as fast inspection report turnaround times.

These inspectors – from such diverse backgrounds as engineering and agriculture – will undergo rigorous selection processes to meet the company’s high standards.

“For complex contracts requiring specialised vendor inspections expertise, we will tap into our global network of experienced inspectors, underscoring our commitment to excellence,” highlights Gerber.

In addition to its core vendor inspection services, Dekra Industrial will also provide value-added services such assisting clients with supply chain optimisation and regulatory compliance. By offering a holistic approach to inspection and expediting, the company aims to position itself as a trusted partner for businesses across a wide range of sectors.

Time is money

Although each project has its own dynamics, Muller points out that the company’s standard turn-around time on vendor inspections is 24 hours.

“Time is money as the saying goes in business. If we perform an inspection for the client quickly and efficiently, we know they will come back. The quicker we can perform their inspection and reporting, the quicker our clients can export – or sell – their products,”  he enthuses.

Strategic asset and ally

“Our commitment to excellence extends beyond the confines of traditional inspection services,” notes Muller.

“We aim to be a strategic asset – and ally – to our clients, providing them with the insights and support they require to achieve their import and export-related business objectives. This service will enable us to offer more value to our clients: not only by saving them money, but by safeguarding their integrity, credibility and reputation which – in the business of import and export – is very dependent on the verification of quality and of accurate product quantities.  

“What sets us apart is our expertise, global footprint and comprehensive vendor inspection and expediting solutions, which can also be tailored as required.

The honesty and integrity with which we operate is also appreciated by our clients. This service is very dependent on the trust which clients have in inspections service provider, and its perceived credibility and integrity. Performing competent and reliable product verifications has built Dekra’s credibility globally as an experienced vendor inspection company with high professional standards – and we aim to offer our local clients the same dependable service,” Muller concludes.

AES: a ‘paper trail’ of successful energy optimisation in South Africa’s pulp and paper sector

Thermal energy plays a pivotal role in both the preparation of raw materials – and the pressing and drying of the fibre layers – which ultimately forms the 3.8-million tonnes of paper products produced in South Africa each year.

According to Dennis Williams, Commercial Director at Associated Energy Services (AES), one of South Africa’s leading operations and maintenance service providers to the steam and boiler sector, the R50-billion local pulp and paper industry faces exciting opportunities – but also some obstacles – as it seeks to boost competitiveness and contain costs.

“The sector has seen a lot of realignment in recent years. This includes the sale or closure of the less profitable pulp and paper plants – while the older ones are struggling to compete against more agile producers, which have already invested in newer technology,” Williams advises.

He adds that modes of production vary from large facilities which cover every step of the paper production process, through to smaller players only responsible for the value addition at the end of the process.

“Smaller, bespoke operations survive alongside mega-sized producers, and each one has its own particular strategy. AES can add value to them all because, ultimately, this is about achieving improved resource conservation, quality, cost-savings and operational efficiency,” Williams explains.

AES has worked with companies that process virgin and recycled paper, as well as everything from printing paper to cardboard, packaging and tissue, and Williams points out that there is plenty of ‘low hanging fruit’ which can be harvested to improve production costs, efficiencies and boost producers’ bottom lines.

“With paper machines working at incredibly high speeds, processing hundreds of metres of paper or tissue per minute, steam usage needs to be accurately controlled, but also efficiently generated. A good quality, reliable steam supply not only minimises the risk of product not meeting specifications, but also ensures that machines do not have to slow down, adding to production costs.” 

‘Out of the box’ sustainability

As it plays such a central role, energy is one of the largest input costs.  Nevertheless, until now, many companies have invested in developing their production facilities and capabilities, rather than in steam generation efficiencies and optimisation. However, as a key energy user and environmental impactor – the paper and pulp sector needs to look more closely at sustainability, Williams maintains.

“The first step is resource conservation. Whether it is a kilolitre of water, a ton of coal or a gigajoule of gas, if less could be used – with the same outcome – that is a substantial ‘win’.

Primary facilities are also analysing how they can utilise bark or timber residues – or by-products from their process – to create energy – and many have innovative boiler plants. Efficient boiler operation is always a plus and will reduce emissions,” he explains.

In the South Durban Basin, for example – where there are a number of large paper companies (some of which AES has worked with) and where the eThekwini municipality is proactive regarding emissions control – the close relationship between profitability and pollution control is very evident:

“The municipality understood that, with an economic incentive, this becomes a self-regulating mechanism. They stipulated that, when applying for licences for new boilers, facilities had to be operated by a specialist energy plant operator. AES brings that expertise, and offers a solution which addresses all the legislative requirements, reducing the impact on the local community and environment. The crux is that – if there is a cost benefit and incentive – then pollution will be reduced.”

Another successful project for AES started with a steam plant at a packaging producer in Gauteng in 2007. Significant improvements in efficiency, steam supply quality and a boiler control system upgrade  paved the way for AES to take over two steam plants at corrugated paper operations in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Ultimately, AES has operated five sites for this client. 

Sustainability: a new page

AES has conducted many technology assessments in pursuit of sustainability in the pulp and paper sector. One such assessment examined the potential of using a by-product from the tissue production process – which was previously going to the local landfill – as a fuel source.

“It is very high in moisture but includes fibre, so has energy value. Together with the manufacturer and a company from India, we examined this as a potential fuel source.”

Further change is on the horizon, however: several paper producers have natural gas as part of their energy mix and – with expected supply falling away in 2026 – these facilities may need to seek alternatives. AES is actively revisiting the use of energy at some gas energy users as a result.

A further area of interest is the use of generators in the mitigation of loadshedding, where waste heat recovery from these can be used to improve energy performance on the boiler side of the plant. 

“AES was also the preferred service provider for an independent power plant using timber- and pulp- related products near a large paper mill. This particular project did not go ahead, however it demonstrates the role which we could play in similar future developments.

AES has a significant ‘paper trail’ of experience in the pulp and paper sector – and is strongly positioned to engage with those producers focused on optimising their energy efficiency and sustainability,” Williams concludes.

SAISC calls for quality, innovation and closer collaboration to secure the future of the steel industry

Despite last year’s announcement that AccelorMittal South Africa (AMSA) would close its long products facilities – and amidst warnings of projected product shortages, quality issues and supply chain disruptions – it is ‘business as usual’. This is according to steel value chain attendees and SA Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC) members at a recent industry breakfast and steel supply panel discussion hosted by the SAISC.

Nonetheless, during a robust debate attended by over 90 steel supply chain role players – including industry heavyweights – and chaired by SAISC Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Amanuel Gebremeskel, it emerged that while there are no shortages at present, the sector remains on the brink of seismic change.

AMSA representatives present reassured the audience that their Newcastle long products facility would remain operational until June – and that the company was still accepting orders until year-end. It was also stated that negotiations around potentially keeping the long products facilities in production were progressing well.   

Seismic changes

However, Gebremeskel and Adam Oldfield, Director at leading structural steel company Cousins Steel International (CSI), SAISC Board member and leader of its technical committee, are both concerned about the future of the entire steel value chain – of which the SAISC is a longstanding champion and custodian. 

Gebremeskel and Oldfield agree that the potential long product facilities closure has unearthed deeper steel sector concerns, including disconnects across the entire supply chain: “With these in mind, the SAISC seeks to play a proactive role in encouraging strong linkages and relationships between engineers, merchants and fabricators – and by addressing the twin issues of steel quality and availability through the creation of an overarching quality programme, which will include – amongst other initiatives – a new SAISC Red Book,” says Gebremeskel.

“Having said this, one of our greatest challenges in the steel sector is that there are so many conflicting interests and agendas throughout the industry. Therefore, there needs to be greater trust across the entire steel value chain, with role players collaborating more closely to innovate and adapt in order to accommodate and drive change,” Gebremeskel notes.

Quality the ‘golden thread’ of industry unity

“Irrespective of the time frame, the closure of AMSA’s long products division would have a strong ripple effect across the sector – with the largest impacts being cost escalations and the potential loss of long-term pricing – not to mention project delays resulting from logistics challenges, such as the port delays which are already negatively impacting steel imports,” Oldfield points out.

“Other pertinent issues that emerged from the panel discussion included the potential loss of steel product profiles unique to South Africa, the impact which a lack of local content could have on downstream customers (such as the automotive sector) and the possibility of finished products being imported – all of which are indications that the local steel sector is confronting many sobering issues, which could result in massive income losses for local fabricators and galvanizers,” Oldfield adds.

One of the greatest concerns voiced during the panel discussion centre on the critical – and at times thorny – issue of quality, with many SAISC members and industry heavyweights questioning the uniformity of quality standards and the traceability of product in the event of failures.

The panel discussion revealed that many are very disgruntled about low quality steel and deeply concerned about related quality issues, should local production scale down. However, all agreed that independent testing of imported product would also add unnecessary costs.

Gebremeskel believes that quality concerns will be the one area where consensus can be reached – and that this will be the common ‘golden thread’ which unites a divided industry.

Engineers as a link

Oldfield concurs, emphasising however that this starts with the engineering sector working closely with the SAISC and its well-known technical ‘bible’, the Red Book:

“This is a longstanding, trusted technical resource and an invaluable guide for engineers – but compiling the next edition thereof will not be easy. This is because the greatest challenge will be figuring out what the imminent steel sector disruption will do – for example, what will happen when steel merchants stop stocking certain products, narrowing and limiting available profile ranges.” 

“We are facing a tough transition in the steel sector, driven by all the factors raised. Typically, at the SAISC, we focus on merchants and fabricators – the downstream sector. I think engineers need to be more involved, forming a link between the upstream and downstream sectors so that collectively, we can adapt to the new demands and realities of the industry,” Oldfield adds.

Innovative industry adaption

This could entail engineers designing steel structures differently – or closing the gap created by unavailable products by using those which are available. 

Oldfield uses the example of how a potentially long delay in ordering columns saw his company, Cousins Steel International, manufacture these from steel plate. Although more costly, this kept the project on track. 

To enable others to follow suit, or to avoid another problem – designers specifying product in accordance with software design packages rather than availability – Oldfield suggests that industry professionals require an extra layer of steel supply market intelligence:

“A key aim of the SAISC technical committee is to create a database which allows them to understand – and design around – the particular products which fabricators can access. At the moment, no-one is working like that,’ he explains, adding that the extensive technical training which the SAISC conducts annually will also be crucial going forward to assist the sector in agile adaption to market changes.

A call to action

Gebremeskel and Oldfield are therefore calling on all echelons of the steel industry to proactively engage with the SAISC, and are also voicing their appreciation for industry leaders who are already bridging the gap between the downstream sector and the primary steel producer (AMSA):

“This approach will ultimately force a more united industry approach with which to negotiate with government,” Gebremeskel advises.

“Meanwhile, the SAISC is committed to doing our part to ensure that the closure of AMSA’s long products facilities will not have the same negative impact on the downstream steel sector as similar upstream closures had in Australia.

Instead, our local steel industry needs to emulate Canada where – despite a lack of upstream primary steel producers or mills – engineers design innovatively in steel, and work closely with fabricators to bring these projects to fruition, contributing positively to the sustainability of the steel sector in that country but also to its greater economy,” he concludes.