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29 Jan '13 - Plastic Pipe Production Capacity Exceeds Demand
PLASTIC PIPE PRODUCTION CAPACITY EXCEEDS DEMAND

The plastic pipe manufacturing sector is feeling the economic pinch, with domestic plastic pipe production capacity outweighing demand, says Southern African Plastic Pipe Manufacturers Association (Sappma) chairperson Jan Venter.

"This is both ironic and concerning, as existing steel and asbestos cement pipe infrastructure in South Africa has undoubtedly corroded during the last 50 years since they were installed.

"Water distribution, waste disposal, irrigation and telecommunications all rely on pipelines to function. Pipelines, therefore, lie at the heart of South Africa's infrastructure and should be replaced before they fail," he points out.

He adds that the 2011 Census results, released in October last year, show the pressure placed on the country's infrastructure by the growing population, which has increased from an estimated 40.5-million people in 1996 to an estimated 51.8-million people in 2011.

"Sappma is concerned about the national government not approving the necessary funding to replace the old pipes and what effect the long-term implications of these decisions might have on our country's infrastructure," says Venter.

He adds that there is also a lack of technical skills, particularly within local government, to implement pipe replacement projects, although some government entities, such as the eThekwini metropolitan municipality, are replacing pipelines.

Meanwhile, Venter notes that South Africa needs to deal with its low levels of productivity as a matter of urgency, if it hopes to grow the economy.

"China is implementing changes to improve its economy, as are countries like Brazil, India and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sadly, South Africa still finds itself at the bottom of emerging markets, with the productivity of the average worker decreasing. Restrictive labour regulations add to the problem.

"Additionally, China continues to be a worrying influence on the South African economy and industries, owing to the impact of its cheap exports on local production and manufacturing and its economy having experienced a slight dip in 2012, which influenced demand for raw materials around the world," he says.

As a result of increased pressure on the domestic manufacturing industry, productivity must improved and prices will be forced lower, says Venter.

"This is the kind of stimulation our country needs, along with an increased flow of foreign direct investment," he says.

Latest developments

Venter points out that, despite facing many challenges, the industry is still recognising many new developments.

“As a result of ongoing research into plastic polymers, the pipe industry is regularly confronted with, and introduced to, new raw materials that feature enhanced properties and reduced wall thickness.

“These scientific break-throughs enable pipe manufacturers to use fewer materials and less energy, without sacrificing product quality or capabilities,” he explains.

Venter points out that the participants and exhibitors at the Plastic Pipes XVI Conference, in Barcelona, Spain, in September, were privy to information on the production of new equipment, such as new-generation extruders, die heads and cooling mechanisms.

“Bigger plastic pipes than those envisaged ten or twenty years ago are being manufactured. Solid wall pipes, with a diameter of 2.5m, and structured wall pipes, with a diameter of 4m, have already been manufactured.

“Extruder output of poly-vinyl chloride pipe has been increased to 2.5t/h, with talk of technology allowing for up to 4t/h of output in the near future. It is also possible to produce up to 2.2t/h of poly-ethylene pipe,” says Venter.

Other recent significant international developments include the coiling and direct poughing-in of pipes up to 450mm in diameter, he adds.

“A great deal of cost saving is possible if the usual process of installing pipes can be shortened. This can be achieved using long coiled lengths of pipe, fitted to a special rig and attached to a tractor.

“The tractor ploughs a furrow, while simultaneously uncoiling the pipe and feeding it into the furrow,” he explains.

Cost savings are achieved by eliminating the need for pipe joints, handling and digging trenches.

“Until recently, this has only been possible with small-diameter pipes, but systems have now been developed to handle pipes of up to 450mm in diameter,” says Venter.

He adds that Sappma is noticing a growing need for larger-diameter structured wall pipe in the country.

“These pipes are bigger than 1m in diameter and are used as stormwater and sewerage pipes.

“With the demise of international plastic pipe manufacturer Petzetakis’ business in South Africa, there is a need for a new role player to meet this demand,” he explains.

Import and Export

Venter says there is insufficient availability of high density poly-ethylene pipe polymer in South Africa, which results in this material having to be imported from Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.

He adds that a large number of moulded pipe fittings are also imported, owing to foreign exporters having better economies of scale to manufacture these fittings, compared with those of South African producers.

“Thousands of meters of pipe and related products find their way onto the South African market every month and while national standards are sufficient to ensure the quality of locally manufactured pipelines, Sappma believes the regulation of imported pipes could be improved.

“Owing to factors such as budget constraints, it has become difficult for the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) to effectively regulate and monitor all the products that enter the South African market,” says Venter.

Because of this, Sappma works closely with the SABS in ensuring its members produce products of a consistently high quality that comply fully with the relevant standards.

“For this reason, most customers insist on pipes and fittings that have the SABS mark of approval and are Sappma endorsed,” he says.

Further, the association assists the SABS in matters of standards and quality through the implementation of various quality-assurance measures and initiatives and by demanding additional good-practice measures from its members.

“In terms of exports, South African plastic pipe manufacturers export their products mainly into the rest of Africa for use in the mining sector.

“There has been growing interest from international companies to invest in South African plastic pipe manufacturers, which have developed a niche market for themselves, exporting products to the rest of the continent,” states Venter.

Going Forward

Last year, Sappma welcomed several new members to the organisation and introduced a new category – Pipe Dealers – to its affiliated membership.

“We are proud to introduce three pipe dealers – Water Africa, Sizabantu Piping Systems and Astore Africa – to this new category, which allows us to take an important step towards covering and including the entire plastic pipe manufacturing and installation value chain,” says Venter.

Going forward, Venter notes that the industry is showing greater focus on limiting the impact of its operations and products on the environment.

“Environmental concerns continue to be a major focus area for plastic pipe manufacturers worldwide. Internationally and locally, manufacturers are actively trying to find ways to lower their carbon footprint, reduce their energy consumption and improve sustainability.

“New ideas and solutions to enhance this approach continue to occupy center stage in an industry that has contributed enormously to public health and well-being throughout the world,” Venter states.

Engineering News, January 2013