Koorts Liebenberg is CEO of South African Stainless Steel Tube Specialist Formatube Pty Ltd, which recently acquired erstwhile competitor Seascape Stainless Steel Services in Cape Town.
Liebenberg inherited one of Seascape’s recent production success stories – a self-propelled shark cage (The Shark Rover) designed for film crews following and interacting with Great White sharks around the world.
The unusual craft has since featured in a Discovery documentary which aired earlier this month in South Africa.
Liebenberg spoke to Miasa about these two latest developments.
How did the project come about?
They tried to build it in the USA, but then they came to us (Seascape Stainless Steel) and asked us, can we have a look at the original designs and build the Shark Rover. There was a concept plan for it. We improved on it. At the end of the day it worked.
It was built for Gurney Productions last year, and then last Sunday the programme was broadcast in South Africa for the first time. When Seascape Stainless were building the cage, they said to Devon from Gurney that the hole in the front is too big ( “the Sharks can get in there”), but they laughed and said “no, we will just nudge the sharks on the nose with the camera”. I think the guys like taking filming to the next level, pushing the audience adrenaline and to get some viewers really nervous!
Was it an interesting challenge?
It was a very interesting and deadline production challenge – like building a submarine without the shell. It was very exciting. We have never seen anything like it. The Seascape Stainless production guys working on the project had an attitude of, well, we will make sure we get it right, safe and on time. Seascape Stainless had a deadline of only three weeks before production and they worked extra shifts to not “drop” their existing jobs and clients.
Was it a significant project from a company point of view?
Yes, it shows the industry who we are and what we can do. Some people think Seascape Stainless just make a couple of boat fittings. We wanted to prove to everybody including ourselves and our team that we can take on bigger and more difficult projects.
So far it seems to have worked out. We’ve had various high-praising mails from the film crew who say it is exactly what they needed – it has taken things to a totally new level. We are thinking of building another one, to be a kind of show piece. We will put it up for display at our new bigger and technology oriented factory in Blackheath, Cape Town.
How significant is this project for the merged company (Formatube and Seascape Stainless)?
Yes, and the fact that we have a new factory. From Formatube we have all the technology, the precision Stainless Steel tube manipulation , and Seascape Stainless have the skills from the guys in the factory. In the new factory we have started a whole new aluminium division for wakeboard towers and various other parts, to make it lighter for the boats. We will also have a new and improved project division. We have been approached by quite a few international companies to start supplying them directly, so we are in for some exciting times. Formatube (which has just been confirmed as a finalist in the Columbus SASSDA Stainless Steel Awards 2016- for precision tube bending and related) is an ISO9001:2015 certified company and is now also busy implementing the ISO quality management system in Seascape Stainless Steel (which has just entered the Cape Chamber of Commerce Exporter of the year competition for design, quality and engineering). Seascape Stainless Steel Service will do the final audit in the new year once they have finalised all the new machinery in the new factory.
How is business generally?
We have a lot of work locally and internationally due to the quality of our products and that creates demand – and that is why we had to get a bigger factory. We’ve got currently about four or five trucks coming in and out every day. We believe in continuous improvement and there is no substitute for quality and service.
And market demand?
I listen to people complaining about pricing sometimes, but we only use the best certified material,products and staff. That pushes pricing up, but the end result speaks for itself. Clients are prepared to pay a bit more for quality internationally and we treat every job as if it gets exported and we conform to international standards. We are very fortunate as we have a full order book, and that is why we needed to expand our operations, and to not jeopardise our products and quality and we do not want to let our clients down. They also work on strict deadlines and when the containers need to be shipped, they rely on us to to commit and deliver.
What should be done to assist marine manufacturing?
The issue is that there is not enough skilled staff in the marine industry. We need to teach and develop this industry more. We are involved with various projects on training learners the skills, but we all need more help to compete internationally. The industry in other countries get subsidies to help them procure effective and the latest machines to enhance productivity without jeopardising their quality and efficiency. We are left to fend for ourselves, pay for machinery ourselves and yet we are pushed to export more and get the economy growing, but it takes time and is not always financially possible.
For example, I’ve just been to Germany in April. My mandrel tube bending machines (in my factory) can do about 1000 Stainless Steel bends a day; in Germany their new machines can do 900 bends an hour!
If I semi automate more of my processes (without replacing any staff) I could push out three to four times what we currently do.
And then there’s the price factor. It costs R17-million (€950 000) for a fibre tube laser cutting machine. The problem is for you to become a better manufacturer and make better quality products, you need to invest in products. But government doesn’t have the money anymore (to help fund technology development).In the old days you used to get government grants and loans at preferential rates like from DTI.
I’ve got 12 guys polishing all day, but if I had the right machines I could do double up capacity without any quality neglect, delivery quicker to clients and it becomes a chain reaction as everybody wins.
Do you see promising growth on the horizon? Where are you aiming?
Oh yes definitely, we are planning to exhibit at Metstrade in Amsterdam in November and we are showcasing more of our engineering products at Midest in Paris in December.
We have great clients that is growing with us and helping us on a daily basis to design newer products, try new ideas and encourage us to invest and grow our facility.
We have been discussing some great new projects with various local and international players and that has helped us move to the next stage. We have also been aggressively marketing our products internationally in the last few months, and the results have been overwhelming, but is has mainly been thanks to our local clients that helped us get get where we are. Without them Seascape Stainless Steel Services would not been where we are today and for that we would like to thank them and always be grateful. We’ve got quite a big part of the market share and we’re definitely growing. Watch this space.