Composite materials supplier Aerontec aims to make inroads into the local civil engineering sector, says technical sales representative Lawrie Droomer.
He adds that this was brought about in response to an increase in the demand for composites within the civil engineering sector during the past year.
“We have noticed a growing demand for composites in civil engineering applications. This is mainly because composites are a lightweight and stronger alternative to steel,” notes Droomer, who has over 20 years’ experience in the composites industry.
He says, although the move towards composites is evident, it has also been slow.
Droomer feels that, when the civil engineer- ing sector effectively increases its use of composite rebar, a significant change will be evident in the local composites industry.
“Industry seems to be in an experimental phase in terms of composites. Universities are starting to do more research projects and companies are increasingly manufacturing items with composite rebar. I believe this will gain momentum within the next year,” he says.
Meanwhile, Droomer says, although the local composites industry is growing throughout all industries, it has experienced growth particularly in the passenger craft sector.
“Composites provide passenger craft manufacturers with a solution to making their vehicles lighter and more fuel efficient,” Droomer adds.
He sees further potential for composites application in marine projects.
“In coastal concrete projects, steel reinforcements can be replaced with fibreglass, which will not rust and will have a longer life span,” he notes.
The lack of technical expertise, specifically in the high-tech composites sector, and increases in input costs are worrying for the industry, says Droomer.
“The skills deficit seems to exist at all levels within the high-tech composites industry. Currently, few people are qualified to work with composites such as epoxy resins, which require specialised skills.”
Droomer adds that a large section of the high-tech composites industry used to be mili- tary related, and that, as military contracts started drying up in recent years, many skilled individuals have left the composites sector.
“Following the 1980s and 1990s, military activity in South Africa reduced significantly, which destroyed the sector’s disposable income. Subsequently, composites training programmes have also deteriorated, resulting in South Africa now being reliant on experience and skills that were obtained 30 years ago.”
He says training and fresh skills in high-tech composites are required to push the industry forward.
Further, the composites industry is largely dependent on the luxury goods sector, which has been slow to recover following the recent economic downturn.
“A general reduction in disposable income has led to people being unable to afford luxury items such as boats and aeroplanes, which has affected the local composites industry severely,” Droomer explains.
Droomer says Aerontec has noticed a slight awakening in market activity as demand for its custom-cut foam has increased in recent months.
The company’s polyvinyl chloride (PVC) foam-cutting machine is the only one of its kind in South Africa that is specifically dedicated and designed to cut PVC foam.
With a set point of 0,1 of a mm, the machine is used to cut foam for companies throughout the composites industry, but more specifically for the boat and aircraft manufacturing indus- tries.
Droomer says numerous boatyards, aircraft companies and private builders have used Aerontec’s cut foam. Further, some of the antennae for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project were also built with the company’s foam products.
The SKA will combine the signals received from thousands of small antennae spread over a distance of more than 3 000 km to simulate a single giant radio telescope. It will be built in the southern hemisphere, either in South Africa or Australia, with the purpose of study- ing the universe.
“The foam cutter does precision cutting according to the client’s specifications. The finished product can then be delivered to the client as soon as required,” Droomer adds.
He says this is a quick and convenient solution for clients who would otherwise have to choose from a catalogue of foam components that have set thickness options and take longer to be delivered as there are material importa- tion delays.
“The foam cutter allows clients to have foam cut to their specific required thickness, rather than having to design their boat or aeroplane according to the foam components produced by factories,” Droomer notes.
The machine can cut foam segments up to 1,2 m wide and 2,4 m long.