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Construction equipment: Global work props up UK companies

The tough times of the last few years have taken their toll on everyone, not least those in the temporary works business. But for firms with an international spread there have been bright patches and a chance, and a necessity, to move flexibly in the market.

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Middle East gains: RMD Kwikform has enjoyed a rise in work in countries such as the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia

One such is RMD Kwikform, supplier of formwork, falsework and heavy duty temporary supports to many major construction projects. By ducking and weaving in the right markets, innovating and keeping up with changes in customer demands, it has kept afloat and even nurtures ambitions to expand, moving seriously in to the US market for example.

“We were impacted by the credit crunch of course,” says RMD strategic planning and business development director John Warne. “But there were areas that held up.” The impact did not really come until 2009, he says, because the momentum of projects underway continued.

Prime among those keeping going was the Australian market where RMD has a strong presence. “We have seventeen different local operations down there,” says RMD overseas marketing director Roger Smith. The Australian economy until very recently has seemed immune to the impact of the world economic crisis, particularly because of its strong mining sector and demand for raw materials from countries like Japan, China and South Korea.

“In fact there was a change like everywhere else, with cutbacks in building and commercial,” says Smith, “but the industrial and mining sector has been steaming along.”

Making the switch to a different industry is something the company is geared up for, he says, by its approach to the market, which is to work with contractors to design a tailored package for their project, rather than supply them with a product.

Major competitors, particularly from the German-speaking market, are manufacturers of formwork with factories geared to continuous output, he says. While they too offer significant design input to their customers, they are also driven by an imperative to sell factory output.

Taking another approach, RMD makes its components in batches outsourced to a small number of trusted suppliers. It then builds up its stock as needed.

“We could say we sell solutions instead,” says Smith. “The kit of components we have is assembled into something that the client needs by talking about the project and understanding what it requires to do the job.” Lately that has included BIM design methodology to help demonstrate the options visually with customers.

By scaling back production as required and with Australia proving a good base input, the company has been able to take chances around the world during the downturn that it hopes will give good opportunities in the future. These reflect an overall shift in construction that Smith thinks is quite a sea change.

“Two decades ago a lot of work was in infrastructure but the last ten years until 2008 there was more emphasis on building and commercial work. Now it is infrastructure again that is perhaps the area to focus on.”

That comes about in two different ways for RMD. One is the renovation and replacement of ageing infrastructure, particularly in the developed economies and most of all the US. The other is in emerging markets and particularly the Middle East and the growing economies of Brazil, Russia and India. RMD does not yet cover all the BRIC countries, notably the huge Chinese market, but covers enough to talk about “Bric’s not bricks”.

Renovation work, and the replacement of a significant part of its highway bridge stock is particularly important for the US and this is a market RMD has its sights on, taking the chance to set up properly in 2010.

“We worked there before via small dealers but did not have an operating company,” says Warne. But the firm moved to a larger distributor and then because of the recession there was an opportunity to buy it. It gives the company a chance to participate in a major bridge replacement programme as well as offering its range of formwork. “The US is a very large market,” he says.

“There was a change like everywhere else, with cutbacks in building and commercial, but the industrial and mining sector has been steaming along”

Roger Smith, RMD

Just in highways alone there are “something like 65,000 bridges needing renovation and replacement”. Many of these have suffered from the cold winters in the northern states and the impact of de-icing salts bearings and concrete reinforcement.

Often this means bridge bearing replacement requiring support for the bridge decks while bearings are cut out and renewed below, just the kind of job needing heavy shoring support.

Typical of the projects the company hopes to see is the “Fast Fourteen”, for which its shoring was used recently. These were twin bridges at seven interchanges on the I-93 interstate in Massachusetts, which were determined to be unfit following an incident in 2010 when holes appeared in the concrete decking of one of them. It forced closure of several road lanes.

Rather than use a conventional programme of rebuilding, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation opted to replace the bridges with precast units, in tightly programmed operations that saw the a whole side of the highway replaced in a single weekend. The seven junction programme, with two bridges per interchange, was done in a three month period against an estimated three to five years for conventional methods.

For each job the contractor closed half the interstate on a Friday with a contraflow, broke out the deck and cut out the steel beams on the Friday night. It then installed the precast units on the Saturday, stitched them with reinforced concrete overnight and then resurfaced and marked up the new road deck on the Sunday. “They had to open by 6am rush hour on the Monday,” says Smith.

RMD supplied its Kwikform heavy duty Megashor shoring posts for the work and particularly for the pre-weekend operations when parts
of the steel structure were pre-cut. The Megashor system was originally developed for the extremely heavy concrete work on the Ma Wan link viaduct between the two big bridges of the Tsing Ma crossing in Hong Kong. It can support 100t per leg.

In the Massachusetts job, the shoring, with adjustable lengths was also used for supporting the I93 deck steel while bridge bearings were cut out and replaced as part of the advance works.

“We were impacted by the credit crunch of course, but there were areas that held up”

John Warne, RMD

“We supplied that from our Texas facility in fact,” says Smith, “because our concentration at present is on the sunbelt across from Texas to California. So this was a rental solution that had to be delivered 3,500km by truck from Houston,” he explains. “But for specialist solutions it is possible to go long distance sometimes.”

The company sees the important US market as a significant part of the future and, says Smith, “hopefully it will pick up for this kind of work”.

New developments and accessories for the shoring will extend its possibilities, including the capacity to mount a hydraulic jack in the shoring, and then remove it after the column is locked off. “That means the jack can be used elsewhere and cuts down the expensive rental of jacks on a job,” says Smith.

Latin America meanwhile is providing other opportunity. RMD is building up in Panama for example. It did not win the giant Panama canal work but Smith sees a lot of associated infrastructure building up there “and the competition preoccupied with the canal itself leaving lots of scope.”

The huge expansion of Brazil is also important with the growth of its economy and also the discovery of massive oil reserves. “It will be needing international support,” says Smith. There are challenges there with import duties and the language barrier but these are not insurmountable. Chile, Colombia and Peru are also interesting.

In the Middle East there has been a little bit of impact from the Arab Spring events but recently RMD has opened a new facility in Saudi Arabia and has a good presence in the Gulf states. Infrastructure will continue there.

In Europe the relationship built up with contractors in supplying solutions is an important aspect of the firm’s operation. This applied, for example, in places like Spain whose big contractors have moved out to find work throughout the world as the domestic market has declined.

In the UK a notable recent project has been dismantling of the big steel “wings” on the Olympic Aquatic Centre, which held extra seating for the event.

New products meanwhile are another important aspect of the future. RMD has recently launched a system of hydraulic floor safety screens for work on high rise development. These three level screens, already widely used in Australia, are jacked up level by level as work proceeds to completely enclose otherwise open working areas.

The RMD “Ascent” system uses a rail mounting. The same system also is also used with self-climbing formwork from Kwikform.

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