Construction Week discovers how the formwork sector is using the economic downturn to its advantage.
Make no mistake - the construction industry is troubled by the recent reports that state-run Dubai World will delay payments on a large proportion of its debt, worth US $80 billion (AED293.8 billion).
Just when there were whispers of recovery in 2010, contractors, developers and suppliers are now thinking they may have spoken too soon. So, how will formwork firms handle this situation and has their confidence been knocked?
Cause for concern
The first wave of the downturn caused demand of formwork systems to dip slightly as projects were put on hold or cancelled. Now, suppliers fear that the latest news from Dubai World, whose subsidiary is construction giant Nakheel, may be a sign of things to come.
"We do worry, as many developers have not signalled very clearly that they are, in fact, not backed-up by the government and therefore creditors and contractors are basically on their own. This lack of transparency is scary, as one might wonder if there are more debt bombs lurking and the degree of their extent," says Ulma general manager Andreas Gathmann.
"The debt that has been built so far needs to be repaid sometime and the message we are getting is that Abu Dhabi is not willing to underwrite all of it, only on a case-by-case basis. The perception is that when things start to go wrong, everybody is running for cover and the ones left outside may have to ride the storm by themselves. I do hope that this perception is unfounded."
Manufacturer of formwork and scaffolding systems Peri also has fears for the future.
"There is a lack of money in the market, which will mean less business for us. Demand is very unlikely to increase in 2010," says Peri managing director Hans Joachim Rau.
Some contractors and developers affected by the financial storm are choosing to ride it out by delaying payments to formwork companies, as well as other subcontractors.
"The payment problem persists in Dubai and we, like others, are suffering with contractors taking a long time to honour their agreements," states RJR Engineering managing director Roger Ratcliffe.
"Down the line, everybody is using the non-payment excuse, whether valid or not."
Gathmann agrees: "We have a couple of contractors who are not paying with the excuse that they are not getting paid themselves. This is not our problem, as our contract is with the contractor and not with the developer."
In the meantime, formwork companies like Ulma are insisting on small but regular payments. Some are adhering to strict payments either with cash before delivery or in the case of rental, bank guarantees covering the amount of material on site, to ensure on-time payments.
"Of course, most of our clients are long-term partners, where trust has been built over the years but even with those, payment clearance is taking more time than usual," adds Gathmann.
Michel Tannous managing director of Sten Gulf, a company specialised in the development and application of formwork, adds: "In some cases there are problems and we have had to be selective when choosing our clients."
Despite this situation, contractors and suppliers alike are making the best of what they have. It is clear that construction companies are tightening their belts and they need to save money right now and not likely to be convinced by the long-term benefits building materials or equipment could bring.
So what can formwork suppliers offer that will save money, but still ensure high standards of a completed building?
Finding a solution
Currently, the most desirable formwork technology from the perspective on the contractor is a speedy and versatile system that can reduce labour costs.
Now, it looks as though formwork firms are working to meet this need.
"As a new formwork company, which supplies products to the GCC, our motto is very simple - we wish to offer simplicity, speed and satisfaction," explains Sewvac Middle East technical director Vic Warden.
Aluma claims to be the market leader when it comes to offering a formwork system, which is fast and reduces the number of labourers needed on site.
"At our new Zayed University project, we are utilising an Aluma Super-Table, which measures 14m in length, is 7m-wide and 4.7m-high. This 100m2 table will be lowered onto wheels and lifted by crane to the next floor in just 20 minutes under the supervision of six workers," insists Aluma area manager for Abu Dhabi, Daniel Taylor. "No other system can even come close to stripping, moving and re-erecting this volume of shoring in this time span, using so few laborers."
In the case of Ulma´s CC-4 system, early striking of the concrete can be achieved safely and its lightweight panel system can be assembled by hand.
For vertical structures a heavy duty panel system, with a durable non-wood forming surface is the formwork of choice, according to Gathmann.
"The availability of sizes of these panel systems can be designed to fit any structure and the addition of a durable non-wood forming surface saves time as it does not need changing. Our products Orma and LGR (especially designed for columns) fit these parameters."
RJR also supplies a system that can be moved along a bridge without dismantling; its features enabling quick and easy assembly.
"Due to the unique features of system to some extent we have a niche market given the right project design features and also we are looking globally so our activities are not confined to this region," explains Ratcliffe.
Always room for formwork
It is true - business isn't booming like it once was in the construction industry, but according to formwork firms, demand is still very high in the Middle East.
Despite the burst bubble in the real estate market, there will always be a need for infrastructure, which is good news for formwork companies.
"Many governments of Middle Eastern countries want to channel the extra revenue due to oil, gas and natural resources towards improving basic infrastructure and raising their sophistication level to the benefit of its inhabitants," stresses Gathmann.
"People want better highways, bridges, hospitals, universities and also better housing, to reflect a better quality of life. Hence, there will be a continuing demand for formwork across all construction segments."
Warden also remains positive about the future of the sector: "We believe that infrastructure work cannot stop so the construction industry, in certain areas of the Middle East, will improve. And, some areas will level out due to financial payments, which will have to be paid back."
Several formwork firms are also exploring wider activity in the Middle East and internationally, where the demand for formwork is higher.
In particular, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar are attracting construction companies from across the globe.
"It's no secret that the Dubai construction industry was hit very hard by the world economic crisis, but we are not concerned. There is sufficient upcoming work in the Middle East outside of Dubai to ensure the growth of our business during 2010 and 2011," observes Taylor.
Ulma also agrees that Middle East markets outside Dubai are the key areas to focus on. The company is currently supplying its self-climbing formwork system to several buildings at Princess Noura University in Riyadh and a high-rise tower in Mekkah at the Jabal Omar complex in Saudi Arabia.
"Running projects and the ones we have already earmarked for 2010 will keep us busy in the UAE and I have higher hopes for the Saudi Arabian and Qatari markets as we are getting seriously involved there," explains Gathmann.
"Saudi Arabia is keen to modernise at a great speed and therefore projects like huge university campuses, whole economic and industrial cities and infrastructure require vast quantities of construction materials, including formwork."
Sewvac is also exploring the benefits of going global and is busy in Southern India, with a very large housing project and several infrastructure projects.
Whatever the economy throws at it, the construction industry finds a way to carry on. And, if the formwork sector continues along this path, the effects of the financial crisis may be easier to bear than first thought.
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