By Christopher Sell
A look into the issue of sub-standard imports in the formwork industry and the response of the established players.
As site regulations tighten in the emirate in response to a growing awareness of international standards, concern remains in the formwork sector over the impact of substandard reproductions being made available to contractors, who are attracted by significantly lower costs.
According to Geir Jensen, general manager, Doka Gulf, formwork suffers in a number of ways. Its temporary nature onsite means legislation is minimal, plus it is, generally speaking, quite low technology, hence few aspects of it are applicable to patent rights, meaning there is nothing illegal in reproducing such products. The problems arise when clients are given the impression that they can acquire these products with the same quality from suppliers at significantly lower prices. "Certainly the biggest fake producer for Doka is China," Jensen says.
"These people give the impression these products can be purchased at a much lower price than Peri or us or other well-established companies. And they spoil the price suggesting we are making huge profits. But it is not so." In some cases, this can be as much as 1/3rd of the price of authentic material.
This approach is detrimental to the construction process overall. While the contractor may believe he is saving costs, the reality is that it eliminates any support services that would be offered from an established supplier. Instead, the site would receive a container or containers, of material and nothing else. But is this so important if the material is simplistic and straightforward to operate? Jensen believes so: "That is what the clients' need. If you go and ask us or Peri what is important for the client nowadays, with these fast-tracked products they need the service follow-up. Simply to dump material on-site is no help."
Employing such a method merely exacerbates the problems associated with the lack of labour - or more specifically, skilled labour that is afflicting the emirates. Jensen laments the lack of skilled labour available in the current market and questions the benefit of ‘dumping' 10 containers of material on a site of unskilled labourers who don't know what to do. For those who expect good products, at the best possible price with the best service, you cannot look past the real companies for the pirate ones.
If such an approach is patently so disadvantageous in the long run, the question remains why contractors pursue less-than-authentic formwork. The reason, says Jensen, is that contractors are keen to save money where they can, and that since the majority of formwork is so easy to copy, they believe they can handle it, which, with unskilled labourers, is where the problems arise.
"It is all a question of price. Because they know that they can get away with it, and take shortcuts. But they cannot handle these products with unskilled labourers. And that is where they are suffering - you get what you pay for. They are convinced by the low price, but normally they don't do it again, because the follow-up and service is not up to scratch."
Peri also adopt this approach, believing the service-intensive nature of formwork offsets any temptation contractors might feel to cut corners and, in the end, is a telling aspect. Christian Schwörer, managing director, Peri says: "You can copy a product but you cannot copy a solution, and that is how we protect ourselves - by the technical competencies of our people. That is way stronger as a barrier to other competitors than just the product."
Jens Lutzow-Rodenwoldt, marketing manager, Meva says the company pursues a similar policy. "The formwork industry, being dominated by European brands, has, in the past, spent much time, money and effort trying to protect their inventions. Success has been moderate, so that most today prefer to spend their energy in getting the idea sold to as large a target audience as possible - in the hope that copiers will be identified as such and not trusted as much as the original." One example of this is the assembly lock that defines today's ‘clamp' system. Until the late 90's, the original inventors fought copies of this assembly method in court without success.
To counter piracy, Lutzow-Rodenwoldt says, is a two-tier strategy. Firstly, inventions and innovative developments are brought to market knowing full well they may be copied. Being one step ahead, however, and perfecting the invention as time goes by and the practical experience gained remains the best way to secure a jump on piracy. Furthermore, formwork systems have reached a level of intricacy and complexity which, to copy, is simply not a matter of dismantling a panel and starting production of a pirate copy.
The second is building up and maintaining a local market presence in order to monitor activities and respond to client needs with an immediacy and closeness that cannot be copied easily. To that end, German-based Meva established a strategic joint-venture with the largest supplier of scaffolding and formwork in the Middle East region, KHK Scaffolding Systems in Dubai, at the beginning of 2006.
There is also a health and safety issue as standards normally adhered to in Europe, the UK or US are not applied with the imported products. Furthermore, Jensen believes this problem is specific to the Middle East region as there is little or no evidence of sub-standard imports in the more established markets or US and Europe. "Here they have a chance because we don't have any standards for our products," he says. This stems mainly from the temporary nature of formwork and that it has no established presence once a building is complete.
In fact, Jensen is sceptical that those who have the responsibility to ensure safety are as concerned as they should be about worker welfare, and more interested in reducing overheads on the construction site. "It doesn't matter as long as it is good enough to do the job. In the worst case, if they lose one or two labourers, they pay blood money. And on the next four or five sites and in the long run hope they can do them without any accidents so in the long run can save some money."
Lutzow-Rodenwoldt, however, believes this bares little relevance to the larger projects in the emirate. "The Gulf region in general and UAE in particular have exceptionally developed, high-speed construction industries. The international construction companies involved with tightly scheduled high-rise projects costing billions of dollars are under pressure to deliver economically and technically advanced results. Their approach has been to build up long-term partnerships with the formwork companies supplying the solutions."
Even though the reality is that it is a small number of sites using such materials - five percent according to Jensen though certainly more in the emirates of Ajman and Sharjah - the problem is the cheaper goods flooding the market are distorting the real market value of authentic products. At the same time, he concedes that, for smaller building work, villas or two-storey buildings, for example, the copied systems are generally good enough to cope and have been successfully employed in Abu Dhabi and Ajman for years.
Asked whether the issue has actually got worse over the last 12 to 18 months, however, and Lutzow-Rodenwoldt is effusive that it is not such a problem. "On the contrary, as schedules tighten and demands become higher, the realisation that a formwork panel - whether copied or the original - will not reliably put the concrete in place - is alive and well. No project manager in his right mind would risk high-level construction processes by employing pirate products without the engineering back-up definitely required."
But the point remains that for the numerous, large-scale fast-track projects predominant in Dubai and increasingly in Abu Dhabi and other emirates, the authentic use of materials is surely the only approach to ensure proper standard formwork. "These fake products from China try and compete, but if you give the client the impression they can do fast-track big jobs with fake products, then you are cheating the client," Jensen concludes.