Function over form

Formwork suppliers face an array of challenges, including rising raw material costs, counterfeit products and customers who often put price before anything else.
Function over form
By Administrator
Sat 03 May 2008 04:00 AM

Formwork suppliers face an array of challenges, including rising raw material costs, counterfeit products and customers who often put price before anything else.

Formwork from European specialists is helping fasttrack the construction of many high profile projects in the UAE.

Our challenge is that we are the newest kid on the block, but this gives us the opportunity to prove how different we are.

The Burj Dubai is one example of this. Products from Austria's Doka and Germany's Meva and Hunnebeck have helped the project progress rapidly.

Meva supplied its slab formwork system MevaDec, a complete formwork solution, for the structural works involving 532 slabs for 153 floor levels.

A complete slab was finished every three days for the project, with concrete being poured in the evening and the formwork stripped at noon the following day.

Doka's SKE 100 system was used for the tower's wall construction, while Hunnebeck was responsible for the plan and materials for the soffit and joist formwork for the podium areas.

The job was a complex one for Hunnebeck because every floor level required different alignment of the concrete beam in accordance with the design. As a result, the shuttering had to be changed for every floor sequence.

Once the 10th floor had been reached, this reverted to flat, conventional slabs.

Originally, the thickness of each floor was to be 22cm, but after consultation, this was reduced to 20cm, to ensure a greater height.

"This was part of the technical discussion discussion taken at the beginning of the project," said Frank Odzewalski, chief executive officer, Hunnebeck."The slab thickness was higher but it was reduced because, with such a high tower, every centimetre you can save takes off weight and gives you the opportunity to go higher."

But while the major players are taking on such challenging tasks, smaller ones are beginning to make inroads in the UAE formwork market.

One of them is Spanish formwork company Ulma Formworks. The company set up operations in Dubai three years ago.

At the moment, we’re seeing that companies would prefer to employ more people than invest in more advanced formwork systems.

"Our mother company is Ulma Construction, and we are the third largest formwork and scaffolding company in the world," says Andreas Gathmann, area manager, GCC, Ulma Formworks.

"We started operations in Dubai three years ago. We have full operating facilities; we have an operating stockyard in Dubai Investment Park. We also have full customer service, engineering capabilities and supervision."

The company provides formwork solutions for residential construction, including high-rise towers and villas, as well as shopping malls.

Among the company's current projects is the 83-storey Torch Tower in Dubai Marina for the local Al Hamad Contracting Company.

"We're supplying the project with an innovative, light aluminium formwork for the slabs," says Gathmann.

"We're also engaged with TAV and other construction companies. We've been increasing our [customer base] very rapidly over the last three years."

The company also recently won a formwork contract for a 103-villa project in Abu Dhabi which is being developed by Mokbel and Partners. Gathmann adds that the company is also planning to venture into the realm of civil works.

"Of course, there are many good companies operating in the market," explains Gathmann.

The challenge is convincing construction companies to really face up to the fact that they should invest in more hi-tech formwork.

"But our challenge, and also advantage, is that we are the newest kid on the block, so to say, but this also gives us the opportunity to prove how different we are, how good we are and what level of service we provide."

Like other construction firms in the region, Ulma has been forced to increase its prices to cover the rising cost of the raw materials needed in formwork, such as steel and wood.

"Formwork is made out of steel and wood, so we also need to increase our prices," says Gathmann.

"But as we do it, every other company does it too. Sometimes, the timing's different - but within a few months, we're all on the same page with higher prices - regrettably to the customer, but we make up for it in terms of providing continued service and provision on site."

Gathmann adds: "So many companies are also facing difficulties with delivery of formwork material to contractors. We have an advantage in that we have very good operations - we are able to provide the products from our yard here in Dubai. You have to move your stock wisely but yet give full solutions to the client."

Because of the breakneck speed of construction in the UAE, using quality formwork techniques is imperative.

Yet a number of formwork specialists in the city insist that often the desire to spend less on formwork is both damaging the quality of the build and putting the safety of labourers in jeopardy.In high-rise projects, as the formwork generally takes place on the top few floors, it is important to do as much as possible to prevent anything falling from the higher levels.

"The whole environment of construction in Dubai is moving towards safety - safety is one essential issue," says Gathmann.

And definitely, hi-tech formwork and advanced materials provide more safety, there's no question about that.

But at the moment, we're seeing that companies would prefer to employ more people than invest in more advanced formwork systems, because it's relatively cheaper.

"I don't agree wholly with this - it may be cheaper in the short-term but in the long-term this area of investment will also increase, as we're seeing with salary increases, etc."

Gathmann adds: "But we still find contractors who say they can do the same job with a couple of timber planks, nails and more workers. The challenge is convincing construction firms to really face up to the fact that they should invest in more hi-tech formwork, this will save time and money, but more importantly, it's safer. And you can't put a price on the safety element."

Another issue for many formwork companies is product piracy.

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 us or other well-established companies. And they [undermine pricing], by suggesting we are making huge profits. But it is not so."

In some cases, this can be as much as one third 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.

Adopting such an approach merely exacerbates the problems associated with the lack of labour, particularly skilled labour, that is becoming a challenge in the GCC.

Jensen laments the lack of skilled labour available in the current market and questions the benefit of 'dumping' ten containers of formwork material on a site, where inexperienced labourers often aren't trained in how to use it.

For those who expect durable products, at a competitive price and with the best service, choosing an established brand name supplier may be the best option.

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