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Pleasantly surprised by productivity during lockdown – Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering

30th June 2020 BY: Martin Creamer
Creamer Media Editor
Watch this video on YouTube

Engineering company Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering has been pleasantly surprised by the productivity and agility that the lockdown has afforded it as an engineering house engaged in the energy sector.

Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering’s major industrial clients include State electricity utility Eskom, large companies in the petrochemical sector and the paper and the pulp industry.

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It provides companies that produce steam in any manner with engineering design, maintenance and a host of other services.

“We’ve realised during this lockdown period that we can certainly be more agile, more productive, so we’re looking to see how we can reorganise ourselves to deliver an even better service to our clients during and beyond the lockdown,” says Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering CEO Thava Govender. (Also watch attached Engineering News & Mining Weekly video.)

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“We do a lot of engineering and a lot of projects and we maintain a lot of old plants and can also maintain and do design changes for those old plants, and design new plants,” he adds.

Welding mainstream pipework and high-temperature pipework is a core competency of the company, which is an original equipment manufacturer for several utilities and plants within South Africa, as well as being a supplier of spares.

With pollution and emission abatement becoming a major issue, Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering has expanded its strategy to facilitate entry into the emission abatement field, in partnership with local or international emission abatement technology firms.

“We have undertaken Low NOx abatement projects for Sasol (at Sasolburg) on a rolling implementation, with the first project successfully achieving compliance in 2019. Since then Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering has been successful in implementing further projects upon the Sasolburg boilers with a sustained legal compliance to each of the projects as being completed.

 “We’re one of the only companies, as far as we are aware, that has managed to achieve sustained legal compliance for low NOx, so we’re looking at other industries where we can do sulphur oxide (SOx) removal and particulate emission abatement,” says Govender.

Cutting-edge three-dimensional modelling and carbon capture and storage know-how could be the next arrows in Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering’s already far-reaching quiver, as an extension to its environmental foray into NOx and SOx and particulate emission abatement solutions.

Given that its parent company in the UK employs the biggest number of nuclear engineers in Europe, Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering also has local nuclear project aspirations.

That the company is able to get going at short notice and cut project timeframes is exemplified by the replacement, following an explosion, of both steam legs at Eskom’s Lethabo power station, near Vereeniging, in 30 weeks during 2018, compared with the 66 weeks that it took to do the same thing at Matimba power station four years earlier. The learnings from that could now come in very useful should it be successful in future tenders for replacement of main steam pipework systems.

These were Govender’s replies to questions put to him by Engineering News & Mining Weekly:

How has Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering been able to achieve business continuity during lockdown?

It’s a cliché to say it’s been very, very difficult to service the kind of customer we have, especially with the lockdown. But we’ve had various interactions with our clients, and we’ve managed to be classified as an essential service to companies like Eskom so that we can continue to service the power stations where we’re involved. Other industries have put a lot of their work on hold due to limitations around workforce mobility and to a certain extent Eskom has done that as well, where some major outages are not happening because of workforce mobility. We’re hoping that in the months of July and August that as the regulations are relaxed, things will ease, and we’ll be able to do some major outages. Typically, to do an outage of a unit at Eskom takes up to 3 000 people, so you can imagine the challenge. Also, for other industries we work in, we are trying to do as much upfront engineering work as possible. Also, because of the lockdown regulations, a lot of the overseas engineering companies that used to service some of our clients with original equipment manufacturer expertise, cannot enter the country. We’re in the fortunate position where we can service our clients locally with that expertise. So, we’re working with some of the international companies to see how we can help them, since they cannot get their own people into the country.

How has Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering adapted so that it is able to assist local clients?

There was a lot of scepticism about working from home, but as we moved along, we saw a lot of innovation and many novel ways of interacting with our clients and how we can do work with a limited amount of resources. Foremost in our minds was compliance with the regulations and not jeopardising our people’s health in any way. Teams meetings with clients is how we keep the interaction going and our people have come up with good ideas about how we can be more productive. We’ve realised during this lockdown period that we can certainly be more agile, more productive, so we’re looking to see how we can reorganise ourselves to deliver an even better service to our clients, during and beyond the lockdown. We have the minimal number of people at head office to stick to the regulations, but I must say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the amount of productivity that can be achieved within the home environment. I think that’s one of the big learnings for us.

How are you ensuring the wellbeing of your people?

We developed policies, procedures and guidelines, which are strictly adhered to. For example, in our head office in the Bedfordview area, which at one stage was one of the coronavirus hotspots, we have house rules in place. When people come in to work, there’s a strict protocol. There’s only one entrance and exit. People are given a questionnaire in advance that they must complete, based on their interaction with people that have tested positive and their Covid-19 symptoms, and we receive their responses before they come to work. We limit the number of people that come to work to typically between 30% and 50% in our head office while the rest are based either on sites or at home. There’s a strict protocol of hand and shoe sanitising on entry. Temperatures are checked and two-metre physical distancing is adhered to. We encourage people to avoid mass gatherings and make sure that those who attend funerals remain in isolation for 14 days. We encourage our people to go for tests after seven, eight days, which we pay for, as the employer, and only once those tests are negative do, we allow the people to come in to work. In terms of the workplace, we adopt the same procedure. We had one case of a person testing positive. Once we became aware of that, we shut our workplace down and did a deep clean of the building before allowing people to come back to work. But within the building, we make sure that we spread the people out and most of the meetings are done on Teams. Board rooms are locked. So far, I think we’ve done very well as a group in terms of combating the virus, but I think we’re still heading for our peak and that’s where our challenge comes in of how we’re going to manage that.

What is involved in locally assisting overseas companies that can’t come to South Africa owing to the international travel restrictions?

We take advantage of doing the work of the international expertise not coming to the country. But for ourselves as well, one of the challenges is getting some of our technology partners with expertise to come to the country. That’s one of the challenges and we’re waiting to see how the lockdown regulations are revised. Certainly, when we partner with our technology partners for work that we tender for and win, ideally, we want those people to get into the country. We’re hoping to see some easing of the travel restrictions for people to come in. It’s not so much about us trying to go out that affects us. For example, we were doing consulting work in one of the Asian countries and we found local companies there that can do the work on our behalf by being physically there, while we do the analysis and the engineering data here. So, it doesn’t require our own engineers to go to those Asian countries, so we have found work-around plans. It’s also about getting in spare parts into our country that could be a challenge. But the expertise is our biggest problem when we win tenders that are based on knowledge of international partners. We haven’t quite got to that yet because the big outages at Eskom will be starting in mid-July, August.

How is the disruption impacting the markets you serve?

It’s had a very big impact on access to the markets that we serve. In serving an essential services industry like Eskom, we’re still working at the sites where we have core crews or base crews, but the big outages are not happening as planned due to Covid-19. We’re waiting for that to happen in earnest. The economic downturn has played a big role in the outlook of some of our clients. Quite a few in the industries we work in are looking at downsizing. Certainly, the outlook in terms of crude especially for the petrochemical companies is not looking good, even though the price increase has doubled in the last two months. Obviously, it is impacting our business. Our revenue is not where it should be compared with where we were last year and where we would like to be in terms of the budget perspective. As a company as well, we must look at whether we’re optimally structured. We’re looking at ways of reducing our overheads and reducing our costs as well. 

EDITED BY: Creamer Media Reporter
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