Industry ends year on golden note !
WITH 13 of the 19 gold, silver and bronze awards available in six categories (in the four main packaging groups, glass, metal, paper & board and plastics), plastics entries took well over half the awards at the IPSA Gold Pack Awards in October – and capped that with the IPSA Gold Pack Trophy for 2013 too.
That was one of the most obvious positives for the industry over the past year, and there were certainly numerous positive developments besides during the period – a time when trading conditions have been tough in virtually all sectors. Here we reflect on some of the highs, as well as the lows, of 2013.
Top showing by packaging convertors
So, obviously, our first highlight of the year is the exceptional Gold Pack performance by the plastics packaging sector overall. The Astrapak group, which is in the process of a major rationalisation process, surprised by its outstanding success in the Gold Pack programme, where it took four gold awards, showing that even during difficult phases, businesses that are well structured can produce the goods. The Astra companies JJ Precision, Marcom and Plastop KZN all got gold, and JJ was also a co-winner of the overall Gold Pack trophy.
There were top performances as well from the Polyoak and Nampak groups as well as other independent manufacturers. The standard of containers and films, and particularly the high quality of print and labels, has helped this sector gain market share. In the process, several significant innovations have been introduced too.
Agreed, plastics do offer more creative and variation opportunities than rival materials at present, but you still have to make it happen. The result was testament to the exceptionally high standards prevailing in the local plastics packaging manufacturing sector.
Statistics show that packaging now accounts for a higher percentage of total tonnage converted in South Africa, up to 55% from an estimated 50% over the past few years. That result is partly due to the fact that the technical moulding sector has not progressed as rapidly, but you can’t take the shine off the very impressive performance by the packaging manufacturers.
Next on our short list of highlights for the year are the design competitions presented by the professional associations. ARMSA (Association of Rotational Moulders of Southern Africa), PETCO (PET Recycling Company); PISA (Plastics Institute of Southern Africa) and SAPRO (Plastic Recyclers Organisation) and others presented competitions which attracted enthusiastic responses from students around the country. Plastics|SA and POLYCO sponsored or co-sponsored a number of these competitions, which helped generate interest from the students.
The fact that students today are far more adept at using electronic design systems (and electronic communication media in general), which make the process of design far more dynamic, is a big advantage. Most of the older guys in the industry struggle to a greater or lesser extent with electronic systems, so it’s a big positive to have interest coming from younger individuals.
Earlier in the year, skills development specialists Chris Vorwerk and Fiona Farquharson conducted an industry research programme (commissioned by MERSETA and appointed by Plastics│SA) in which they found that, surprisingly, more young people were being employed in the industry than expected as well as that more employees were involved in R+D activities.
The research survey did not achieve an overwhelming response from the industry, but it stands to reason that companies who responded would generally speaking be the more effectively managed operations. This is a very encouraging development. One could conversely say that, if an industry is not attracting young people, it would slowly be regressing.
It also stands to reason that, by spending more on R+D and investing in young people, that these ‘successful’ companies may also be on a path which is going to take them further ahead of companies who do not pay attention to these aspects. That’s a positive benchmark which, though difficult for all to achieve, is worth aiming towards.
Plastics|SA, SAPRO environment programmes
Plastics|SA and SAPRO have been constantly working on environment projects that could be loosely described as ‘image building’ for the industry. Besides various clean-up campaigns, Douw Steyn and the PSA team have done more than is expected of them … and still faced on-going criticism for, particularly, plastics litter. It might seem a thankless task, but Steyn and Co are always upbeat and always ready to undertake projects … any project for that matter, so long as it’s positive for the industry.
And Annabé Pretorius and the SAPRO team have worked wonders in building up the plastic recycling sector. Their two main successes have been in the area of developing new applications for recycled material (in which area they have managed to get the buy-in of brand owners such as Unilever and Woolworths) as well as the increased sale of recycled material into the neighbouring states. The latter has proved a big boost for several of the recycling operations, and likewise provided an advantage for convertors in Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other countries in our region.
The top groups, and top individuals
Our observation is that, although there are an estimated 1800 companies, and possibly more, involved in the plastics, composites and rubber moulding sectors in Southern Africa, a relatively small percentage of these are actively driving the industry. Our estimates suggest that approximately 100 companies are responsible for the bulk of progress made. In fairness to these companies, we won’t identify them here, but most who are in production will know who the leaders are. Possibly more relevant is the fact that that group of businesses is in turn led by a similar number of individuals – let’s call it a few hundred guys (and yes, it is mainly male) – who make the machines turn.
And the main characteristic of these gentlemen is the ability to map out a strategy and implement it: this requires tact, foresight, good sense, the ability to motivate and incentivize people and a lot more. A good sense of humour and at least a little bit of luck help a lot too. Another hallmark of many of these individuals is the fact that they simply don’t believe that they are responsible for what’s been achieved. Well, you can remain anonymous guys, but we salute you!
Our products are good!
Convertors in southern Africa have in recent years been largely out-competed by Chinese manufacturers, who have been making life difficult for those in any markets where imports are possible. With price being one of the top criteria for consumers, our manufacturers have struggled to compete … but that is not in the area of quality. If anything, the quality of SA-made products has erred on the ‘too high’ side.
Here’s an example: I’m now on to my fourth umbrella (a necessary accessory for the ‘eco’ pool installed in my yard in 2012). They were all unbelievably cheap, but the other less welcome feature has been that they haven’t actually worked. Just look at the thing the wrong way and something breaks! Whereas my vintage SA-made umbrella is still steady and strong.
At the same time, manufacturers have had to operate in an environment where excessive labour legislation and the aggressive stance of many of the unions has created a difficult climate. But many of the convertors have also got smarter – wiser after the setbacks of 2011 – and managed to create a situation where they’ve got the buy-in of their staff, particularly top production and sales personnel, and are now looking forward to brighter things.
The fact that the rand has weakened in value against major international currencies means that imports will be more costly, and exports more feasible, so our belief is that it’s time for ‘Made in SA’ to become a lot more popular and that, bit by bit, we can grow the industry and support our many customers in the huge range of industries we supply in building a better future for all!
Seasons’ greetings to all our readers!