In the hazardous arena of hydrocarbon technology, safety and expertise are paramount in a heavily regulated environment. For nearly 20 years now, Proconics has been a byword for expertise, building a reputation which it hopes will spread its talents across the globe.
Headquartered in Secunda, Mpumalanga, the company came into being around 1995 when Sasol started to outsource some of its operations. Rhigardt Nolte is General Manager for business development and has been with Proconics since 2008 and takes up the story:
“Our history derives from Sasol the petrochemical company who operate the largest synthetic fuels plant in the world. They have a few large industrial complexes, one here in Secunda,a second in Sasolburg and another large one in Qatar with some developments elsewhere in the world.
“Sasol, through their division called Sasol Technology used to do their own detailed engineering but in 1995 they decided to start outsourcing the detailed project work and after some management buy outs Proconics was formed as a takeout of detail designers and engineers.
“Our expertise lies in the area of electrical and control systems as we describe ourselves as “a single discipline E&I contractor. We are well placed to service the larger International EC’s such as Fluor, Worley Parsons, KBR, Technip and Linde and effectively play the role of their E and I Department on certain projects or sections of projects, we have done that quite a few times,” he describes.
“Working as an engineering contractor in the hydrocarbon space allows specialisation into both consulting and execution roles of projects and both these skills translate well into other sectors such as Power, Water and Infrastructure.
“Today we still have a strong relationship with Sasol and they remain our largest client with some robust growth in other sectors and clients over the last two years,” Nolte continues.
He says that the company has evolved over time and back in 1995 the focus was solely on the detailed design function, whereas today Proconics is also renowned for its consultation skills.
“When we started out there was more of a focus on the detailed engineering phase and gradually we moved more into the front end engineering and more recently still we have become involved with the whole EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) process.”
The company has grown to just short of 200 employees and working with Sasol for so long has proved a massive boost to the business as the Proconics website describes:
“Our diverse work experience with the only coal to liquids facility in the world has afforded us an opportunity to develop a unique breadth of specialisation within the instrumentation and control domain. Whether a requirement for insight into an unusual industrial process, an extreme measurement problem or an ergonomic control room design; we have the skill to provide a tailored solution; on time and on budget.”
An important aspect of operation expertise is technology as Nolte explains: “We have grown with the industry in adopting computerised tools and today offer a very compelling skillset in database-driven drawing and documentation management systems. We offer some specialised services in converting existing flat-CAD or dumb drawings into powerful database tools such as Intergraph’s INTOOLS.
“These tools also allow us to be more efficient and eliminate errors – which is of course of huge importance in such a hazardous environment. In this business, downtime can cost serious money with opportunity costs for plants running into several multiples of the project cost- getting it right the first time is paramount to our business and that of our clients.
“Our specialities in this sector have led to some large customers employing us to convert large numbers of existing information into their specific requirements in their chosen database tool, converting tens or even hundreds of thousands of drawings into their “smart” equivalents.”
Diversifying the client base is something Nolte says that Proconics is acutely aware of and there are plenty of exciting opportunities in South Africa and at present, as well as much further afield.
“Growing the business with a major client with demanding requirements has gifted us with the processes required to be successful in the market outside and our move into the outside world is showing some traction. We have already opened a couple of small overseas offices (in Doha, Qatar and Perth, Western Australia) but the challenge is to break into new markets.
“The nature of the work means that these companies involved in power or petrochemical processes cannot afford to have any mistakes or downtime. Trust is important in our business and of course many of these companies have therefore relied on existing suppliers for many years, developing strong relationships.
“The fact that we have started to make some inroads into these existing relationships with some new clients speaks to our compelling value offering. We have some unique inputs to give and some unique approaches and our clients are recognising that.
“We are in this for the long game, preferring lasting relationships to quick hits as this builds sustainable business. Our partners recognise this and we have been invited to open offices and grow alongside their business on more than one occasion.”
Proconics’ Qatar venture came about through Sasol operating a plant there in a 50/50 partnership with Qatar Petroleum. Nolte says that the plant had some issues around stability and Proconics travelled over and was able to investigate and provide a detailed report and action plan which has greatly improved operations.
Quality is equally important and one of the greatest forms of reassurance available to enhance an already strong track record. Proconics attained ISO 9001:2008 certification last year although Nolte says that the structures had been in place for this many years before.
“On the safety side we are also very proud of our accomplishments and we have won a few awards for safety from Sasol in addition to a NOSA (National Occupational Safety Association) Award as the best in South Africa in our sector.”
With an eye to international opportunity, Nolte says there is plenty of potential work within South Africa, where Proconics’ work is of course better known at present:
“In the petrochemical space we are already a large player locally but there are many other sectors on our doorstep. We have now started to work with some of the parastatals like Eskom and Transnet and Eskom have quite a few power plants surrounding Secunda that we could work on and have indeed started doing so.
“At the moment one of the issues that interests us is that a lot of existing plants are reaching a senior age and equipment needs replacing – with some parts no longer available. Upgrades, or modifications – or what we call ‘brownfield upgrades’ are one of our niche areas.
“We often find that lots of the original documentation at these plants is missing and we have to come in and investigate the overall status of the plant to figure out what was there initially and what needs to be upgraded and what changes need to be made to ensure everything works together.
“A good example is here at Secunda, where the plant was built in 1980, using designs from the 1970s and technology which was probably established in the early 1970s. Lots of that equipment is obsolete now so we have to establish what needs to be done and provide the right replacements to ensure the plant does not suffer from downtime.
“Another important area is that of standards – and there are new standards brought in all the time covering areas such as Safety Integrity Levels which are often not fully understood by the industry. We have started to get involved in auditing plants and there is a distinct lack of knowledge understanding some of the laws – but we have legal and engineering trained resources in-house.
“Our industry is continually facing new challenges, and staying innovative helps us stay current. We have spent some time on in-house developments and some of our employees are recognised experts in the fields of Cyber Security, Functional Safety and Fired Heater compliance audits.”
With the Sasol work very much ongoing and the opportunities provided by the local Eskom power plants, Nolte is optimistic for the future of Proconics, which recently designed and constructed a new head office.
“There are lots of large petrochemical projects underway and planned in South Africa and the Government fuel specifications have recently changed meaning there are lots of upgrades due. These will require lots of changes and modifications and we are very keen to get involved in these projects,” he concludes.