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B&C Q&A #2: Talking construction with Klaus Kaufmann

Population growth and climate change have turned water into a scarce resource. The infrastructure measures required to meet the resulting demand over the long term imply higher sales of plastics products, such as pipes. The top executive at one of the world's leading extrusion systems companies, Klaus Kaufmann, managing director Unicor GmbH (Hassfurt, Germany), shared in an exclusive interview with MPW his insight into the construction industry. Kaufmann's company specializes in corrugator systems.

Population growth and climate change have turned water into a scarce resource. The infrastructure measures required to meet the resulting demand over the long term imply higher sales of plastics products, such as pipes. The top executive at one of the world's leading extrusion systems companies, Klaus Kaufmann, managing director Unicor GmbH (Hassfurt, Germany), shared in an exclusive interview with MPW his insight into the construction industry. Kaufmann's company specializes in corrugator systems.

MPW: From your perspective as managing director of a globally active extrusion systems manufacturing company, what trends currently are impacting the construction industry?

Unicor's Klaus Kaufmann
Unicor's Managing Director, Klaus Kaufmann
Kaufmann: The international construction industry tends to prefer German machinery technology, despite the growing numbers of cheap suppliers from Asia. The main reasons are the durability, reliability, and precision of our machines, with which even tight product tolerances are safeguarded over a long period. The majority of pipe manufacturers can no longer make do with purchasing just a single machine. What is increasingly required is a reliable, universal system that includes good connection technology as well as the pipe itself.

With cost pressures intensifying and quality requirements rising, our product expertise is becoming increasingly important. In particular, markets with a great deal of pent-up demand in terms of infrastructure are looking for this type of expertise. We are currently experiencing buoyant demand from the markets of Eastern Europe. The former CIS states, in particular, have a great deal of ground to make up in terms of infrastructure provision. Demand from the Middle East, North Africa, and South America is also set to grow but Europe would appear to have passed its peak demand phase. There are some signs of improvement in the U.S., with a number of firms investing in new production technology once again, after the market had bumped along the bottom in 2009. 

In addition to new investments, product optimization is the key for many established pipe manufacturers. Corrugated pipes are up to 80% lighter than many solid-wall pipes. New, more efficient intermediate products combined with clever profile design pave the way for additional economic gains to be made from reductions in pipe weight. In the wastewater sector in particular, corrugated pipes not only benefit from lightweight construction and high flexibility in the event of tectonic movement of the subsoil, they are also easy to install. As a result, we are seeing increasing acceptance of these pipes in many markets.

MPW: How do you feel about the economic environment?
Kaufmann: Global climate change is having a direct effect on the construction industry. The increasing frequency of torrential rainfall events leads to more temporary flooding, against which precautionary measures must be taken. Local authorities, in particular, are investing in systems with large plastic pipes, which can provide low-cost solutions, serving as they do as both conduits and water retention structures. The growing importance of clean water worldwide is resulting in higher levels of demand for low-cost, long-life pipe systems, like those that can be put in place with corrugated pipes, for example. Regulatory authorities in the countries concerned recognize this so that corrugated pipes are being approved with increasing frequency even in places where concrete and stoneware tended to be the materials of choice.

MPW: What is the importance of the construction industry as a customer for machinery manufacturers?
Kaufmann: Unicor has a huge array of machinery, currently ranging from the smallest model for protective conduits-3-mm diameter-for optical fibers to a large model for wastewater pipes with diameters of up to 1800 mm. Despite the steady growth recorded in both the automotive and medical application sectors, construction is by far the most important segment for us, accounting for 80% of sales. In addition to manufacturing plants for large pipes in the water sector, cable conduits for telecommunications lines are also important. Unicor has developed high-performance machines specifically for these products that can produce a cable conduit with a diameter of 110-mm at speeds of up to 30m/min, for example.

MPW: How is machinery technology contributing to a smaller energy footprint in construction?
Kaufmann
: The watchword in construction is sustainability, from energy to raw materials efficiency. The choice of material is already a decisive factor pointing the way forward. The corrugated pipes manufactured with our machines are significantly lighter than solid wall pipes, making them a better environmental option for that reason alone. The flexible corrugated pipe can be found on every construction site today, in various applications, from the simple empty conduit for electric cables to the protective conduit used for thermally insulated district heating pipes.

MPW: What role can be played by plastics in emerging economies, where low-cost solutions are required?
Kaufmann: Plastic-pipe systems have great potential in emerging economies as a low-cost solution. Plants such as those supplied by us in Turkey, Morocco, India, and Sudan, for example, bear this out. If the first investor is successful, others will follow suit by setting up modern plastic-pipe systems. There are now only a few countries left where national standards are a stumbling block because the relevant standards have not yet been introduced. In the medium and long term, however, these stragglers too will have to open up their markets and accept modern, environmentally compatible plastic-pipe systems.

MPW: What applications for plastics products can be identified for the construction industry in the future?
Kaufmann: In principle, the use of this raw material in housing construction is limitless; in North America, entire houses made of plastic are available, although I don't see a market for those in Europe. But innovative plastics products will continue to gain market share in the construction sector. Almost any media-carrying pipeline can be manufactured as a plastic pipe system. As greater demands are made on thermal insulation, plastics will also be increasingly used in this field. Water collection and retention systems are gaining in popularity resulting in higher demand for appropriate plastic containers and pipe systems.

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