with Koos van Helden, International Account Manager Eastern Hemisphere for Ultrasonic Flow Products — SICK Engineering Gm, SICK Automation Southern Africa (PTY) Ltd.
When we first speak about the market for process automation, and flow products in particular, we see that a lot of advancements have been made over the years. The products have become much more accurate, measurements can be monitored real-time, and so on. From a general perspective, how have you seen these advances in technology impacting the industry over the years?
K.v.H.: Flow measurement in gas pipelines has been done in the past by conventional means such as orifice plates. As of the middle of the previous century, other technologies came into play, like turbine meters for example. In the late 1980s, ultrasonic gas flow meters replaced the conventional means, which are subject to wear & tear and mismeasurement. The more advanced digital technology gives us the capability to collect more diagnostic data to analyze the metering section.
In the early days, gas was not a commodity and did not play any role in the energy portfolio. It was often just flared. Today, however, gas is a commodity with a certain value as compared to oil. Every 0.1% uncertainty in measurements therefore means that somebody, generally speaking the end-user, will face a loss. With the advancements in computer technology in the late 1980s and their implementation in flow measurement, parameters became available that can easily control the performance of flow measurement.
In the past, log files used to be kept per month or even months, while today we see real-time measuring. Has this also changed the role of the engineer onsite?
K.v.H.: That is for sure. Under conventional technology, you have the maintenance and the read-out of the data of the flow meter coming in a compiled flow. With the emergence of the more modern gas meters, more data became available. Initially, this was mainly the basic data, such as velocity, performance, etc. which were used to identify the health state of the meter. As more advanced meters came in, the diagnostics advanced as well, such as turbulence and asymmetry measurements. This gives the user more information about the upstream pipe conditions, which determine the performance of the flow measurement.
Besides, within the technology itself, the path lay-out of the flow meter has changed, giving us a so-called diagnostic feature that can predict what happens in front of the meter. In the old days, flow measurement data did not tell the engineer what was happening upstream.
Ms. Cronje, perhaps more a question for you, as Mr. van Helden explained how state-of-the art these products are today. But when we now look at marketing these products in the African markets which often still lack the latest infrastructure, do you feel that these markets are also ready to adopt the latest technological advancements in flow measurement?
D.C.: As far as South and Southern Africa are concerned, I would say so. There is a huge potential. Nonetheless, we do have challenges as well, especially when it comes to the education of existing equipment. Fortunately we receive great products, training and support from our mother company Sick AG
South Africa hosts the more advanced economy in the region. Can the country be a role model for implementation in its neighboring markets?
D.C.: Yes it can. We have to install and support our equipment up to Sick AG International standards.
Rather than just pushing through the latest products, after- sales and servicing is becoming more important. How have you observed this trend?
D.C.: At a global level, and in certain industries in particular, there is a gap which needs to be fulfilled by the younger people of today, the bottom entry as we would call it. We cannot go out and provide knowledge just like that, but require people that are/ have been in the industry with real life experience.
K.v.H.: Within the SICK Group, I see the tendency to build regional competence centers. There are several in the world, and South Africa might become one of them. From these centers, educational activities can be exploited as well as technical local support so that we can rapidly serve the customer base. Besides that, as it is a regional competence center, we thus have the ability to serve the neighboring countries as well.
Why would South Africa qualify to become such center?
D.C.: While we already have the office here, there is the logistical aspect too. South Africa has always been regarded as a “far away” destination for SICK. From the management right through the service staff, we need to match the level of standards of the SICK Group. Rather than a far-fetched idea, this is a scenario that may well become reality in South Africa.
Many of our interviewees have raised concerns over the scarcity of engineering skills. Would you agree and if so, how can you address this issue at SICK?
D.C.: South Africa has a skills shortage, but we are fortunate to have highly skilled and trained individuals and in our opinion, larger International companies need to invest in young people, through bursaries, after which these individuals can get their hands-on training in the companies. Sick is renowned for being the best place to develop a career and investing in its staff with regards to training and growing.
K.v.H.: Apart from my responsibilities as an international account manager, I also spend quite some time in educating our staff worldwide. Since I am considered to be an expert in ultrasonic flow measurement, I strongly focus on the different offices that need assistance, primarily in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and South Africa.
SICK is a very innovative R&D based player where new technology comes out every day. Isn’t it a challenge for you to stay up-to-date with all the technical novelties?
K.v.H.: It is a challenge but as I always say to the people in the company, my lifespan is limited. I have to spread my knowledge among the different people in these local offices and the Group as a whole, to address the aforementioned gap between the top engineers and the influx of young engineers.
Mr. van Helden, in your position you cover the entire Eastern Hemisphere. You have seen and worked in many different markets. Is this gap you mention the same everywhere?
K.v.H.: My slogan is always that “Education is the key word.” You have to educate the people in the countries where you reside and in most SICK offices I have observed a lacking knowledge. The moment the staff understands the product and become enthusiastic about its possibilities, they are willing to invest in people and put education at the forefront of the operations.
Coming back to the R&D focus, are you particularly excited about specific products coming into the market soon?
K.v.H.: If we speak about gas flow measurement, my piece of cake, we now have the ultrasonic gas flow meter FLOWSIC600, based on the Westinghouse principle that has already been patented in 1978. As a niche market player, we can offer solutions for complex problems and applications such as wet gas, coal gas, hot gas, etc. We needed other products to satisfy the customers and the FLOWSIC600 mainly comes with high-end meters. You also need distribution equipment for local gas companies for example, flare gas measurements for on- and offshore applications, and there is also demand for liquid measurements. Customers expect a one-stop shop! For liquid gas for example, we still need to bring in other companies to provide total solutions.
Do you see the opportunity for SICK to become such holistic solution provider then?
K.v.H.: While I see the benefits of this route, it is a decision that is eventually up to the Board of Directors.
D.C.: At the moment Sick is the industry leader in Gas and Dust on the PA front
Mr. van Helden, you mentioned that SICK is a niche player. How does this compare to the competition?
K.v.H.: If we talk about gas flow measurement, competitors such as Elster-Instromet and Emerson Daniel can offer the total solution. This is not only the flow meter, but also the ancillary equipment. What we do, is tying up with local integrators to offer a turnkey solution to ensure that the customer gets the best from all worlds.
By attending events such as Oil and Gas Africa 2012, we also aim to find out who are the EPC contractors, the different system integrators, etc. The moment there is a demand for a metering station, SICK South Africa can contact these integrators to work together on the project. The advantage against the competition is that we are flexible in terms of what we can offer by combining our portfolio with other products.
In South Africa in particular, SICK is the new kid on the block. Is there some catching up to do in terms of competitive positioning and market share?
D.C.: We have rapidly acquired knowledgeable people for our operations here. The knowledge we have is of such nature that we know the market and that we know where to go. Most of these people have been selling similar products before, so it is now all about getting the SICK name out into Southern Africa! We need to enhance the awareness of the fact that we are now trading as a full subsidiary for SICK AG.
How would you like SICK to be perceived by the customers in this part of the world?
D.C.: In terms of our products and what we can offer, we would like to be known as a company that can offer solutions as per the request of the customers, with a world class service. We want them to see us as Industry experts for their needs.
Ending on a more personal note, what attracted you to stay with the company for all these years –Mr. van Helden-, and Ms. Cronje, what attracted you to join SICK more recently?
K.v.H.: I came from another company called Stork, which was later acquired by Instromet. While I was about to retire, I was requesting by SICK to join the group instead. From my personal experience, I knew that the SICK meter based on the Westinghouse principle is the best design. That is why I was motivated to help the company in bringing this meter to the market and make the product a success. Apart from this, I see SICK as a very respectful company when it comes to its employees.
D.C.: As a newcomer to the company, I do confirm this sense of respect as well. SICK is a family-owned company and does ask from a lot of input from its employees. The reason why I joined SICK is that I see it as a challenge to get our process automation out of the starting blocks. It is a huge challenge to get everything into place and put SICK on the map.
Do you have a last message to add?
K.v.H.: Education remains the key word!
D.C.: Stakeholders need to have a look at their suppliers, question whether they are getting the expertise and support they require. Stakeholders need to realize that for specific processes, certain technology is better than others!