Airclear Engineering - nearly 50 years of quality manufacturing

By Ilana Koegelenberg

Airclear Engineering has been manufacturing ducting since 1968 and now under new management, the company prides itself on its experience and ability to deliver quality product timeously.

The company was founded close on half a century ago in 1968 and secured its place in the industry by manufacturing ducting for some major developments like the Carlton Centre and various casinos and banks in the early 1970s in Johannesburg. Since then, it has continued to thrive in the local HVAC market, manufacturing ducting for contractors large and small.

LM00 9The Airclear factory team, ready for action.

Earlier this year, it was time for a new beginning for Airclear when new owners bought the company on 1 July 2017. Collectively, they have over 27 years of experience in the industry and are very familiar with Airclear Engineering as they have been using its services for many years. The new owners have always been impressed by the quality ducting Airclear manufactures and had shown a keen interest in purchasing this company since 2014, asking for first option if the company ever went up for sale. So, when the time came for the business to be sold earlier this year, they jumped at the opportunity to take over the operation.

Products and services

Airclear Engineering is a sheet metal engineering company that specialises in HVAC duct manufacturing and has a 4 100m2 production facility in Lakeview, Johannesburg. The company designs and manufactures high-performance rectangular, round, and spiral ducting in either galvanised, mild, or stainless steel. Everything is manufactured according to standard and customised specifications.

The factory works with precision machinery, including CNC plasma cutters. “We ensure 100% leakage prevention, with all manufacturing in accordance with Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) and South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) standards,” explains Simon Launder, business development manager. “By focusing on the combination of experience and quality, clients and installers benefit directly.”

So how do their processes work for producing the ducting?

Doctor Godfrey Maseko welding wire mesh.Ducting and sheet metal in roll form. Mandlenkosi Alpheus Nzama (left) and Zanele Mngomezulu operating the spiral machine to make spiral ducting. Manufactured spiral ducting.

Rectangular ducting and fittings

  • On receiving the tender / bill of quantities (BOQ) / drawing, Airclear’s estimators specify the requirements and price.
  • Once a purchase order is received, a job card is created with detailed specifications for that given order.
  • The CNC plasma cutter programmer then loads any fittings or custom requirements.
  • Roll form steel is loaded onto de-coilers and cut to the required specifications.
  • Cut sheet metal is marked to the required duct size.
  • Marked sheet metal is put through the ripple machine for reinforcement.
  • The duct then goes to the lock form machine.
  • Duct is bended to close.
  • Mez flanges of the duct is spot-welded.
  • The product is painted and sealed.
  • Internal insulation: after lock form, pins are put into the duct and sonic liner cut to size before being reinforced onto pins with washers.

Spiral ducting

  • Sizes from 100DIA to 2000DIA.
  • Specifications sent to spiral machine operator.
  • Correct die loaded onto machine.
  • Slitting coil loaded onto machine.
  • Machine set to ensure correct reinforcement.
  • Required length is set.
  • Completed duct is cleaned.
  • Internal insulation — rubber cut to size and applied to duct internally.

When quality matters

So what challenges does Airclear experience in terms of local manufacturing and how do they overcome them? The biggest challenge is quality, Launder explains, especially in terms of what is currently being supplied on many of the local projects. That is why Airclear is very strict with its manufacturing processes, ensuring that only the best enters the market.

“Without a doubt, we need zero tolerance of inferior products,” says Launder. “It’s too late for installers to only find out after project completion that the ducting they installed was poor quality. This is not only costly, but damaging to their reputation. This needs to be dealt with at source, at the manufacturing facility already.”

“The key is to offer a service that is of exceptional quality, competitively priced, and executed within the client’s expectations/demands.”

This is where having over 500 years of collective experience in its manufacturing team gives Airclear the competitive edge. The company can even boast three generations of the same family working in its team! Airclear believes in looking after its staff. “For us, happy staff equates to happy, satisfied customers,” explains Launder. “This is critical, because if the quality we push out isn’t of a high standard, the downstream impact on our clients and installers will become a problem.”

With experience comes quality, added to that precision equipment and strict standards. The company prides itself in being able to give installers peace of mind and ultimately having satisfied customers.

“Incorrectly manufactured products are costly,” says Launder. Think about the transport return costs, delays in installation projects, reworking products — these are all expensive. Preventing this comes from getting things right the first time at the factory. “By eliminating rework, we can remain competitive in such a cut-throat market.”

There is also no compromise on materials used, as the company looks at total cost, not just initial cost. This long-term vision makes it vital to ensure that there aren’t any leakages on the ducting they supply to market.

Barriers to entry

It’s not that easy to get into the game. One of the biggest challenges is acquiring the right staff and making sure they are not only trained, but happy, Launder explains. “You can’t simply hire anyone off the street. The industry has very specific requirements and it’s important that you understand these and have the right staff.”

Airclear’s investment in training and safety ensures that they retain this experience in-house. This is often a natural barrier to entry for new companies that may struggle to achieve the stability that more established companies such as Airclear has. “High staff turnover is a concern and is definitely a challenge in manufacturing, and the cost of upskilling is off-putting for many,” says Launder.

Then there is the high start-up cost of getting into the industry — another huge barrier to entry. Capital costs are exorbitant, especially for such a large operation that requires specialised machinery.

The Airclear factory team, ready for action. The Airclear Engineering offices in Johannesburg. Spot welding a square to round. Cutting and bending the sheet metal. Operating the plasma cutter.

Local vs imports

What is the advantage of going with a locally manufactured product instead of importing?

One of the biggest advantages is the ability to customise designs, Launder explains. “Every project is different. Not only do we manufacture, but we have an in-house drawing office to assist clients with their drawing requirements. Our emphasis on getting it right at the source is important; it’s too late otherwise and too costly. Being available locally means we are personally involved where it counts upfront.”

Then of course there is a whole list of disadvantages that comes with importing, according to Launder:

  • Foreign goods are substituting the domestic goods markets, so the domestic industries are eliminated, having a negative impact on the South African economy.
  • Transport risk associated with the loss of goods during transportation.
  • Quality risk associated with the final quality of the products.
  • Delivery risk, arising when the goods are not delivered on time.
  • Exchange risk, arising due to the change in the value of currency.

But it’s not just about the risks associated with imports. It’s about job creation and supporting the local economy too. “We have invested in employing local people and the socio-economic benefits of this are substantial,” Launder explains.

Future of local manufacturing

Despite the current challenging South African economic situation, there is still a lot of investment being put into South Africa, says Launder. “We remain optimistic, as we find there is still a fair amount of demand within our industry. There are constant new developments in South Africa and surrounding African countries, which ensure consistent amounts of work.”

“The key is to offer a service that is of exceptional quality, competitively priced, and executed within the client’s expectations/demands — all of which ensure we remain a preferred HVAC duct manufacturer with our clients.”

*Images courtesy of Ilana Koegelenberg

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