By Benjamin Brits | All photos by Benjamin Brits, RACA Journal
HVAC start-up, Diffusion Air Technologies, has gained the trust of the market by sticking with a quality methodology in their production.
Having spent 28 years in the industry with various OEMs, Marius Venter founded Greenvent as an import and wholesale business. His timing was unlucky: as he launched his venture, importers and wholesalers came under immense pressure as the effects of the 2008 financial crash were felt.
Even though trading conditions improved, some items remained in very short supply. These included double deflection grilles. When the old Apache factory’s then owners decided to exit manufacturing of grilles and louvres, an opportunity to buy the operation presented itself in 2016.
With his partner, Werner Kruger, they concluded a deal to take over the factory and founded Diffusion Air Technologies (DAT). “The factory itself was already established and had proven reliable and capable of producing a range of products, and was equipped for mass production through having bigger dies and more presses to handle higher capacity. If we put in one specific type of profile to focus on, we can produce anything up to 170 grilles in a day,” explained Venter.
“With a significant portion of the process being machine-driven, every part is exactly the same as the next, creating consistent quality. This is one of our big advantages in the market today,” added Kruger.
A range of international quality products, plus customised solutions
Catering primarily to air-conditioning, ventilation and extraction contractors, and also to building sector contractors, products manufactured at the factory include weather louvres, single and double deflection grilles, return air grilles, hinged return air grilles (with filter media), door grilles and opposite blade dampers (OBDs), compatible with both single and double deflection grilles.
“The focus on price in South Africa has driven a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of quality. Low-quality products may cost less, but lead to disappointed customers wanting to hold suppliers accountable rather than take responsibility for their own choices. We have always sought to maintain a balance between quality and value so that everyone wins. We are proud of the fact that some of the grilles manufactured in this factory are still in good condition 20 years after being installed. These are the same standards we adhere to today,” commented Venter.
The production setup at the factory has been completed according to the Titus German classification system, where all of the dies are cut and spaced in line with this standard for grilles. This means that the products already meet international standards and are therefore suitable for use both locally and overseas.
DAT also uses materials that are between 27% and 33% thicker than those of any local competitor. For example, they use aluminium that is 1.6mm thick, rather than the industry norm of 1.2mm. The thicker material results in a much stronger, more rigid and better-quality product.
While DAT experienced some initial resistance to their pricing, the company has received praise from architects and consultants who prefer a lasting solution rather than using products that fail soon after installation.
In a further example of the quality of DAT products, the company’s return air grilles (RA) are the only grilles in the country that use a unique method to ensure that the grilles do not move over time and start rattling – a problem that is widely encountered with other models of RAs. Uniquely, DAT expands the copper supports in the RA grilles to deliver an enhanced product service-life of 20-plus years.
DAT further offers custom solutions and sizing options to fit clients’ exact specifications. Custom colour-coding is also offered as an option, subject to the size, colour and paint type that is required.
“Paint selection involves choosing a precise shade, and consideration of various environmental factors. As a result, custom orders take a little longer to process than orders for standard products (which are typically delivered in as little as four working days, and always within 10 working days – even for the largest orders),” added Kruger.
DAT is committed to developing their product line-up to continue offering unique solutions. In this way, they are supporting local suppliers and contractors. Product development involves consultation with various industry stakeholders and consultants who may be looking for new designs. The DAT team is always willing to engage with clients and explain product development processes and cost implications (especially for short production runs on specially purchased dies).
Supporting innovation in local manufacturing
The partners in DAT are committed to supporting local businesses and the national economy, through purchasing policies, employment opportunity creation, and empowerment through upskilling.
“We are always interested in supporting new ideas or product concepts that can ultimately be manufactured locally. As an example, we recently formed a partnership with Ever Breeze, a South African company that has developed an industrial High-Volume Low Speed (HVLS) roof or ceiling fan with aerofoils spanning anywhere from 3.9 to 7.4 metres. This innovation will create skilled jobs through local manufacture, and cater to the need of industrial, commercial and agricultural industries for efficient, cost-effective cooling of very large spaces,” explained Venter.
DAT also sources locally-manufactured filter and flex ducting, giving the company access to a wider range of quality solutions that they can then offer to their own clients.
Significant achievements to-date
Despite being a relatively young company, DAT has already notched up export successes with sales to Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Angola and Congo. Further expansion of their African footprint is planned.
Other notable achievements include supplying their products to a range of local developments, from small buildings to sustainable, large-scale, high-profile and award-winning projects.
Challenges facing the industry
Material supply shortages are familiar to many South African manufacturing firms. In the case of DAT, constraints in aluminium supply have forced them to absorb the costs of bulk-buying and storage of aluminium as a hedge against future shortages. This places a significant planning burden on DAT and obliges them to act as an aluminium stockholder.
“In the past we could predict what was happening for the next six months; exactly which projects were to be signed off; when, where and how everything was scheduled. Today, the picture is very different, and planning has become a much less precise function. Like other manufacturers, we find ourselves responding to ad-hoc orders and this imposes stockholding and raw materials management challenges,” explained Venter.
Additional challenges for DAT and other local manufacturers of quality products include sourcing skilled labour and adjusting to frequent changes in legislation and certification. The change from 3-year to 6-month certification has resulted in additional administrative burdens.
Inspiring younger people to pursue careers in manufacturing and engineering is also a pressing need, as experienced service technicians begin to retire with few replacements entering training and apprenticeship schemes.
DAT plans to consolidate their position in the local market and use this as a springboard for further expansion into Africa and beyond. In addition to growing the company, this will help strengthen flows of foreign currency into the local economy.
DAT also has ambitious plans to extend their product ranges to include steel and plastic items – again, these will all be locally manufactured. Targeting a level of production that will require extra shifts and facilitate the creation of additional employment opportunities will, in the words of the partners behind DAT’s success, “Make us a genuinely competitive facility operating with three shifts a day, seven days a week.”