Cover Story: Reimagining scaffolding

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 10, 2017 - July 16, 2017.

It has been quite a journey for Sunderaj and Hillier

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Using technology and innovation, Dscaff is transforming an industry that has not changed much in the last 30 years 

 

Scaffolding is something few people take notice of when buildings are constructed. In fact, the scaffolding business has remained pretty much the same for the last 30 years despite the new technologies, not to mention safety standards and green requirements, that have come into the market.

Sunderaj Nagalingam, group managing director at Dscaff Group, says the lack of innovation has major repercussions for the scaffolding sector as a whole. “It has not changed much at all across the globe despite the fact that we now have cheaper, stronger and lighter materials. This has become a huge problem. In Malaysia, the fatality rate at construction sites has gone up in the past few years.”

Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, chairman of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), recently said that 787 accidents in the construction sector were reported to and investigated by the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) between 2009 and 2014. However, according to research carried out by NIOSH and two universities, some 30,560 cases — or 80% of the total — had gone unreported. This year alone (as at April), DOSH has investigated 15 fatalities, 42 non-permanent disabilities and one permanent disability in the construction sector. 

Sunderaj and group executive director Chris Hillier took note of the developments in the construction sector and decided to tackle one of the main contributing factors — poor scaffolding. After all, there were lighter and tougher materials that could be used. Also, there had to be a more intelligent way to put up and take down scaffolding so that the materials could be reused.

“We used our own money to come up with solutions that would help the industry. We not only focused on scaffolding but also the full range of construction safety-related products such as safety edge barriers, catch nets and fall prevention screens,” says Hillier.

Dscaff has been trying to highlight the importance of using higher quality products to ensure the safety of construction workers. Sunderaj and Hillier believe that construction site fatalities can be avoided if safety standards and guidelines are adhered to. 

Fortunately, the authorities and stakeholders have come on board and are working towards safer construction sites. “The Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB), City Hall (DBKL) and DOSH are some of the bodies taking this very seriously. CIDB, for example, has made a very bold move by implementing some standards,” says Hillier.

“Now, all major projects in the country need to have their scaffolding certified by CIDB, which means the scaffolding has to be tested by Sirim. It is not like the old days when you could just import the products and pay the duties. Additionally, DOSH has tightened the requirements, so only competent workers are allowed to erect the scaffolding.”

The national oil company is taking the standards a notch higher, says Sunderaj. “For example, the standard criteria for pipe thickness is 4mm, with a tolerance of 10%, meaning that even 3.6mm qualifies. But for Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas), 4mm is 4mm. That is how strict it is, which is good because it reduces the risk of future accidents.”

The actions taken by the authorities and stakeholders will push substandard and non-compliant materials out of the market, he points out. And over time, the strict requirements will lead to a significant reduction in accidents. 

“CIDB, DBKL and DOSH are working together to improve the safety guidelines. They want Kuala Lumpur to set an example for the other states to follow. The requirements will include having overhead protection for walkways, since there have been so many incidents of tools falling on cars and things like that. If the buildings are tall, the accidents can be deadly,” says Sunderaj.

Phenomenal growth 

Before setting up Dscaff, Hillier ran an engineering company that specialised in industrial hoists and lifts while Sunderaj was the director of a scaffolding company. When they decided to start their company in 2012, Sunderaj found that most of his staff wanted to join him in the new venture.

“It was not my call. Actually, I wanted to take a break after leaving the company. But when I made the decision to start Dscaff, they said they wanted to come along — from the storekeeper right up to the shipping and accounts divisions,” he says.

“While Chris and I could afford to take a break, these people had commitments and families to support. They could not be unemployed. So, we decided not to have a break at all. I left the company in December and acquired an office the following month. My former staff gave their one-month notice before joining us in February. And just like that, we were ready to go.”

With a strong and experienced team of nine, Dscaff saw phenomenal growth in the first year. It achieved a turnover of RM46 million in the first 10 months. 

“For us, it was not about the sales, but the people. We had spent more than 15 years in the industry. People in the market, both local and abroad, knew us personally,” says Sunderaj.

“Our staff members are very competent. We take very good care of them, so they have stayed on. Until today, even though our business has grown exponentially, we rarely hire or fire.”  

Dscaff has its products manufactured in three locations. Besides having its own automation and robotics facility in Kapar, Selangor, it works with two original equipment manufacturers. The factory in Sungai Petani, Kedah, produces aluminium and plastic tunnels while the one in Batu Pahat, Johor, makes metal bags and tube rolling. 

The company not only supplies materials to local developers but also exports to the rest of Southeast Asia and Australia, which is its biggest market because of the higher industry requirements. According to Hillier, most parts of the world, including Malaysia, observe the European standards (EN) when it comes to scaffolding. However, Australia has its own standards (AS/NZS), so the company ensures that its products comply with both sets of standards. 

“We make sure that all our products are dual certified. We believe that Australia is definitely a market for us because having high labour costs means that a lot of the modules of their projects are done outside the country, namely Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea. When the modules are ready, they are shipped to Australia for assembly,” says Sunderaj.

“Since our products comply with both sets of standards, we have become the preferred supplier. Liquefied natural gas plants, for example, typically export from China or Europe. A lot of Chinese companies do not meet the quality standards and are not AS/NZS-certified, so LNG plants do not want their products. European products are costly. Therefore, we have become their only alternative. Today, almost all of Australia’s major LNG projects are supplied by us.” 

Getting the dual certification was no easy feat as it was not only about the design but also things like the chemical composition of the materials. “We had to make sure that we met every aspect required. Even the chemical elements of the steel we use affect the standard. That means we spend a lot of time reading the standards and trying to find a way to comply with both,” says Sunderaj.

The company also had to make its products commercially viable. Clients do not want to pay more for products that meet both sets of standards as they only need to meet one of them. Hence, the development process requires long hours of meticulous study, with the engineers making sure that the materials used not only comply with the standards but also are not pricey.

“Recently, we won a job to supply 1,000 tonnes of scaffolding gear to the largest offshore facility in the world — the Shell Prelude FLNG — and its requirements are quite stringent. On this particular ship, Australian-standard fibreglass ladders are required. These ladders are normally certified to European standards. They searched all around the world for AS/NZS-certified ladders, but they do not exist,” says Hillier.

“We studied the standards and saw the additional requirements and needs. So, we immediately sat down with our engineers to discuss how we could certify the ladders. Within a week, we had the prototype, did 18 types of in-house testing and submitted a preliminary testing report to the client. They gave us the green light and we won the job.” 

Another product that is unique to the company are metal decks for LNG facilities. For years, these facilities had used a timber-based product known as laminated veneer lumber for their decks. Today, the use of timber is no longer commercially viable due to the rising cost, decreasing supply and the fact that the material deteriorates quickly, especially in tropical climates. 

“To counter this problem, we came up with a metal deck that requires a special coat of paint to create a non-slip surface. We had to do a lot of tests, including a cyclone test, vibration test and friction test, to make sure that we met the Australian standards. After many months, we developed the only metal deck approved to replace timber decks in Australia. We are trying to manufacture this product as quickly as possible because the demand is skyrocketing,” says Sunderaj. 

Best performing year

Despite being relatively new to the industry, the company has already participated in many mega projects here and abroad. One of its earliest projects was in Barangaroo, Sydney, where it won a bid against two industry giants — one German and the other Australian. 

“Although we were only a few months old at the time, we did not back down. Our strength lies in our ability to develop a solution. We prepared a solution specifically for that project, which meant spending countless hours on conceptualisation and design. Surprisingly, even though our proposal was the most expensive, we won the job,” says Sunderaj.

“Then, came the challenge of actually doing it. In total, we shipped 250 containers from Port Klang to Sydney. It was a huge challenge for a small company like ours, but we passed with flying colours.”

It has been quite a journey for Sunderaj and Hillier. Despite the company’s phenomenal start, it has been generating an annual revenue of only RM40 million for the past few years. 

“When we started, we performed brilliantly. But since then, we have been spending money on R&D and building the foundations of the company,” says Hillier.

“Despite last year being our worst performing to date, we expect to see at least a threefold increase in revenue this year. Our April order book alone has surpassed last year’s turnover.”

Dscaff used to supply scaffolding mainly to oil and gas companies. But this year, it is supplying to infrastructure projects such as Prasarana Malaysia Bhd’s Rapid KL. 

The company is also an approved supplier for the MRT Line 2 project. “For the MRT Line 2 and high-speed rail projects, it is not about looking outside Malaysia. The business is here,” says Hillier. 

Dscaff is currently promoting the Industrialised Building System (IBS), where construction components are manufactured off site before being transported and assembled on site. The adoption of the system presents a huge opportunity for the company as it will drive demand for its products. 

“Even without planning for it, our products qualify for the IBS and are more efficient in construction,” says Hillier.

CIDB has been pushing for the adoption of IBS as it is faster, more efficient and less labour-intensive. Tax incentives are given to contractors who adopt this system. 

One of its products is the plastic panel, which will replace the plywood concrete mould. “The plywood moulds are cut from trees and can be reused three times before being dumped in the landfill. Soon, there will not be enough trees to make plywood, so the price will increase substantially. Therefore, we have come up with plastic panels that are 100% recyclable and can be reused at least 100 times,” says Sunderaj.

“It is environmentally friendly, very efficient and easy to transport to construction sites. Although it will take a while before the market accepts the change in material, soon, they will no longer use plywood frames. We see a huge potential in this.”

Dscaff has just started a new division to introduce modular stadiums, or temporary seating for events using scaffolding modules. Hillier says the idea to design modular stadium seating came from seeing how redundant stadiums are after the events are over. 

“Most of these stadiums have become white elephants after the events. Stadiums have massive maintenance costs and are never maintained properly. Ultimately, they are abandoned. Look at how much money South Africa and Brazil lost on these events,” he says.

“However, we believe that there is a huge demand for these stadiums — people need to be entertained. To solve this problem, we will provide stadiums with steel modular sections. Some elements, such as the flooring, will be prefabricated. They can be fabricated very quickly and dismantled easily after usage. 

“It can even be divided into smaller stadiums, or be entirely removed. For example, after the events, 5,000 of the 20,000 seats could be given to schools or other programmes in the country. All the designs are finished and we will have a mock-up soon. They will also meet international standards.”

Last year, Dscaff was selected as one of the companies to represent Endeavor Malaysia, an organisation that selects, mentors and accelerates high-impact entrepreneurs. Sunderaj and Hillier believe that the mentorship provided by the Endeavor panel helped the company achieve its success. 

“We would not have grown as fast had we not been selected for the programme. We are grateful for the opportunity,” says Sunderaj.