Aerontec celebrates 20 years in the SA composites industry
AERONTEC, supplier and distributor of composite materials and technology in South Africa, celebrates its 20th anniversary in February. With its head office in Cape Town and branches in Gauteng and Jeffreys Bay, the company has evolved to become one the most respected in the composites arena, locally and globally.
The company’s growth and success over the years is largely due to founder and managing director, Graham Blyth, whose ‘can-do’ attitude towards any challenge customers present him with sees him on the factory floor most days of the week.
Blyth started his career in composites in 1980, working for Kentron South for three years in composite product development and manufacture. He also studied plastics and composite technology at Cape Technikon and has a diploma in business administration from Stellenbosch University Business School.
He worked for Aerodyne (Pty) Ltd for a number of years and then, in 1992, started Exaton Composites as a distributor of composite materials and related technology.
“I did this as I realised there was a gap in the market for a technical distributor of composite products. Due to a change in the market and our customer base, I changed the product portfolio and started Aerontec in 2002,” Blyth explains.
Aerontec’s focus was on products and technology for advanced composites and securing distribution rights for international brands. It’s growth has been remarkable – growing from just three staff members to 32 (at the time of print) – and in 2020, partnered with Swiss company, Sky Composites AG and their affiliated companies globally.
Industry firsts and highlights
In January 2021, Aerontec set up a dedicated structural foam processing plant to process mainly PVC and PET foams for the various sectors of the market in Southern Africa. This service has proved astoundingly popular with customers who previously had to wait weeks for the same service.
The new 520m2 foam processing plant is housed in premises just up the road from its existing 800m2 factory in Cape Town, which recently underwent major renovations.
The PVC foam processing plant uses a massive new, ultra-fast foam-cutting machine for rigid foams – the only one of its type in Africa. The new foam-cutting machine can cut PVC foam into sheets as thin as 1.5mm thickness, increasing in one-quarter increments up to 80mm.
“We have barely been able to keep up with the demand from the export marine market in SA for foam cutting and processing. Where previously boat builders had to wait up to eight weeks for their cut and processed foam to be delivered from abroad, they now have a service virtually on their ‘doorstep’ which can deliver much faster,” says Blyth.
Among the many and varied projects that Aerontec has worked on, one of the biggest (probably the largest single composites job ever completed in South Africa) was at Cape Town harbour. In a 12-month effort to expand its facility and upgrade its existing quays (wharfs), Transnet National Ports Authority realized that the Authority had a safety problem at its main container quay with a raised cable tray that ran the length of the quay’s edge – more than 1 200m long and 3m wide – containing the electrical cables that power the large, rail-mounted gantry cranes used to load and unload ships. In search of a safer solution, Aerontec provided the solution.
An iterative design and testing process resulted in large, monolithic resin-infused, fibreglass-reinforced polymer (FRP) panels. The 32mm thick slabs, formed from woven glass roving and isophthalic polyester resin, were coated with a UV-stabilized iso-NPG (neopentyl glycol) and a nonslip grip finish and drilled to create drainage holes.
Aerontec partnered with composites fabricator MMS Technology to manufacture and waterjet cut 1,161 panels of varying sizes, which were numbered for installation. Blyth explains that each panel was raised to the specified height using stepped solid feet, bonded to the panel underside; the stepped feet were cored with a vertical pultruded FRP rod.
“The quay varied 80mm in height over its surface,” Blyth explains. “We needed to be virtually level with the crane rail to eliminate any trip hazard, so we bonded GFRP shims to the stepped feet to keep the panels level.”
The total weight of all the composite panels was just 226 tons — within the quay’s weight constraint — and the entire project was completed on schedule and within budget.
SA composites industry transformation
The South African composites industry has transformed over the years and is steadily gaining momentum. Blyth says he has witnessed this transformation in the way industry is adopting processing technology such as vacuum resin infusion, which offers higher quality, repeatable components as required in the international market of composites.
“This has led to the surviving composite companies knowing they must now compete with international competitors on price and quality,” he adds.
Blyth sees this as a major opportunity – to locally manufacture and export high quality, well-designed products that compete head-on against international competitors.
However, some of the major challenges facing the SA composites industry currently could impede this growth –crumbling infrastructure, huge delays in shipping and at the ports, electricity load shedding, and lack of government funds to assist the composites sector of the market.
“There are also not enough composite courses offered at universities and other tertiary institutions to allow the younger generation to enter the growing international composites market,” Blyth adds.
Blyth said plans for Aerontec in the short term include expanding the company’s foam processing capability and continuing to grow its market share in the SADC region.
“We’d also like to continue to share our composite knowledge to assist the growth of the composites market,” he adds.
In the long term, Blyth would like to work with Aerontec’s customers and assist them with products and technology to increase and gain a foothold in export markets and to grow their local markets.
Fun facts info about Graham
Your favourite food? It varies, depending on what I am doing and where I am.
What are you reading right now? Various books on adventure motorbike riding and any literature on composites.
What do you enjoy watching? “Itchy Boots” (About a 32-year-old Dutch traveller and adventurer, who vlogs about her motorcycle travels across the continents. She recently completed 22 000km through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.)
Where do you like to go on holiday? The Karoo and the Cedarberg mountains.
Who (dead or alive) has inspired you the most? My wife Jane, Richard Branson, all my staff, and many others over the years who have advised and guided me.