Alpha Plast hits jackpot with on-going plant improvements


PHOTO: Steve van Rensburg and Hermann Naudé, veterans of the PVC compounding sector, have been steadily honing the systems at Alpha Plast in Johannesburg for close to three decades, partly by focusing on different parts of the business, with Steve running admin and Hermann production. This has enabled the Alpha ship to sail steadily as well as expand into the Cape and export markets. Here we see the Alpha/Elco owners in front of one of the lines which has been moved to the Johannesburg plant, where maximum utilization is the order of the day

FOR confirmation that it is possible to make on-going improvements to a production system for close to three decades, look no further than Alpha Plast, the PVC compounder. Success achieved in that area has enabled the company to expand in several other areas.

From small beginnings in 1987, Johannesburg-based Alpha Plast has steadily honed its material manufacturing lines and now, nearly 30 years later, is seeing the benefits of this on-going focus: it’s allowed the company to gain exceptional output from its equipment, expand into the Cape market, get into exports, introduce colour grades and, most recently, switch partially to solar power as a sustainable contribution to the bottom line.

Much of this is due to the ‘division of labour’ between joint-MDs Hermann Naudé and Steve van Rensburg, with the former taking responsibility for production and the latter for admin and sales.

By definition, the compounding operation is energy intensive and with PVC that quotient is even further increased: This is a milling process where PVC pellets are ground to powder form, during which various additives are blended in, including stabilizers, slip agents and colour pigments. It’s proved to be a happy playground for Naudé, who has a never-ending fever for making improvements in the production hall.

The operation was standard and steady at Alpha Plast until 2009 when, after the sale of its subsidiary Kewberg Cables the year before, the company purchased a 50% stake in Elco Plastics, the PVC compounder in Bellville, Cape Town. Two years later Alpha undertook a major move of its plant from Alrode in the east of Johannesburg to Devland in the south-west, to a larger and more suitable site where, quite miraculously, it achieved a substantial increase in output …with exactly the same production plant.

Once the purchase of the remaining share of Elco Plastics was completed in 2014, the process of consolidating the Cape plant commenced. Two of Elco’s compounding units have since been moved to Devland where a similar automation process, particularly in the machine feeding direct from silo, weighing and bagging operations has resulted in an output increase.

The Devland plant has been operating Buss continuous compounding lines (as opposed to batch technology) since 2006 and all its systems are now geared to continuous production, although batch product is still used for small-volume production.

The focus then fell on Elco where production-to-employee rates didn’t match: the result was a significant reduction in the headcount … and an increase in output. Failure to address this situation may have resulted, long term, in diminishing options.

But Naudé was still not content: the next step was to offer colour compounding and colour spectrophotometers were installed at both Alpha and Elco. The DataColour units have presented a value-adding opportunity and both group companies are now seeing the colour service gaining popularity. One of the early successes from this venture has been an increase in exports, one notable achievement being sales of a luminous grade to a Pacific Rim country. This surprising boost has spurred the Alpha/Elco sales team on and increased exports now offer real potential.

That is just one side of the new service though: batch tracking had to be improved simultaneously and that too has been achieved with commensurate coding and labelling to enable effective traceability – and hence analysis of problem areas. But, according to the sales team, that hasn’t been necessary so far as there have been very few returns.

Naudé’s licence to automate and improve is largely due to the scope created by co-MD Van Rensburg’s astute management of the group’s admin and sales areas. That has freed the respective teams up to do what they do best. Both gentlemen seem averse to being involved with the other’s responsibilities and, with the formula working, long may it last.

The combined Alpha/Elco output is in the region of 40,000 tons a year, making the group one of South Africa’s top PVC compounding operations. Although Elco is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Alpha, the separate names have been retained and give the group dual brands. Main applications include pipe, cable, profile, footwear and mining products as well as, surprisingly, containers.  Many thought PVC had been phased out of the container market in favour of PET, but PVC is still the material of choice in several instances, including cosmetic containers.

Both Naudé and Van Rensburg have passed the 70 mark and the finishing touch for them must surely be a continuity plan, which now too appears to be in place.