At the heart of infrastructure

The latest trends and opportunities that have emerged in the downturn

Workers at Ducab's Jebel Ali facility
Workers at Ducab's Jebel Ali facility

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One of the most unique players in this diverse market is 3M, which encompasses both the telecoms and electrical sectors in its Electro & Communications Business (ECB).

“Basically we specialise in cable accessories for the data and power side. There is some commonality, but different products in some areas,” says ECB Middle East region marketing manager Martin Parsons.

“On the electrical side, we provide cable accessories for low, medium and high voltage applications in utilities, oil and gas and construction. We carry a wide range, from joints and terminations to insulation and sealing tapes and electrical-supply, consumer-type items such as cable ties, sprays and connectors.”

Parsons says 3M is particularly renowned for its premium PVC insulation tapes, which it invented more than 60 years ago.

Such innovation has long been the mainstay of the company, as with its new resin kits, which are environment-friendly (Scotchcast #40), and fully compliant with EU directive 2002/95/EC (RoHS) and EU regulation 1907/2007/EC (REACH). Resin 40 has hydrophobic properties, which make it ideal for use in the presence of water. It is also available in a bag with a pouring nozzle, which means one less step in the preparation process.

Another example of the company’s ongoing product development is its Cold Shrink technology for joints and terminations. “In the past when a medium-voltage joint and termination was carried out, you needed a cable with a connector, you needed to replace the insulation layers, and then finally you needed an outer jacket to protect the cable. Cold Shrink for single-core applications provides the connector, insulation and outer jacket protection all in a single design. No heat shrinking is involved, so installation is a lot safer and quicker,” says Parsons.

Dubai a leader

In terms of overall trends, Parsons says the Middle East “is in some cases ahead of Europe. I think Dubai is a leader. It is a market that readily accepts new things. We have often sold products here first, compared to the European market where they were developed initially.” Still, this remains a ‘tough’ market as “there are a lot of low-end entrants, mainly from China and Asia, with no-name brand products, and it does make it harder to compete and demonstrate value.

“But I think it has improved tremendously compared to a decade ago. The region is on the right track to improve standards and boost quality. After the construction boom and subsequent downturn, it has learnt to approach business differently,” says Parsons. This vindicates 3M’s faith in the region. The company has been represented in the Middle East for 35 years, originally setting up in Cyprus before moving to Lebanon, Sharjah and then finally Dubai.

“This region is very important to 3M. It is earmarked as one of its fastest-growing markets. We are setting up an Innovation Centre for customers, which demonstrates its long-term commitment,” says Parsons. Another indication of the importance of the region is that the Middle East and Africa market now has its own VP, based in Dubai.

“Each region now has its own expertise and skills set to support the region. So we are becoming less dependent on the US and European market to develop and support the region over here. In the years to come we will have even stronger technical support, product development and local manufacturing coming through.”

Parsons says “3M did extremely in the downturn. Of course, we were not immune locally, but globally it did fantastically. This is largely due to the opportunities offered by its broad product range and technology offering. As a division, we were hit last year, but not as badly as our competitors. I think we weathered the storm far better and came out the stronger for it. We did not see any retrenchments or downsizing, and have had a tremendous turnaround this year.

“We beat expectations in the first quarter, and showed double-digit growth in the second,” says Parsons. Last year was a totally different kettle of fish: the oil and gas sector was suffering due to the drop in the oil price, and utilities were putting power projects on hold. This made for very tough market conditions. “Dubai is still under pressure, but Abu Dhabi is picking up, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman are doing very well.

Back on track

“In general, the countries that not as badly impacted as Dubai are doing well. Oil and gas projects are back on track and the utilities are investing in infrastructure again, so there has been a tremendous recovery from our point of view – far better than what Europe or the US has experienced,” says Parsons.

On the telecoms side, “what we sell is basically connectivity, internal or external, from point to point,” says Roula Eid, Lebanon branch manager, Communications Market: Gulf. “We focus on passive infrastructure, and have a full product portfolio for both copper and fibre connectivity.” 3M covers telcos, outside plant and enterprise applications such as typical home and office applications.

“We are one of the few companies with such a total range,” says Eid. In terms of latest developments, Fibre Lock is similar to Cold Shrink in that it is a mechanical splicing technology that dramatically reduces installation time and boosts worker safety and efficiency at the same time.

“For more than 50 years, products from 3M have formed the backbone of the telecoms industry. Global customers have come to rely on 3M quality to connect and protect their infrastructure.” The 3M Communications Markets Division connects smart grids to smart phones, wind farms to server farms, greenfield to brownfield and wireline to wireless. Today 3M is taking fibre further in terms of mobility and maximising networks.

Another company focusing on the structured cabling sector is Reichle & De-Massari (R&M) of Switzerland, which also regards the Middle East as a vital market for product development. “While Europe has gone through the entire cycle of copper to coaxial and finally fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), here they are leapfrogging that and going straight to the latter. Where we start is ahead of the game, and in many cases ahead of Europe,” says Andrew Sedman, technical director for the Middle East and Africa.

“The UAE was the first in the region to launch FTTH with Etisalat, which has managed a fantastic deployment in a short time. This will be to the benefit of the entire region, which will see what Etisalat has achieved and now be looking to emulate it,” says Sedman.

Such constant advances are essential, especially as cabling is a critical part of infrastructure, says MD Jean-Pierre Labry. “In terms of a typical data-centre solution, the servers, software and routers have an average lifespan of about three to four years, whereas the cabling solution has a lifespan of 20 to 25 years.

Opportunities

“We are still convinced that companies, even though we are in challenging times, will avoid compromising on infrastructure. This is where we believe there are opportunities for us. We believe cabling provides the backbone for any data network, and with all the innovative products we are launching, we believe companies will not make the mistake of compromising on the cabling, or Layer 1, infrastructure,” says Labry.

He describes R&M as a specialist passive cabling company offering copper as well as fibre solutions. “For us it is really important to offer both copper and fibre, as they complement each other. Copper used to be more important than fibre in the past, but this is changing slowly. We believe in selling not just a box, but value-added services. We do not sell you a product, but a solution, which makes a lot of difference,” says Labry.

As an example of the company’s ongoing development and commitment to total product quality, Sedman points to its newly-launched Cat 6a connector. “Other manufacturers already have such connectors, but in terms of best performance, it is important to note we generally follow ISO or European as opposed to TIA or American standards. The former only ratified its requirements down to component level in February this year, which is why we released our ISO-compliant connector in March.”

Sedman says the general difference between the European and American standards “is that the ISO is typically more stringent in its performance requirements.” This means significant variations in the testing requirements for factors such as near-end crosstalk, for example. Some manufacturers have been able to comply with the ISO specifications with a shielded connector. “To date, as far as I am aware, we are the only manufacturer that has achieved the ISO performance requirements in an unshielded connector.”

The Cat 6a connector from R&S combines effective simplicity with maximum performance. “We have managed to separate the pairs so there is no noise from one pair to the next by employing all four sides of the connector. They are separated physically by a metallic crossplate, which also serves to decouple the signals from each other,” explains Sedman.

“The cable-handling part is colour-coded for easy placement of the pairs in the right order, whereafter the two parts are simply combined. Another feature is that the wires are cut automatically, which reduces the risk of differences in individual termination technique. What we have effectively managed to do is reduce or remove the human element of difference in how it is terminated.

Stable performance

“You cannot possibly feasibly terminate this in any different kind of style. Whoever does so terminates it in the same way. As it is terminated automatically, those wires are cut at precisely the same distance and length with every single pair, every single time. It makes for a very good, consistent, stable performance for every single jack that is terminated on an entire job,” says Sedman.

“The performance characteristics are good. It is easy to handle, follow the same guidelines as previously where we ensure you can tie the cable off to the connector so you are not relying on the IDC connections to hold it in place. Naturally it is backwards compatible with all our existing range, with simple snap-in plates. It has a small footprint comparable to the RJ45, which in terms of future trends allows for high density, including security options on the connectors. So we are not moving away from our original aim of modularity, usability and flexibility,” says Sedman.

The new ISO-compliant connector represents a major step for R&M, particularly as Cat 6a “is now typically the de facto standard that everyone uses.” However, Sedman says this does not mean it is necessarily suited to all users and applications. “For everyday users in a general office, we are still not really pushing the boundaries of Cat 5e. But because Cat 6a has been such a long time in coming, it is now being taken up widely, as it represents a significant step up on performance.”

Sedman adds that Cat 6a also “pretty much means the end of the lifespan of copper, because with Cat 7 already being bandied about, the problem then becomes non-standard connectors. This means we will move inevitably away from RJ45 as a technology, but from a performance perspective it will not provide any significantly greater data speeds. Thus the next challenge will be the move towards fibre in order to obtain higher speeds.”

“What we always remind our customers of is that, while we may not know what the future holds, we do know what the past entailed. Ten years ago we were talking about the Internet in terms of kilobytes. Now Cat 6a guarantees 100 Gb up to 100 m. This is a huge leap in that space of time. Hence it is really important to tell our customers not to compromise on infrastructure, and to try as much as possible to put in the best from the beginning. It is easy to replace a computer and a server, but it is very challenging to replace a cable,” says Labry.

From structured cabling to power cables, and what is described as the UAE’s leader in cable manufacturing and services. “Ambitious is a fitting description for Ducab, which began operations 30 years ago as Dubai’s first power-cable manufacturer. From being a pioneer in the UAE’s emerging industrial landscape in the 1970s, Ducab has gradually evolved into a flagship company and pride of the nation as a wholly-UAE owned partnership between the governments of Abu Dhabi and Dubai,” explains MD Andrew Shaw.

‘Powering’ the UAE

Established in 1979 to meet the anticipated and rapidly expanding infrastructure needs of a young nation, then on the threshold of both economic and industrial development, Ducab has since been ‘powering’ the UAE into the fold of industrialised countries. The company’s own growth and development has essentially mirrored that of the UAE itself.

Ducab has a range of manufacturing facilities. Ducab Jebel Ali is the company headquarters, set in an area of 590 000 m2, and was inaugurated officially in 1979 by HH Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, former Ruler of Dubai. This factory has one of the longest CCV lines in the world, and manufactures a range of high-voltage cables up to 132 kV, medium-voltage cable systems from 11 kV to 33 kV, low-voltage cables, instrumentation and control cables.

At its PVC compounding plant in the same facility, Ducab produces flexible PVC compounds for insulation and sheathing of electric cables. Ducab Mussafah 1 in Abu Dhabi is equipped with the most advanced production machinery and testing equipment from across Europe. This factory was inaugurated in 2005. Occupying a 220 000 m² area, it manufactures building wires and low-voltage cables, as well as housing the world’s first horizontal lead sheathing line supplied by Folke Sandelin of Sweden.

Mussafah 1 recently announced a record production capacity of 825 tonnes a day. Ducab Mussafah 2 is an 109 000 m2 factory manufacturing building wires and flexible cables. Inaugurated in 2008 by HH Sheikh Hamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, it also has a CCV high-voltage insulation line that can produce cables up to 220 kV.

The AED125 million Ducab Copper Rod Casting Plant, the first of its kind in the UAE, was inaugurated in June 2008 by HH Sheikh Hamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. This plant converts raw copper cathode into high-quality 8 mm diameter copper rod, the key raw material for cable manufacture. Besides providing all of Ducab’s rod requirements, the plant has enough capacity to serve the regional market as well, reducing the need for imported copper rod.

Ducab HV, adjacent to the Jebel Ali headquarters, will be manufacturing cable systems in the voltage range 66kV to 400kV, covering the highest voltage currently used in the GCC. This is the first dedicated high-voltage facility in the region. A JV between Ducab, ADWEA and DEWA, the 22 000 m²facility will be opening in mid-2011. It will have a production capacity of 30 000 tonnes of high-voltage cables a year once fully operational.

IGD contracts

Following a series of overseas negotiations, Ducab recently announced winning its second contract to work on Abu Dhabi’s Integrated Gas Development (IGD) Project, raising the company’s total order for GASCO’s Habshan 5 project to just over AED126 millon. Ducab’s most recent agreement with Japan’s JGC Corporation, valued at AED51 million, is for the supply of custom power cables to the new Habshan 5 Gas Processing Plant.

This follows the signing of a contract with Hyundai Engineering & Construction for supporting the utilities and offsite part of the development, a AED75 million agreement which could see Ducab supplying up to 70% of the associated facility’s total power cable requirements.

The IGD project is an AED33.8 billion plan which aims to increase offshore gas production and provide a permanent link between ADNOC’s offshore Umm Shaif field and new onshore processing facilities at Habshan and Ruwais via Das island.

Ducab’s oil, gas and petrochemical (OGP) sector is supported in large part by the Ducab Special Cables Unit. It has a production capacity of 3 000 cubic tonnes a year, and the end product conforms to BS and IEC standards. Using cutting-edge European production technology and processes, the unit can both design and produce high-quality instrumentation as well as pilot and auxiliary cables based on specific customer requirements.
 

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