Alupole Australia first began by supplying poles for street lighting, and has since acquired years of experience in handling dynamic customer demands. The company soon expanded its business to include the supply of large steel poles, and today designs and supplies telecommunication monopoles, transmission line poles and camouflaged antenna poles, along with telecommunications towers, transmission towers and substation structures in over 500 product specifications. Albert Lim has been working for Alupole since its inception, becoming 100% shareholder of the company in 2009.
“Alupole started with three guys who were interested in manufacturing aluminium poles. For many years poles for street lighting had been mainly made of steel, previously they were made of wood, then it moved over to concrete, and after concrete it moved over to steel.”
In 2003, this small group of investors were planning to move forward from steel to aluminium. The company founders were mostly working in finance, with one working in sales and one in production. What they lacked was a technical member of the team.
“When they found me,” Mr Lim says, “I fit perfectly in that position. So in 2003, we started to look into the design on my side for the aluminium poles, and that’s when we started to manufacture.”
Around 2004, one of the partners made use of a connection at a steel pole manufacturing factory in China, and invited Mr Lim to visit. He found that the factory was already employing equipment well up to standard for use in the western world.
“For example, some of the equipment, like the brake-press, was from Switzerland, and the welding machines were from Lincoln, US, so they had very good equipment. The only issue with the Chinese factory was that a lot of times they did not know what they were doing.”
This lack of knowledge meant staff were just copying other manufacturers, not exactly understanding the concept and design behind the work, merely manufacturing on the basis of duplicating the work of others.
“That’s where I found that I could put Alupole as the design entity to get projects and to do project management, and then to subcontract the manufacturing to the Chinese factory and have them become real manufacturers for us.”
From there Alupole quickly expanded, moving from aluminium poles to steel poles, which is the area Mr Lim had his core training in all the way back in 1988, when he began working with steel poles and steel towers.
“We were doing very well and having about 8 million USD turnover, until the GFC hit in October 2008. Because we were in the infrastructure business, most of the infrastructure was funded by governments and with the GFC, governments and private entities slowed down.”
This slowing down for global governments meant that the infrastructure business took a similar hit, and for six months in 2009 Alupole’s business appeared to have dried up in terms of projects and orders.
“During that time,” Mr Lim says, “the partners that I had, who invited me in, decided to call it a day and leave the company. I told them that they could do so but that they need to hand over the company to me, and that’s when I took over the company 100%, in 2009.”
In the midst of this hardship and a lack of projects, Mr Lim persisted with the business throughout the remainder of 2009, managing to land a big job in Australia which helped change the company’s fortunes.
After that, more projects started to come in, and in 2010 Mr Lim restructured the business to improve the relationship with the Chinese factory, setting up an office in China to help designers and the drafters communicate more efficiently with the factory.
“That’s where the need for having a Chinese office came about, in 2010. As a foreigner I’m not able to easily register companies in China, but I could get around that by having a company registered in Hong Kong and then setting up the office in China.”
Today, Alupole deals in the design and manufacture of what Mr Lim describes as ‘road furniture’, including steel poles and towers, which are the company’s core competency, and form the majority of its business.
“Steel poles and towers are found in many industries, including highways. So, in highways you can have a lattice type of structure that holds up the sign panels on the highway, which is the sign panel gantries, so that’s where a lattice structure is used.”
The design concept for these lattice structures is very similar to the design concept of a 300ft lattice tower that carries microwave dishes, as well as being almost the same as transmission towers that carry 220k volt power lines.
“So, with the same core competency that we have, we are able to do varied types of structures in different industries, but basically they all still come down to the same core principles that we have our expertise in.”
The company has further expertise in the design and manufacture of poles, which are also being used as road or highway furniture for street lighting, as well as very tall masts which accommodate lighting at about 30-40 metres high.
“The lights can be raised up and down with a motor at the base, and with a winch and wire ropes,” Mr Lim says. “So you can lower the set of lights down to the ground level for maintenance, and then you can activate the winches to bring it back up again.”
The company’s design expertise lies in manufacturing transmission towers, which are essentially steel angles connected by bolts. The same structural make up can be found in telecom towers.
“In substation structures, they are also the same. Smaller size, smaller angles, but basically they are just steel angles connected by bolts. So, across the board they are basically the same, it’s just that they have different users.”
Alupole’s main challenge then is to understand the needs of the different users it services, as well as the different planning processes that go into the design. But Mr Lim admits that the final core design is still the same across users.
“That’s why we concentrate on our core competency, and we look for products and industries that have the same core competency, and that’s where we can diversify. So it’s not a total diversification; we make sure we diversify within our core competency.”
The strength in Alupole as a business is that it has a variety of products, allowing the company to navigate the inevitable peaks and troughs of any industry by transferring across industries to maintain a steady flow of work.
“For example, you can have the telecommunications industry suddenly surge, but the transmission power industry may suddenly be in the doldrums. The company in that sense is able to continue to be busy, even though you have ups and downs in the different industries.”
Utilising the many diversified products and industries that Alupole works within, it is able to keep its staff employed throughout the whole year, without having to suffer the declines that may befall some industries during that time.
When it comes to lattice towers and poles, there are a lot of small details that many major consultants are not familiar with, meaning the kind of work Alupole undertakes is considered specialist and not usually handled by other engineering companies with diversified services.
“The transmission line towers usually require the tower to be tested, full scale. This means that you actually take the one-to-one scale of the tower, put it up together and load it up to the full load within the specs that have the requirement for those type of loads.”
In addition, the customer will normally ask for a destructive test to be undertaken, where the structure is pulled until it reaches 100% of the load it has been designed for, held for five minutes to check it’s still standing, and then has the load increased further until destruction.
“The reason is that the customer who is ordering hundreds of these structures wants to know how much extra strength that the towers have, so that they can do some design tweaking in their transmission line to make use of that extra strength.”
This is the key difference between Alupole and regular engineering consultants, which do not have the expertise to be able to ensure that the design is right on the spot. Sometimes a mistake will be made, and a tower will collapse before 100% loading.
“Sometimes, when they are too afraid to have it collapse, they will over-design it, and then it becomes 30% or 50% over-designed, which means that after the tower is tested until 100% load, if you try to destruct it, you have to increase the load to over 30%.”
The problem with this over-design is that a structure that is stronger by 30% adds 30% more cost into the design and manufacture, which means that the structure becomes too expensive for its use. This is where Alupole comes in.
“We are able to be so confident in our design that we ensure that the design passes 100%, but when it goes to overloading it will be between 5% to 15%. Usually we try to meet at 5-6% and the tower comes down at that point. That is very difficult to achieve.”
For tendering, this feature of the business becomes very important. Without this expertise, a company may find itself underquoting the job, meaning the final design will end up being more expensive than the original quote, resulting in a loss for the company.
Alternatively, the job may be too expensive in comparison to other tenderers which are getting closer to the design specifications required, resulting in the company losing out to its competitors on jobs and potential clients.
“That is where the expertise comes to be very important, in order to win tender projects,” Mr Lim says. “We are able to go into tenders and win them because of the core competency that we have to be able to design structures that are lean but pass the requirements.”
One of Alupole’s major recent projects was for Sarawak state in Malaysia. Alupole came up with a very lean design for the 275k volt project, introducing a completely new design, radically departing from those the state had been using for over 20 years.
“The designs that they had been using for 20 years were, at that time, based on the power consumption during that time, and what they required in that particular tender was new industrial area explosion within the state.”
This meant that the tender requirements included particularly high power, and therefore needed to include more cables. For that project then, rather than two conductors per phase, Alupole needed to provide four conductors per phase.
“That required the whole power design to be changed,” Mr Lim explains. “So, in that tender, because there was nothing to fall back on, a totally new design had to be done, and with our expertise we were able to get a very lean design for the tender.”
The company’s design turned out to be 10% cheaper than the next lowest bidder, an Indian firm. This is significant because Indian companies tend to offer extremely good design for a very low price, plus a very low-weight design.
“During the tender evaluation, the [firm] said that there’s no way that Alupole can have this lower-weight tower design. In the end we won the tender, the towers were designed in the final stages, and we could even bring the weight down by another 5-7% and still the tower passed.”
After moving into the Australian market, Alupole began to concentrate on the power industry. However, because of the mining downturn, the country’s overall income has dropped significantly, and the expansion of power has likewise slowed down.
“We want to work with the miners and the state utilities, using our expertise in order to come out with very efficient design, very optimal design, so that the overall cost that they had before can be reduced, but at the same time they are getting towers that are just as strong.”
The company has recognised from the recent South Australian blackout that there may be insufficient strength in the towers, based on old design standards and codes. As a result, there is talk about re-looking at the designs and increasing the design loads.
“Now, if you do that, you effectively have increased costs. What we at Alupole can do is to look at the increased loads, but with efficient design we may be able to maintain the same costs or minimise the increase in the cost for all the state utilities.”
In 2012 the company worked with Fortescue Metals on a project that had the initial design done by a consultant. Alupole re-looked at the design and introduced an optimised pole design, which saved significant costs for both the owner and contractor hired to install the line.
“Because of our strong collaboration with the Chinese factory, which is a very big factory, we managed to complete the production ahead of schedule, which was about one month ahead of schedule, and to have Fortescue Metal’s mine up and running earlier than expected.”
The company is currently undertaking a similar project for Dugald River Mine in Queensland, optimising the design in the same way and ensuring that the work-in-progress is already two months ahead of schedule.
“For this project the timing is very important because of the end year weather in Queensland is usually wet, and also very high winds. Which means that if they are able to complete it early they will be able to do the job before the rain and the strong winds come.”
Alupole’s optimised design and product expertise help increase productivity for many companies in many industries across Australia and the wider world, and look certain to continue doing so for many years to come.
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Written by Nicholas Paul Griffin.