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Coal: Still an economic lifeline

Coal has become a dirty word – it is associated with pollution and environmental degradation. Nonetheless, it remains the power supply lifeline in Africa and various other regions across the globe.

But the landscape has changed, quite distinctly in South Africa, and those OEMs playing a vital support role to the industry must adapt or lose their market share, writes LAURA CORNISH.


Vibrating equipment specialist Kwatani’s business model has always been centred on flexibility and adaptability and this has stood the company in good stead as it has with ease continued to meet the needs of an evolving coal sector – one that was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.


“While the overall impact of the pandemic reduced industrial coal demand worldwide, the fast reopening of the coal sector in South Africa in particular is a clear reflection of the importance this industry plays in the economic sustainability of the country,” Kwatani CEO Kim Schoepflin starts.


“This does not however eliminate the threat imposed on the sector by investors pulling out of coal-related projects, and while this remains a concern, it is one that can only be addressed in the long-term. For now, our current order book and project pipeline (both new and replacement), in Australia, Russia and South Africa is a reflection of our current reality – coal is not dead. Expectations to incorporate clean technologies has become a far greater priority however,” she continues.

Kwatani CEO, Kim Schoepflin

For now…

Regardless of the South African government’s intention to reduce carbon emissions significantly by 2050, the country’s coal-fired power supply needs are non-negotiable.

“What has changed over recent years is the client base. Some of the traditional, large-scale miners have or are in the process of exiting the country’s coal sector and Eskom’s need to move away from the traditional cost-plus model has seen the rise (and support) of a host of smaller, black owned and fully transformed mining companies,” Schoepflin notes.

Both sectors of the market require a more unique and specialised service offering and Kwatani has ensured it is fully equipped to deliver on both fronts.

New entrant, small-scale coal mining companies have significant pressures to overcome to be successful – capital and budget constraints, and a shortage of skills and manpower are some of the more common challenges. These miners need to start producing and generating cash flow as quickly as possible.

Kwatani’s smaller range of screens – up to 2.4 m in width and fully customised to individual applications is ideal for this market. “Our turnaround time to deliver, install and commission is fast and in line with short timeframes, as is our fast service and maintenance delivery thereafter,” Schoepflin notes. In further support of the industry, Kwatani is a Level 2, BBBEE compliant business that contributes to empowerment scorecards.

Mega coal miners still committed to the industry have a different set of challenges to overcome – primarily managing the financial and operational costs associated with moving more overburden to access new coal reserves in more mature mines. “Their tonnage requirements have increased, as has their need to process more while using less energy and water,” the CEO points out.

Kwatani has consequently seen an increasing trend for the supply of ultra-large processing screens – typically banana screens used for desliming and drain and rinse applications. Efficiency, enhancing utilisation of water and power and reduced downtime have become essential, Schoepflin reiterates.

For this market segment, Kwatani offers a range of custom-designed, high capacity performance screens which can be up to 4.3 m in width and 11 m long, which all deliver on structural integrity, ease of maintenance and extended lifespan, embodying the company’s “Engineered for tonnage” principles.

Operating in a wet or abrasive/corrosive environment, Kwatani screens comprise special lining materials and paint specifications and compounds that ensure its screens can withstand the toughest conditions. And because each screen is custom-designed, they include full ISO-accreditation having undergone rigorous testing under the supervision of a qualified engineer.

“The final step is ensuring our screens deliver the same results during the commissioning phase on site as those delivered during factory testing. “Our research and development laboratory is fully kitted to do both wet and dry testing and further allows us to change all screening parameters during the initial testing design phases to ensure we can deliver on our clients’ screening specifications.”

What COVID-19 has taught us

“We have learnt to embrace digital and in doing so operate remotely. As a result, our business continued to operate throughout the pandemic,” Schoepflin highlights. In line with this, Kwatani installed three pilot condition monitoring systems with its screens in 2020 and is now currently analysing the data and translating it into meaningful interpretation of machine health, performance and efficiency. This is an important part of the company’s maintenance offering.

“Our company has consistently grown over our 44-year history and this is largely thanks to our commitment to continuously invest in R&D, which did not take a back seat during the pandemic. We have now also developed a culture of resiliency, and we have learnt to become even more flexible and operate in the new world we find ourselves in,” Schoepflin concludes.