Under Pressure – Sustech

Story and photos by Matt Bailey

Apart from our basic utilities, refined products are probably the most widely used industrially processed commodities in the world. For example, imagine the vast quantity of oil-derived products that are used to fuel and lubricate the world’s automobiles, or the millions of cubic meters of natural gas that are “scrubbed” and processed daily so we can power our factories and heat our homes.

Once, the refineries and petrochemical plants we relied upon for our everyday existence were small and easily managed. These days, to produce on the scale we need, they’re enormous, with sprawling mazes of pipes, columns and tanks.

Drum tight with pressure, the modern refinery is kept under control by arguably the most vital components of all: precision valves and manifolds.

Sustech Engineering

Situated in Edenvale in the Gauteng Province, Sustech Engineering (Pty) designs, manufactures and sells its own range of precision-engineered valves and instrument manifolds directly to customers, and through its global distribution network.

Designed for a wide range of applications, Sustech’s products are used across a variety of industries, all with one thing in common: a critical need to maintain a process within tight quality and safety parameters.

Sustech founder and owner, Jim Susman, explains how the company’s products work:

“Instrument manifolds are the interface between the actual process and the measuring instrumentation necessary to keep the process under control,” he says. “But in order to control the process, some of the product has to be drawn off so that it can be measured and analysed. It then has to be contained, drained or returned to the process. Our instrument manifolds make this possible.”

Sustech’s manifolds are suitable for use with acid, water, gas, oil, oxygen, sour gas, vacuum or live steam, and the majority comply with common standards laid down by most gauge and transmitter manufacturers’ specifications.

“All Sustech products are subject to continuous research and development,” says Susman. “The company operates to ISO9001, and all of its activities and functions are documented in its QA manual.”

As vital components in the refinery process, traceability plays a very important part in Sustech’s manufacturing operations. Each stage of manufacture is fully documented to ensure each and every component leaves a “trail” back to its origin. Sustech’s blue-chip customers demand it.

“To achieve the required levels of manufacturing control, we use computers at every stage of production,” says Susman, “from acceptance of raw materials through to 100% gas testing and shipping finished products.”

High Standards

Gerry Susman is an Air Force trained engineer, as evidenced by his unfailingly high standards and equally high expectations. His company is a success because he applies these standards to every aspect of his operations – from the design stage, through machining to backup and support.

“We are a leading manufacturer because we believe that the right way to do business and to grow is by supplying exactly what our clients want, when they want it. We work closely with our customers to ensure that the products we supply conform to and exceed their very high quality standards.”

He applies the same standards to the precision machine tool he uses in his bustling machine shop.

“We use Haas CNC machines,” he says. “In fact, at the moment I believe we have the most Haas machine installations of any company in S.A. We have 12!”

Haas CNC machine tools are supplied and supported in South Africa by Johannesburg-based Haas CNC Services.

Before investing in the Haas machines, Sustech’s machine shop was dominated by Chinese and Taiwanese machines. Looking back on that period, Susman remembers the daily frustrations he and his team faced.

“I have to say, we didn’t really get the results we wanted. Those machines were difficult to use. We couldn’t achieve consistently high results.”

So why did he opt for Haas, at the time, a make of CNC machine tool relatively unknown in South Africa?

“I’ve been working with different machine tools for 20 years or so,” he says, “including many expensive Japanese machines with Fanuc controls, so I had high expectations.

“The Haas machines didn’t disappoint. They appealed because they were very simple and very user-friendly, particularly the control.”

And, because he takes such a hands-on role in the engineering and production operations of his own company, Susman’s interest in the Haas control was for personal reasons.

“I create every single program that we use in this company, so I was only interested in simple, easy to use controls,” he states. “I’d heard good reports about Haas and about their proprietary CNC. Even so, I always prefer to make up my own mind.”

Available in All Sizes

Sustech installed its first Haas machine in 1999: an SL-20 CNC turning centre.

“At the moment,” says Susman, “We’re using the lathe to turn some particularly small components for valves and manifolds. Like everything we supply, once we’ve finished the machining, we assemble the products and pressure test them at up to 24,000psi, before shipping them to the distributor or the customer.

Susman’s experience with the SL-20 turning centre was such that he soon invested in more Haas machines, including a number of Haas VF CNC vertical machining centres of different sizes.

“The cylindrical component we’re machining on the VF-3 is an air-distribution manifold. It would be used in a refinery. The part you see on the VF-3 is the main body. We’re using the VF-3 for a variety of work – mostly drilling, milling and threading in stainless steel, but occasionally in more exotic materials.”

In terms of physical size, the smallest Haas machine tool in Sustech’s workshop is undoubtedly the Mini Mill.

Although it takes up less than 4 square meters of shop floor space, the Haas Mini Mill provides a work envelope of 406mm x 305mm x 254mm, features a 40-taper spindle, speeds up to 6,000 rpm, 15 m/min rapids and a 10-pocket automatic tool changer.

Bright Future

Sustech also has plans to expand in Haas’ home market, the USA. A market, according to Susman, worth an estimated five times more than the company’s current turnover.

“If it happens, we’ll almost definitely have to open a plant in the U.S.,” he says. “Probably in Houston.”

Given the size of the market, the company’s expansion into the USA is both logical and vital, if it’s to fulfil its potential on a worldwide basis. The refinery and petro-chemical industries are global, and according to Susman, Sustech is ideally placed, geographically as well as conceptually.

“We have agents on just about every continent,” he says. “Thankfully, being located in South Africa really does work to our advantage in a global industry. We’re in the middle of the western world, so we’re very well placed to serve all markets.”

And judging by the company’s record, Susman won’t leave success in the USA to chance. Towards the back of the company’s product brochure is a list almost 30 strong – with contact details and phone numbers – of the world’s largest and best known petrochemical companies and refiners. All Sustech customers, and all unreservedly praising the company’s products, quality and support.

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