China hits the material mark

The import of building materials from China into the regional construction industry has received a mixed reponse to date. But as Zoe Naylor discovers, its reputation for quality — specifically ceramics — deserves to be much higher on contractors’ lists.

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By  Zoe Naylor Published  April 22, 2006

|~|118prodchin200.gif|~|Products exhibited under the Chinese flag at last year’s Big 5 exhibition.|~|Anyone who has visited a construction industry trade fair in recent months will have noticed the increasing visibility of the Chinese flag among the exhibitors. As contractors in the region struggle to meet tight margins, the lure of lower materials prices is making China an increasingly attractive place from which to source building supplies. From steel to curtain walling and ceramic tiles, China is fast making a name for itself as a manufacturing hub capable of providing international contractors with an array of materials shipped from its state-of-the-art ports. But one question mark looms: the issue of quality. While prices may be competitive and lead times feasible, are contractors likely to be hesitant over the quality of Chinese building materials? Not according to British civil engineer, John Porter. Two years ago he established JPA Group, a mainland Chinese business to assist international contractors to source quality building materials. “China’s manufacturing base has grown tremendously in recent years”, says Porter, who worked in Hong Kong and China for over 25 years. He says there is now a wide range of high quality construction products made to recognised international standards and available at very competitive prices. “Almost every building product is being made in China now,” he says, adding: “The cost base is very low, with labour-intensive products proving particularly competitive.” Up until now JPA Group has focused on European and US clients, but Dubai’s construction market is now firmly on Porter’s radar. “We’re keen to expand our business activities to the Middle East,” he says. “The market in Dubai is very buoyant at the moment and we’re very interested to do something there,” he adds. Porter’s clients tend to be the large international construction companies requiring both civil engineering and building products (his biggest client is Skanska). “We can source any type of material. For companies that are less familiar with Chinese products, we tend to look at the temporary works materials first; for example, things that don’t actually go into the permanent building but things that are necessary to build the structure.” Ceramics is also an emerging sector in the country, and according to Porter, there are around 400 companies manufacturing ceramic tiles in the southern part of China. “Since Dubai doesn’t actually manufacture much, it has to import all of these materials. I would imagine that at the moment it is already importing some products from Korea and Eastern Europe as well.” Essentially, the work is done on a consultancy basis. The method of charging is agreed in advance — there might be a sourcing fee, success fee and or a percentage mark-up on the goods, depending on the circumstances and the amount of work involved. “In return, we give factual information, we look for the products, do all the research, and can offer possible solutions,” he adds. And what of the quality issue? Is Porter confident that China’s building products can live up to Dubai’s demand for not only the biggest but the best? “I’ve seen China develop over the last 30 years or so and I would say that it now has some excellent manufacturing capabilities.” Quality assurance is a problem in every country, he says, and comes down to putting in place checks and balances to make sure that the final product meets the necessary requirements. And this is a service that Porter says his firm offers: “We will source a suitable supplier, look at maybe six to 10 of them, and then select two or three. “Then we offer the products to the client for it to select from in terms of quality and price,” he adds. While not every building product is cheap in China — timber products, for example, can be quite expensive because it has to import the raw products — Porter says there are gains because the labour costs are so low. “Certainly ceramics, sanitary ware and granite are very cheap.” According to Michael Riley, sales manager at Ceramics City in Dubai, Chinese tiling products are making an increasing impact: “China is among the world leader in tile production and their quality is getting better every year. We’re seeing a lot more good products come from this market.” As China battles to make its formidable presence felt within the UAE’s construction industry, contractors worldwide are facing massive price hikes within the commodities sector. Copper and aluminium prices have soared recently, and the high price that contractors are now paying for steel shows little sign of letting up just yet. Despite these challenges, the region’s construction juggernaut continues to forge ahead regardless.||**||

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