Brinkmann’s career not about to implode

Brinkmann’s career not about to implode

By Eamonn Ryan

Jet Demolition won a second consecutive award at the annual World Demolition Awards 2018 at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on 8 November. With an aptitude and ‘fondness’ for explosives, Jet Demolition director Joe Brinkmann led this award-winning project.

The premium event of its kind, the awards are hosted by Demolition & Recycling International, published by the KHL Group, in conjunction with the European Demolition Association. What makes Jet Demolition’s win in the Industrial Demolition Award category such a major achievement for the South African industry, is that it was up against some of the biggest companies and projects in the world.

There were 10 entrants in this category. Of the four shortlisted, apart from Jet Demolition, the finalists were Brandenburg Industrial of the US for the Bannister Federal Complex, Despe of Italy for the former Stefana Steelworks, and Liberty Industrial of Australia for the Port Kembla Coal Terminal Stacker and Reclaimer demolition. “It was fantastic for us. We were up against some of the biggest companies in the world, with major projects. In the end, we had the perfect combination of a difficult and unique project, together with the best solution that we executed well,” Brinkmann comments.

Director Liz Brinkmann, who started the company with her husband 28 years ago, points out that what differentiates Jet Demolition from its rivals is a passion for bespoke solutions, as opposed to using off-the-shelf equipment, and then trying to adapt it to the problem in hand. “In many instances, you simply have to take a major step back, look at it from a fundamental perspective, and then determine what is the best approach,” she says.

International demolition consultant John Woodward, who has been associated with the awards since its inception, commented that while the scale of the project submitted by Jet Demolition was dwarfed in sheer size by some of the other submissions, the reason it won was that “it was a unique challenge, to which the technical response put the other projects in the shade.”


Sectioning and removal of FFP ducting from outside the boiler house.

The winning project

Jet Demolition’s submission focused on the contract awarded to it by Eskom in 2017 for the demolition of a coal-fired boiler and ancillary equipment at Duvha Power Station in Mpumalanga, following an over-pressurisation event that resulted in irreparable damage to the structure.

Brinkmann highlights the numerous challenges associated with the project: “We had to contend with a critically damaged boiler unit, with attendant safety issues. The timeframe was highly limited, which entailed working double shifts on a 24/7 basis. We had to train up local community members, which meant incorporating 25 extra workers into our system and procedures.” The project ultimately peaked at 145 personnel on site, and 330 373 hours worked without a single lost-time injury (LTI).

“Our main consideration was that the boilerhouse structure had to remain in place, and therefore could not be damaged in any way. Combined with all of these elements was the fact that we were in the middle of a fully operating power station. This meant having to accommodate live services that could not be compromised. Simply gaining access to the damaged structure in order to carry out the necessary initial assessment was itself a major issue. We also had to liaise closely with the client’s own consultants in what was really an unprecedented situation,” Brinkmann adds.

The solution devised by Jet Demolition, and which caught the attention of the judges at the awards, involved various highly innovative demolition methods. These included complex rigging with purpose-built winches, extended-length chain-blocks and mobile cranes, extensive rope-access activities, and controlled cut-and-drop techniques using the boiler walls themselves as a drop chute.

To give a sense of the immense scale of the project, Brinkmann reveals that the 96m-high suspended boiler towered higher than the Statue of Liberty. A total of 11 000t of steel was removed successfully over a 13-month period. Brinkmann is well aware that this once-off project was, indeed, an opportunity of a lifetime, both for himself personally, and professionally for the company he has nurtured since its inception.

“We have carried out work successfully in a dozen African countries, from South Africa to Algeria. Our focus has always been highly demanding industrial-type projects, which demand the best international safety and quality performance, no matter where in Africa. Hence, we have to compete on an international basis. I think that our two consecutive awards is a vindication of this approach,” Brinkmann stresses.

Jet Demolition’s innovative implosion of the 14-storey HG de Witt Building in the bustling Pretoria CBD clinched it its first accolade at the World Demolition Awards in 2017. The latest win for the Duvha boiler project adds further to the company’s track record and expertise. As for entering the awards next year? “We already have an exciting environmental rehabilitation project lined up as our potential entry, as this further showcases our bespoke approach and innovation,” he adds.

His early career

Brinkmann studied mining engineering and found a particular interest in explosives engineering in 1980. “I then proceeded to do my Masters in Blasting, and joined the Chamber of Mines in a research position. I came to South Africa with the Chamber of Mines, chasing opportunity and adventure. I initially sold blasting instrumentation, and then developed shaped charges that were later patented. I was attracted to try demolition in 1991 and did my first large demolition project for the Old President Brand Gold Plant in Welkom (Anglo American Corp). From there it was a natural progression into difficult and demanding demolition projects. A hands-on approach, mechanical interest and aptitude, and a fondness for explosives came together to fuel my drive for demolition work.”

His early inspiration came from two role models, both university professors — Professors Richard Ash and Norman Smith — “who were both extremely accomplished with theoretical and practical applications in blasting. Their approach and ambition sparked my interest and enduring love affair with explosives and blasting.”

He notes that mentoring is a critical imperative in demolition as there is no formalised demolition training available in South Africa, meaning that all personnel have to be developed and nurtured in-house. “Mentoring is continuous and sublime — constant interaction with our team members means we all learn from each other on a daily basis; very much a two-way street,” explains Brinkmann.

Highs and lows

Parallel to this on-the-job approach to skills development is the need for practical learning from mistakes and triumphs. “I learned most things in life the hard way: I have pushed the boundaries in both good and bad ways, and never stopped learning along the way. My challenges have been: not delegating enough; being a perfectionist; and being focused on every detail meant that I have a skewed balance in life. If I had learned to delegate more, I certainly would have had a more balanced approach to life,” he confesses.

“Learning how to write efficiently and to address the public appropriately is one of the major personal challenges I needed to overcome. I also needed to accept that development only happens through trial-and-error, patience, persistence, and perseverance. My work-life balance is a continuing challenge, as are things outside my control. In terms of our company, building a world-class, capital-intensive demolition company in a politically volatile developing country will always be a challenge to be overcome,” suggests Brinkmann.

It is a pushing-the-boundaries attitude that has seen him take on and conquer some of the most demanding projects in the world, as illustrated by its latest World Demolition Award. “Demolition provides a continuous challenge — every project is approached with the aim of increasing safety, production, and cost-efficiency. At this stage in life, every day is an accomplishment to be grateful for.

“The highlight of my career so far is the recognition that came from back-to-back wins in the 2017 and 2018 World Demolition Awards. To be recognised on an international platform, in two different categories for two consecutive years, by friends, peers, and colleagues from across the world, is an achievement that cannot be topped. We are extremely humbled and grateful for this recognition, and feel enthused to continue in this spirit of hard work and excellence.”

He considers Jet Demolition’s work on large water-retaining dams to be some of the most important projects the business has undertaken. These projects called for highly controlled, cautious, partial demolition of large dams for rehabilitation and enlargement projects. “We developed new blasting techniques to retain the structural stability of the dams, while ensuring that there was no wasted effort. We have done dams similar to the likes of Hazelmere and Midmar, and look forward to other challenging work of this nature.”

Industry uncertainty

“Unfortunately, ‘dire straights’ is what immediately comes to mind when discussing the future of construction in South Africa. The industry is very much in intensive care at the moment. In five years’ time, I believe we will be in a phase of good economic growth, with a strong prospect of growth in the civil industry. I strongly believe the Fourth Industrial Revolution will heavily impact on our industry, with increased mechanisation under digital control. In turn, technology must always be driven by man, resulting in new and exciting skills to be developed in years to come.

“I believe that working in a bricks-and-mortar, hands-on industry holds great opportunity, and is a deeply satisfying technical occupation. Step away from the gadgets, go outside, and experience life to the full,” he urges tomorrow’s contract engineers.

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