A South Australian company that shot to international prominence after designing the flames for the Sydney Olympics has become a leading supplier of clean-tech and alternative fuel solutions for the cement industry

Adelaide-based FCT International had a small customer base in the cement industry when its current ownership group took over the company in 1999. But instead of simply continuing to design and build industrial burner systems, FCT won the right to design the burner system for the Olympic torches and the entire cauldron at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. That success led them to design and manufacture 14,000 torches for the Athens Games in 2004, as well as the cauldron and the Olympic rings of fire featured in the opening ceremony. FCT quickly became the global leader in ornamental flames, and revenues from the major events market reached up to 70% of the company’s total.

“We quickly became the market leader in that space and became involved in more and more major events around the world,” says FCT Managing Director Con Manias. “The thing with the flames business is it’s hit a ceiling – it’s got no more market share to grab as there are only so many major ceremonies and event spaces being built.”

Nonetheless, international success gave FCT renewed confidence within the more traditional industrial combustion side of the business, which delivers burner systems for high-temperature processing factories including cement, lime, alumina, nickel and iron ore pellets plants. Key to this was establishing sales and engineering bases closer to key markets, prompting FCT to launch hubs in Florida, Turkey, Brazil and Austria in the past five years, doubling its workforce from 25 to 45.

“We realised a few years ago that working only out of Adelaide when you are targeting the world market for industrial combustion was not that great because we’re so far away from our markets,” says Manias. “The technology development and overall strategy and marketing are still centralised in Adelaide while the satellite offices are developing their own relationships, getting to know their markets intimately and capturing market share in these regions, which is impossible working solely out of Australia. As a result of taking the company closer to the markets, our orders have increased quite spectacularly; it’s actually been more successful than we imagined.”

FCT International is now made up of three companies: FCT Flames, FCT Combustion and FCT ACTech, an online instrumentation business. FCT Flames continues to lead the ornamental flame industry and has supplied equipment to dozens of major global events, including every summer Olympics since 2000. However, the rise of FCT Combustion has been the latest success story.

FCT Combustion is experiencing dramatic growth with its burner technology for the iron ore pelletizing industry, fitting out more than a dozen plants with burner equipment in countries such as Sweden, Algeria, China, Brazil and the US. It is also having success globally converting cement plants with systems that run more efficiently and can burn a variety of alternative fuels, including rice husks, sewage, used engine oil and municipal waste.

The success of FCT Combustion has meant the industrial side of the business provides about 80% of total revenue while the flames business brings in about 20%.

FCT has worked with the University of Adelaide to develop leading gas burner technology, which is helping it win work in the US as cement plants convert from coal to natural gas.

“The cement industry tends to use solid fuels mostly but in North America, with cheaper gas available as a result of fracking, it’s going back to using natural gas as a fuel,” says Manias. “Our burner is a very low-emissions, high-efficiency technology based on different principles to every other burner, and it’s giving us a particular advantage in doing gas conversions in North America – it’s the best gas burner technology available for a cement kiln.

“We have done quite a number of those projects in the US in cement, lime and ore pelletizing as well, and there is still a lot of opportunity as more plants switch to natural gas.”

Fuel represents up to half the cost of producing cement. According to Manias, in Europe there is a strong focus on using waste as alternative fuels, and other parts of the world are also slowly catching on. FCT custom designs every project to cater for the specific fuels being burnt by each customer.

“Typically a plant will burn two or three conventional fuels as well as have the ability for two or three alternative fuels as well,” Manias says. “In Malaysia we are commissioning a burner for rice husks, in Turkey we’ve supplied burners that use sewerage sludge, waste oil from shipping and municipal waste containing paper, plastic and green waste that has been shredded.

“Italy and Belgium burn municipal waste, in Thailand it’s biogas, California wood chips. Pretty much anything that burns can be used in a cement plant to produce heat to make cement clinker.”

FCT International won two major export awards in Australia in late 2018 on the back of its strong global growth. It was named Export Business of the Year at the Optus My Business Awards held in Sydney in November; and it won the Minerals, Energy and Related Services Award at the Business SA 2018 Export Awards in October.

While its burner technology in the cement industry has been a significant achievement, growth in the iron ore pelletising industry has driven FCT’s more recent success.

“We were able to win significant projects – these things tend to grow with your reputation – and the last couple of years it’s been our major revenue earner for the entire FCT group,” says Manias. “We’ve supplied more burner equipment than any other company that operates in that iron ore space in the past two or three years. At the moment our big projects are in China and Brazil – Vale in Brazil and SinoSteel in China.”

Manias says FCT International is looking to further grow its business by providing other equipment such as furnaces and kilns for each new project. There are also many parts of the world and industries that the company has yet to target.

“There are other industries, other geographies, and we have a few strategies depending on which markets we move into next, and some of those involve new products,” Manias says. “The growth prospects are fairly well unlimited it’s really around how we can bring that about.”