Local manufacturers

Hi-Tech Security Solutions surveyed four leading local manufacturers to get their thoughts on the state of the South African security industry, and to catch up on their recent and imminent developments.

Cathexis, which specialises in video surveillance solutions, has been developing electronic and software systems for more than 18 years. With blue-chip customers the world over, the company serves numerous vertical markets, including but not limited to retail, manufacturing, banking, healthcare, mining, education, transport, residential estates, business parks, city surveillance, government, remote monitoring, shopping malls, commercial property and mobile in-vehicle fleet monitoring.

Centurion Systems’ geographical footprint – eight branches covering all of South Africa’s main regions, one branch in Nigeria and a distribution network in over 50 countries worldwide – is matched by the diversity of access automation solutions it offers. Established in 1986, the company supplies sliding gate motors, swing gate motors, garage door operators, traffic barriers, remote controls, keypads, proximity access control systems and intercom systems.

“Some 30 years ago Impro Technologies was formed and the company has become a pioneer in the access control industry, having been one of the first in the world to develop RFID technology.”

Today the company still maintains its own R&D, design and manufacturing facilities. Impro has become a global player with offices in America and Europe, a network of distributors and partners that span four continents, and export markets over 60 countries.

From its inception in 1978, Radio Data Communications (RDC) established a reputation for VHF communication equipment for alarm monitoring, and to date has supplied over 2 million VHF transmitter units and has more than 500 radio networks in South Africa and abroad. In keeping with its pioneering use of modern communication technologies, the company has expanded its capabilities into GSM and SMS based systems, and offers a number of value-added services including 24/7 technical support the year round.

Made in SA, suitable for everywhere

With South Africa’s traditionally robust market demand for security solutions, there is never a shortage of business within the country. What’s more, the reputations earned by local manufacturers in this sector extend far beyond our borders, with all four of the companies consulted attributing a healthy portion of their sales to export markets.

Imported products are a constant headache for local manufacturers due to their usually low cost. However, locally made products do have an edge when it comes to such competition, as Centurion Systems’ Charl Mijnhardt explains. “Our products are designed and manufactured with the harsh African climate in mind,” he explains.

“Africa is definitely not for sissies, as the saying goes, and we ensure that our products are rugged, robust and reliable.’

Features such as weather resistance and battery backup for power failure autonomy are native to our products, and we use the hardiest of engineering polymers in the construction of these products. This has definitely given us a competitive advantage.”

Gus Brecher of Cathexis concurs with this sentiment, but with the proviso that it proves more relevant in certain sectors than in others. “In some market sectors, like mining, this is true because the software and product have been developed over many years to suit these particular verticals,” he says. “Probably more important is the fact that we have the local engineering expertise that is available for system design and implementation.”

RDC’s products are widely used on the African continent, with managing director Brent Andreka going so far as to say they dominate the market in the EAC (East African Community) region comprising Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Last year the company installed its former technical manager, Maurizio Borsato, in Nairobi to service that market, and Andreka says his presence, combined with his many years of experience in Kenya’s security sector, are bearing fruit and proving beneficial to its customers.

However, Andreka believes strongly that the way to become a global player is to think local. “We have seen the power of this concept repeatedly in the history of our business,” he states. “Over the years, we have developed numerous firsts which were designed specifically for local conditions. The products were then adopted abroad and we now export them around the globe. The availability of our locally developed solutions has also spawned new local markets and industries which are still going strong 36 years after our company’s inception.”

Impro’s sales and marketing director, Barry East, also insists that his company’s focus remains squarely on the African continent. “We build for our home base of Africa,” he explains. “This means our products must be able to withstand extreme temperatures, humidity and ingress; they must be robust and hardy; they have to operate on unstable Internet backbones; installation environments can drastically differ and our products need to provide for that, whilst still being technologically advanced.

“This naturally gives international customers an advantage, as they are able to enjoy all the benefits derived from our home base. In addition, all our products go through rigorous international accreditations, which has enabled us to grow our exports to more than 60 countries, spanning four continents.”

Things are happening

Having taken the big step to move into a new facility (in Edenvale on Johannesburg’s East Rand) a year ago, RDC has reaped rewards in terms of not only productivity, but also morale. “A new environment with shiny new fittings is always a good staff motivator,” Andreka points out. “Our production staff really appreciate the investment we have made in their working environment, and particularly in their break room and bathroom facilities. Their tea and lunch area has a ‘coffee shop’ type atmosphere and bathrooms have the same quality fittings as our management facilities.”

RDC’s primary focus when planning its new manufacturing space was on creative workflow and facilitating natural communication. Improvements to this area are ongoing, and fall under newly appointed production manager and process engineer, Johan Smith. In terms of new manufacturing equipment, the company places an emphasis on quality when it made substantial investment in state-of-the-art testing equipment and jigs, which Andreka says has resulted in positive results that extend beyond quality to improvement in output and productivity.

As for Cathexis, Brecher says recent months have been less about upgrading and more about restructuring. The company has adjusted its strategy around providing the open platform CathexisVision video management software rather than DVRs, requiring greater investment in development. This goes hand in hand with a shift in manufacturing from DVRs to NVRs.

While it is still enjoying the benefits of an upgrade to its manufacturing facilities to adopt cutting-edge technology a few years ago and with no firm plans for upgrades in the near future, East says Impro continually endeavours to enable local job creation and provide real stimulus to the local economies within South Africa. The company offshored some of its manufacturing for a time, but reversed this as East says it was difficult to maintain a consistent quality level. “By retaining our manufacturing facilities we are able to provide our customers with consistently high-quality products, rapid turnaround times and the option to produce small custom volumes, whilst still ensuring cost competiveness,” he states.

To meet its requirements for additional capacity for the manufacture of in-house components, Centurion Systems recently installed and commissioned a CNC centre lathe, and will imminently begin installing a completely new electronic assembly line. This will include a solder screen printer, SMT machine, reflow oven, population stations and conveyor, wave solder machine and numerous new test jigs and fixtures.

Efforts have not been exclusively in-house, however, as the company has launched two brand new swing gate operators – Vert-X and Vantage – that Mijnhardt says have been very well received by the access automation market. The online platform used for administering Centurion GSM devices has also undergone a major facelift in terms of functionality and feature richness, and Mijnhardt hints that the company will soon be announcing more developments in the GSM arena.

Skills shortage is a mixed message

An issue never far from the thoughts of South Africa’s manufacturing sector is the often cited shortage of skilled labour. Messages in this regard are mixed, however, across the companies canvassed, with some normal discrepancies occurring on an individual basis and others being regional in nature.

“We don’t have any issues getting staff,” asserts Cathexis’ Brecher. With a focus on providing solutions, rather than software, the company requires hardware, systems and software expertise. “Our policy is to get young electronic engineering graduates who are at the top of their class, and train them in the best practices that our senior engineers have developed over many years,” Brecher says.

Andreka says RDC is also fortunate when it comes to the skills shortage. “There is no doubt that a skills shortage exists in SA, but it’s not that significant for our company,” he says. “We have actively recruited more skilled and technically qualified staff into our production area over the past 18 months. This means that we have more multi-skilled staff, which has many advantages including minimising the effect of absenteeism on our output. There are many quality and talented South Africans out there, and we often forget that we can and must grow our own timber. The trick is to recruit quality people, and create a working environment that they don’t want to leave.”

Mijnhardt concedes that the recruitment process is often very slow as technically skilled people are scarce, but adds that Centurion Systems is proactive about mitigating against the problem. “We have various programmes in place aimed at helping our existing staff upskill as well as diversifying their skills, while also empowering them to take on new roles in the technical environment,” he says. “Our access automation products are known for being incredibly reliable and of the highest quality, which requires only the most skilled and competent personnel.”

Being based outside of the hub of industry that is Gauteng poses its own challenges, according to Impro’s Barry East. “South Africa as a country faces a severe constraint on suitably qualified technical personnel, whether that is software developers, hardware engineers or production specialists,” he states. “On a local basis, this issue is further impacted by the migration of these skills from KwaZulu-Natal to Gauteng, where they are able to command higher incomes. Given the small pool of electronics companies in KwaZulu-Natal and the limited resources, it continues to be a challenge for the manufacturing sector and so a combined focus going forward must be on how we, as a province, can address this and build local talent.”

Just one wish

No industry is without its problems and, as with any other, the security sector does not exist in a vacuum. If they could be granted just one wish to make the going easier for their companies, the respondents’ replies were as diverse as the challenges they encounter.

East believes that first and foremost, strong partnerships must be built between government and business to address the skills shortages through educational initiatives. “This must be the foundation,” he asserts, “then to unleash job training opportunities, perhaps with tax breaks for creating internship opportunities, so these graduates can secure real experience in the industry.

“Finally – and I think this is a crucial issue – government entities should do more to buy locally manufactured goods. Too often there is a perception that international means better, while often that is not the case. Whilst government certainly endorses this philosophy, their actions don’t always conform. That can be extended outside our borders, to our embassies and missions abroad, where only South African manufactured goods should be used, where possible. That’s a strong message and endorsement of the highest level.”

Government also needs to do more to support local companies’ export initiatives, East says. “There needs to be true engagement on what business needs, and a combined effort to achieve that, quickly and efficiently. The world waits for no-one and, as we have already proven, the opportunities are there. Through targeted actions, great results can be achieved which will bring forex, but more importantly can create much needed jobs.”

Brecher echoes these sentiments in broad terms, saying “I think more emphasis should be placed on buying South African products – by both government and corporates. In other countries where we compete (for example Germany, France, USA, Russia, China and more), the mindset is to buy local and there are some significant government incentives. Unfortunately in South Africa this is not the case. Nobody is asking customers to compromise on quality, but to consider South African products before making decisions.”

Brief and to the point, Charl Mijnhardt’s message is all to do with the skills shortage. “Relax labour legislation. Strongly incentivise employers to engage in workforce training. Our current education system is in crisis,” he says.

Finally, Brent Andreka’s wish is wistful and easy for anyone to relate to: a time machine. “We find that we are bombarded with exciting opportunities daily and we want them all. I wouldn’t use the time machine to travel to other eras but just to create another hour in the day or another day in the week. The machine would however only be able to create time for fun, because we tend to be caught up in a cycle where getting ahead takes preference over having fun.”