INDUSTRY FOCUS: AUTOMATION
growth in the past year and South Africa has been stagnant. However, the automotive industry within the country is holding its own,” he says. “A Chinese company announced a major investment in Port Elizabeth, new model programmes have been announced by existing players, and my feeling is that even with our political challenges, South Africa still offers good value to the global auto industry. We have attractive labour rates, you will find decent expertise in the country, and there are good leaders located here.” Thanks to a unique product and service offering, S4’s expertise has been in demand for some time and with new opportunities opening up and important relationships with European partners growing all the time, S4 is moving into a new office building to bring all departments under one roof and leave room for further development. Originally scheduled for completion in January 2018, construction of the new office is underway in Fairview off Willow Road in Port Elizabeth. “We are currently quite segmented. We’ve outgrown our current premises and had to move our software department into additional premises which is around 8km away and that’s not helpful from a management perspective. Our new facility will put all office staff and manufacturing in one place. It’s a 3000 m2 facility on 6500 m2 grounds. “We are slightly delayed and we’re probably looking at April; everything is underway and we will open in April 2018,” says Fulton. TRULY SOUTH AFRICAN For more than two decades, S4 has been building a reputation for delivering quality, and customers in the automotive and automated production industries know that calling on S4 will result in a seamless, end-to-end service incorporating cutting-edge hardware and software expertise. But the company hasn’t always been an industry leader; in
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its early days back in 1994, Fulton and his business partner, the late Hilary Fisher, ran the operation from a small house in North End Port Elizabeth. “Our primary focus at that point was electrical check out system testing for motor vehicles. That involved intercepting a battery current while telling the driver which units to switch on and then ensuring the consumer - whether its lights, wipers or any electrical consumer - was drawing the expected rated current and therefore fully operational. We could quickly detect blown park lights or similar using this system. That was primarily with VWSA,” he explains. In the early days, growth was relatively slow and after three years the company employee count was around six people. In 1996, as the country changed, the company received a real boost after agreeing to a partnership with a German international electronics company for Africa, DSA. “When I went to Germany I explained my situation and said I wanted to act as partner with potential for work for VWSA. I said, ‘VW will place the order with me, you send me the equipment, and when they pay me, I’ll pay you’ and they just laughed at me. I didn’t know the financial system at all. Fortunately, trust prevailed and they gave it a shot and it worked well with the relationship growing.” Having a close relationship with the country’s automotive manufacturers, and now with the backing of a significant European partner, S4 began to realise further opportunities for expansion. “Electronic engine management control units started to emerge in the market and they better control the efficiency of the engine but they needed to be programmed so that was a natural migration for us. We continued to work with DSA, they would send the equipment and we would do all the local programming for VWSA. We grew and started working with GMSA and a few other companies too,” explains Fulton.
GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT Over the years, S4 became a reliable and consistent supplier to the industry and used its expertise to solve problems as they arose. “Being onsite in the motor industry, mainly with VWSA in the beginning, allowed us to see other opportunities. We had expertise and they would ask us to look at various other aspects such as vehicle tracking systems etc. We continued to grow and started training people with new skills, adding more people into the plants and gaining maintenance contracts for high-level electronic support equipment in various plants,” says Fulton. A further catalyst for growth came in 2008 when S4’s German partners decided to solidify the relationship between the two companies by taking a shareholding. “My original partner retired eight years ago and when his shares were on the market, DSA bought in with a 30% shareholding. The business case for this is the Rand and the labour rate in SA offers much better value than in Europe so they would use our guys to go around the world and sub-contract for them. This model worked for us so we partnered with roll and brake and wheel alignment company BEP in Belgium on the same basis.” In 2012, the company began investigating different opportunities, specifically in industrial turnkey automation. “We continued to look for expansion opportunities and we had software, process and automotive expertise so the next natural step was to build PLC (programmable logic controller) panels for automation. To offer a full-suite of services, we partnered with Mosmech Engineering for all the mechanical bits and pieces but the market didn’t take to it because we were two separate entities and people wanted a one-stop-shop. We then found ourselves in the fortunate position of having the opportunity to purchase Mosmech outright and from
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