Tracking the South African Electronics Industry
A recent trip to South Africa made me curious to learn more about two very different types of electronic technology and the electronics industry that supports them. The first technology, one that I hadn’t encountered before, was a prepaid energy meter manufactured in South Africa. The meter shown in Figure 1 was in use in a home we rented and was “topped up” by the owner when we checked in.
Prepayment energy meters require users to pay for electricity before using it – basically prepaid electrical service. Payment can be done via a smartcard, token or key that can be loaded at a shop or via a smartphone app. What I was surprised to learn, however, was that this service is NOT cheaper than other types of service.1 I had assumed that prepayment would give you the opportunity to negotiate discounted rates since there is a choice of suppliers and that it would also help control the amount of the bill. Unfortunately, the reality is far different. The downsides of prepaid service2 include:
• Continued electric service depends on remembering to pay even when you travel
• If the current balance falls below the disconnection balance, service is disconnected with little notice
• The customer must be able to receive notices by phone or electronic methods
• Most prepaid service products are variable or indexed rate products; energy price per kWh can change daily
Prepaid power seems to be most widely used by people with poor or no credit history or who have a large unpaid debt. It is also seen as a useful tool for landlords. But, I was even more interested in who makes the metering devices and how they work. The electronic meters use current and voltage sensors to detect the amount of current consumed and create an analog signal which is sampled and digitized using ADCs. The digital signals are processed using a DSP or a microcontroller which then displays the amount of energy consumed on a display. When the balance amount comes down to zero, the microcontroller sends a signal to turn off a relay which then turns off the main power supply.3
Prepayment meters are gaining in popularity worldwide and South African companies currently have an estimated 70% to 80% share of the global market.4 One South African company is Conlog, now part of Schneider-Electric. The company produces and exports prepaid and smart meters, which are used locally and also exported to more than 20 countries. Their market is split about 50% domestic and 50% international with an installed base of more than eight million meters. Conlog runs a highly automated SMT production line in Durban, South Africa which can produce up to 130, 000 units a month.7
The other electronic technology I came across was the trackers used to monitor and prevent poaching of wildlife. South Africa is home to the company and inventors of the Cybertracker software, used to track animals of all shapes and size. Cybertracker tools enable everyone from scientists to non-literate indigenous trackers to keep tabs on tagged animals. Figure 2 shows a rhino we saw with a VHF collar right above the right rear ankle.
The trackers can use either VHF or GPS technology. VHF transmitters that are attached to an animal emit a pulsed radio signal allowing someone to physically locate and observe the animal by monitoring the signal using a receiver and directional antenna. They are considered easy to use, reliable, affordable and useful for a wide variety of animals with a battery that can last up to three years. GPS/GSM collars use a GSM cell phone signal to download data. SAT/GPS collars use global satellites to transmit the position and other data to the users. These units need more power to function than VHF units, which adds to the total weight of the device so the smallest possible batteries need to be used. This usually results in reduced battery life, especially on the smaller animals and these smaller collars generally operate for less than 12 months. GPS/GSM units also use mobile phone signal which is limited in some areas.5 One South African manufacturer of these devices is Africa Wildlife Tracking, a Pretoria-based company.
The South African electronics industry does suffer from a relatively high cost of labor and electricity as well as exchange rate volatility.
Seeing some new to me technology inspired me to learn more about the state of electronics in South Africa. I discovered that South Africa has a well-established electronics manufacturing sector that has been in existence for over 40 years and has a significant group of experienced firms. South Africa is considered a pioneer in the development of security systems, keyless starting, lighting control, fuel injection, central locking and robotics for automotive firms.6
South Africa is also a significant force in power generation, transmission and distribution and generates over 50% of Africa’s electricity. Although the South African power sector is small in international terms, it has expertise in maintenance and refurbishment of generating equipment. The South African company Eskom generates approximately 95% of the electricity used in South Africa and approximately 45% of the electricity used in Africa and has the largest repair and maintenance center in the southern hemisphere. In Africa alone, the requirement for investment in distribution and transmission is $390 billion over the next 30 years.
The South African electronics industry does suffer from a relatively high cost of labor and electricity as well as exchange rate volatility.8 The industry also struggles with competition fueled by import duties on electronic components since most electronic components are imported into South Africa.9 These issues are very similar to the ones I reported on regarding Ethiopia in last month’s magazine and need to be addressed to help the industry expand and thrive.
Finally, South Africa is home to ten IEEE registered technical society chapters and two IEEE council chapters. There are also at least four centers offering PCB assembly training and IPC standards training and the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE) has an active Electronics and Software committee. The country also hosts numerous international conferences including the upcoming ICSMT 2017: 19th International Conference on Surface-Mount Technologies. With its great combination of innovation, invention, talent, and manufacturing, the electronics industry in South Africa appears to be dynamic and thriving!
Cheryl is a reliability engineering consultant with over 20 years of experience in electronics manufacturing focusing on failure analysis and reliability.