Electro-Rail on the fast track

Judging from recent activity, Electro-Rail (Pty) Ltd has been making good on its commitment to make whatever strategic capital equipment investments are necessary to improve service to customers.

During the past four years alone, the company, which has experienced average year-on-year growth of 45% in the recent past, has installed several new machine tools and increased its factory size by 1 400 m² to cope with the several big contracts that the company has won.

The management team at Electro-Rail has seen the manufacturing landscape in the company change greatly since they opened shop in a garage in Brakpan, Gauteng in 1997. A strong management team, the ability to offer a variety of ancillary manufacturing services, advanced machining equipment, and expert engineering and design skills have helped it grow to become a shop with a diversified customer base and big plans for the future.


Blowout coils for DC line switches

“When we purchased the assets of a company that consisted of two fly presses and two pedestal drills we had no idea that we would end up where we are today,” said partner Vincent van Eyk.

“At the time when we took this bold decision in our lives I was working in the rail industry and, my partner Edwin Lerwill, was working at a company that was involved in manufacturing replacement parts and spares for heavy electro-mechanical equipment.”

“Our stint in the garage only lasted three months before we were forced to move into a factory complex because of the increase in orders that we had managed to win. In 2000 we moved to our current location when we purchased this facility. There have been a number of alterations and additions over the years since we took ownership, including increasing working space by erecting mezzanine floors. With our recent rental of the factory behind us we now have close to 4 000 m² to work with and we hope this will satisfy our requirements for the near future.”


When Electro-Rail purchased their first CNC machining centre the exchange rate was R11.50 to the US Dollar. A year later the exchange rate was R7.40

“Due to the high value of the materials that we work with, all along we have had to be very cognizant of our security arrangements. These are very tight.”

CNC equipment

“In the early years we were limited to using conventional equipment but in 1999 we took the decision to purchase our first CNC lathe, a Daewoo. There was some hesitation until we began to use it. As first-time users of CNC, we anticipated a long learning curve, and we were concerned about its impact on our productivity. However, we quickly found that our learning curve was minimal.”

“In total we now have 22 CNCs running. The mix of machines includes 12 lathes and 10 machining centres.”

“Although 55% of our mix of products that we machine and sub assemble in certain instances are electromechanical and general engineering components for the rail and mining markets in South and sub-Saharan Africa, we are by no means limited to these areas of industry. We regard ourselves as a general engineering job shop and are geared to do production runs as well as one-offs.”


The company has recently purchased a Samsung PL-240B CNC turning centre with an 8″ chuck, 510 mm maximum swing diameter over the bed, 360 mm maximum swing diameter over the cross slide, 350 mm maximum turning diameter, 540 mm maximum turning length and 66 mm bar capacity

“For the rail and mining markets our main products include new and refurbished brush holders, new and re-tipped contacts, switch gear components, brush boxes, DC traction and auxiliary motor components, fan components, connectors and busbars, slip rings, insulators and pole shoes. Wherever these components, or similar ones, are used in industry you will find that we have supplied.”

“Other components we manufacture currently or have done include backshells, balance weights, brackets, brush arms, brush rings, cables, electrical cam couplers, cleats, coils, fasteners, grommets, insulators, keys, locking plates, lugs, spring carriers, springs and brush terminals.”

“What we do pride ourselves on is identifying imports that can be manufactured locally and then designing the tooling and fixtures for local manufacture. We have won a number of sizeable contracts because of this strategy and we intend to follow the same path going forward.”


The company has a number of Doosan CNC machining centres and lathes supplied by Puma Machine Tools

“With the type of clients that we deal with, which include Transnet, PRASA, LH Marthinusen, Reid & Mitchell, Actom and Union Carriage, they demand high-quality finishes and service. As a result we do not operate a just-in-time system but rather we keep stock levels relatively high, particularly on repeat components. It does mean that we have money sitting on the shelves but we would rather be in this position and able to deliver promptly.”

“Like many other machine shops we do have clients demanding unrealistic delivery times but as we say to them if they expect such short delivery times, particularly on new projects, it would mean that our shop is standing idle waiting for their orders. So they have to be fair and understanding. We do however assist clients with urgent breakdowns where necessary.”

Change to investment castings

“The mix of our components is both relatively big and small with a bigger emphasis on small. In the past we have mainly focused on sand castings and forged components but there has been a definite swing in our shop towards investment castings.”

“If you’re machining components out of bar metal, castings or forgings chances are it’s costing you a lot of extra time and money. If those parts require extensive machining, you could be losing significant money in scrap, especially if you’re using pricey metals or alloys.”


Electro-Rail has just installed two Samsung lathes, both of them equipped with a bar feeder. They have been set up in a cell with one operator tending to both machines

“An increasing number of shops that make metal parts that are intricate, require extensive machining or are produced repetitively or in limited quantities, are finding that investment casting is the ideal solution.”

“Investment casting offers a variety of alloys while saving finishing time and material waste. The process can also enable a company to combine two or more parts into a single piece, saving on fabrication, welding or assembly and machining time. The range of metals and alloys that can be investment-cast is broad, including low-cost alloys such as carbon and many tool steels or costly alloys such as aluminium, stainless steel, hastalloy, cobalt and Inconel.”


A gear bogie case for a PRASA 5M2 motor coach that has been fabricated by the company


A fan hub machined by Electro-Rail

“When it comes to making metal parts, investment casting can provide a high return on investment for your shop and customers. Somewhat overlooked today, investment casting – forming metal parts in disposable moulds – offers opportunities to create “near-net shape” parts of virtually any metal, even in low quantities.”

“Investment casting is an ideal process for those who fabricate or use metal parts repetitively, whether intricate shapes or components that require precise tolerances. If those parts weigh between 30 grams and 13 kilograms, they can be investment-cast in close tolerances with surfaces that require little finishing.”

“As opposed to forming parts from bar metal, investment casting is also beneficial for fabricators who want to combine components into a single piece or use pricey metals and want to avoid wasted material while minimizing machine time.”


Copper contacts for DC line switches that are machined on a Victor Fortune VCenter 205 CNC vertical machining centre. The machine has been designed with a long fixed table to provide multi-tasking machining precision with 30m/min rapid traverse in all axes. The traveling column enables pendulum loading and machining in cycle to reduce load/unload times and to maximise spindle utilisation

“I suppose that some fabricators look at the somewhat higher initial cost and don’t realise all the savings of investment casting in time and materials, saving money in the long run. Plus, they can produce a better component.”

“There will always be a call for machining sand castings and forgings, as well as machining from bar or blanks, and we will continue to do so where it is not feasible to change to investment castings, but with the costs of the moulds and dies rocketing we are tending to look for components that can be done the investment casting way.”

Two bar-fed Samsung lathes

“To contradict myself on investment castings we have just installed two Samsung lathes, both of them equipped with a bar feeder. They have been set up in a cell with one operator tending to both machines.”


61 traction motor brush holders

“The production quantities that we will be running are large and getting the most pieces from the bar is important to us. From the standpoint of productivity, using a bar feeder will help reduce labour costs because the machine can be left unattended for longer periods. There is less likelihood that the machines will run out of material and be idled 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there and so on.”


Over time Electro-Rail has also been increasing its fabrication offerings. This has come about through client requests. The company is now able to offer TIG and MIG welding and other operations using their hydraulic presses, drilling machines and light bending and rolling machines.

Typical products that the company is manufacturing include fans, metal tops and motor commutator covers.


Electro-Rail staff being trained on a Couth portable pin marker machine supplied by Marking Engineering


Partners Vincent van Eyk and Edwin Lerwill with shareholder Andre Gous in the centre

“In today’s manufacturing environment, it’s survival of the fittest. This division has been evolving over the years. These contracts have become, quite literally, an extension of the machining services that we offer our OEM clients. It makes sense, particularly when there is a shop like ours, with a well-defined expertise, offering quality and service. The company is a job shop, true, but it’s a job shop serving a specific industry and providing specific skill sets. So a client will become comfortable dealing with you and he will expect you to offer more than just machining. For many job shops, the difference between extinction and survival lies in the flexibility of process that yields good parts.”

Larger floor space

“The fabrication shop is one of the main reasons that we rented the building behind us. It gave us the opportunity to move all the fabrication equipment, as well as our conventional equipment, into this building. This has now freed up space in the other building so we can optimise the workflow for our CNC machining department. And it will of course allow us to buy more machines.”


Various components machined and manufactured by Electro-Rail

Currently Electro-Rail employs 120 staff, has been ISO 9001-2008 accredited since December 2008 and is a level 7 BBBEE contributor.

For further details contact Electro-Rail on TEL: +27 (11) 827 4619 or visit www.electrorail.co.za