Thinking inside the box

Power outages continue to affect every aspect of our lives and economy.

Businesses – both large and small – have been battling to survive and many smaller firms have gone under. Eskom has taken us to the brink of an economic shutdown. This is a classic case of putting the interests of the powerful before the interests of the people. South Africa’s economy is in for a tough time as the energy crisis worsens. We simply must break the Eskom monopoly, before it breaks South Africa.

While Eskom and municipalities are struggling with funding for new projects and maintenance, we lose sight of the fact that electricity theft remains a serious challenge for South Africa, with annual losses suffered by Eskom and municipalities in excess of R5.4 billion per year. This figure does not include the consequential losses suffered by households and businesses as a result of power outages due to overloading of the national grid through electricity theft, loss of productivity, damaged appliances and most of all – the loss of innocent lives due to electrocution.

Municipalities, which are currently estimated to owe Eskom more than R1 billion, are also becoming more and more at risk due to electricity theft and non-payment, resulting in them not being able to collect the revenue required to supply their customers with electricity, and to pay their power bills to Eskom.


In addition to the physical dangers posed by illegal electricity connections, they also represent a portion of Eskom’s so-called “non-technical losses”. Non-technical losses also include non-payment, fraud, pre-paid electricity vouchers from stolen vending machines, and illegal electrification schemes. About 32% of all electricity delivered by City Power Johannesburg is lost to theft and non-payment, according to electricity experts. If these non-technical losses could be eliminated, peak demand would be reduced enough to completely eliminate the need for load shedding, they say.

However, South Africa’s war against electricity theft is gaining momentum and hitting perpetrators of this crime hard.

A shining light
A shining light in all this chaos is Lulatec, a structural steel products fabrication company that has been very involved in the power industry, both with Eskom and the municipalities, supplying them with secure metering enclosures and bird diverters for the power-line industry.

“We manufacture overhead and ground mounted secure metering enclosures to suit various installation configurations for electrical utilities to client’s specification. The process entails in house design, fabrication, painting (outsourced), plinth design and delivery,” said Jabu Ndleve, one of the original founders of the business.

“Anybody can manufacture the enclosures. The production enclosures are the bread-and-butter jobs for numerous fabricators. They cut the blank, bend it into a box, and weld it up so efficiently that some of the workers can probably do the job blindfolded.”


Secure metering enclosures manufactured by Lulatec waiting to be dispatched


On the shopfloor at Lulatec is a DMG Mori DMC 1035 V ecoline milling machine that has a XYZ axis of 635 x 510 x 460mm, spindle speed range up to 8000 rpm, a Siemens 840D SL control with ShopMill and table dimensions of 560 x 790mm

“They could be supplied as a raw material structure but because of the locations where they are installed, which brings the aesthetic look into consideration, they are generally powder coated and galvanised, thereby ensuring there is rust prevention and a longer lifespan.”

But what about the components inside the box?

“Most shops aren’t involved in that. A few, meanwhile, have jumped into the electronics assembly, where they pull the parts together and assemble the final box before it’s shipped to the customer. And a select few actually make some of the electronic components that are put into the enclosure. Some companies don’t even know where their products are being used. They manufacture them, supply them to another entity who might or might not add some value, and then leave it at that.”

“Not only are most existing enclosures easily vandalised and opened by thieves, but children and adults are sometimes electrocuted in the process. Our secure metering enclosures assist utilities and municipalities to control, monitor, access and enhance their revenue collection.”

“Access and monitoring is done via GSM/PLC controlled devices which enables full activity control by the end-user, including data logging and real time interrogation.”

“This is the area where we believe we are a step ahead of the rest, and stand out more than other fabrication shops in an industry where one metal fabricating shop is rarely an exact copy of another. We offer a full service of design, manufacture and maintenance of the enclosures. The only aspect we are not involved in is installation. We like to think of ourselves as a boutique electronics technology solutions provider in the fabrication environment.”

“The enclosures can still be vandalised, but it’s more difficult these days.”

“We have concentrated on the electronic aspects, including the circuit boards – what’s inside the box. Pulling together the electronics and metal parts is relatively easy. However it is what the electronics do and offer that is becoming more attractive to clients.”


Components machined on the DMG Mori DMC 1035 V ecoline milling machine supplied by Retecon Machine Tools


In the bending department Lulatec has a TruBend 7036 press brake that has a bending length of 1020mm, a throat of 150mm, usable height of 295mm and press force of 360kN

“For example the units now have heat and vibration sensors, as well as three-phase power monitoring. They can be controlled remotely and, if tampering is detected, security can be dispatched immediately.”

“One of the enclosures’ biggest advantages is that utilities like Eskom, which need to access the meter boxes, can do so by tapping a code into a cellphone or via an ISO card to open the doors.”

As a result, the company’s secure metering enclosures are in demand as the problem of thieves stealing electricity is a headache for municipalities and utilities like Eskom.

A little history
It wouldn’t be fair to describe how Lulatec became this doubly talented shop without saying that the company actually had its own product lines during the early days of the business. Jabu is a talented electrical engineer who created items such as bird diverters for the power-line industry before he won a contract to supply 6 500 of the enclosures to Johannesburg City Power.

That really is the basis for how Lulatec established its electronics and manufacturing capabilities. This tale of two manufacturing worlds actually goes a little farther back on the metal fabricating side.

Jabu completed his electrical engineering diploma at the University of Johannesburg before joining Eskom. He worked in the sub-station environment for four years before starting his own electrical contracting business. His emphasis at the time was high voltage sub-stations, which included both the electrical and structural components.

“Our structural capabilities were limited in the beginning and we relied on others. That was until I got the opportunity to purchase some second hand equipment from the workshop that was closing down at the Kelvin Power Station.”


Lulatec recently purchased a Trumpf fiber laser cutting machine, which is capable of cutting a wide range of flat material up to 12mm including stainless steel, mild steel, aluminium, copper and brass


Amongst the other equipment Lulatec has is a Trumpf TruBend 3120 press brake which has a bending length of 3110mm, a Haeger fastener insertion machine and an Ermaksan press brake

“This was in 2001. I had always wanted to venture into the manufacturing side and as result I established Lulatec, which at the time was a small fabrication shop being driven by the electrical contracting company. For the first six months we operated from the Kelvin Power Station site before moving to the West Rand. We rented for four years before moving to another rented, but bigger, factory in Kya Sands.”

“The initial equipment we purchased was three iron workers and we were generally doing boilermaking fabrication. If we were to move forward we had to invest and we subsequently purchased a Ficep 124T, a CNC machine for punching, marking and shearing of angles, and an Ermaksan press brake from Retecon Machine Tools.”

“That was in 2007. With the tools at hand Lulatec’s turnover improved, so we began sourcing new clients and obtaining bigger contracts. Our staff compliment went up to as much as 30 and the decision to increase our fabrication business was justified.”

“However a downturn in the market in 2008 forced everyone to look at their own operations and free up cash anywhere they could, and for many that meant eliminating excess inventory. We unfortunately had to close Lulatec but we kept the equipment as I am an optimist and thought one day it would once again be operational.”

Other projects
“Fortunately with the skills that I have on the technical side and a bit of entrepreneurship I had been working on other projects. These included the design and development of the bird diverters for the power-line industry, and acrylic pole covers for streetlight poles.”

“The bird diverters are usually secured on electrical transmission pylons but can be used for various other industrial and consumer applications. They are made from plastic so that gives them a long lifespan and do exactly what they are supposed to do – stop birds from roosting or perching on the structures.”

“The pole covers are designed to meet the standard street light poles up to 300mm wide, are made of an acrylic material with a UV stabiliser and are water and moisture sealed.”


Secure metering enclosures in production


Lulatec has had a Ficep 124T, a CNC machine for punching, marking and shearing of angles, for some time

“Both of these products kept us going during the lean times. When I say us, I include my wife Molebatsi whom I had met when she was a manager for a construction company and was responsible for infrastructure installation for City Power and Eskom projects, providing services that included the management of cable laying and commissioning.”

“Molebatsi joined me as my business partner when I established Lulatec.”

Enclosures with intelligence
“My work on the design and development of the secure metering enclosures began back in 2006. It was not until 2012 that I had a breakthrough with them when I secured the contract to manufacture 6 500 units for City Power.”

“The manufacturing side was immediately revived and because we had a time period to complete the project more investment in equipment, to complement our existing machines, was required. The fabrication work of the first 1 000 enclosures was outsourced. This gave us time to source the new machines that we needed for these operations, as well as setup the assembly area.”


Lulatec has an electronics division where cables and wiring are cut to size, soldered where necessary and the circuit boards are formatted


Owner Jabu Ndleve

“The pressure was on to prove our capabilities. Additionally we wanted to create a reputation that we had the potential to compete in the manufacturing area. In today’s manufacturing environment, demands are always increasing. New responsibilities add stress to the point that you may feel overwhelmed. These demands originate from both internal and external sources. For these reasons we decided that we needed to invest in equipment that would lower our stress levels and facilitate our production performance.”

“The arrival of our new machines, which includes a Trumpf laser and press brake and a DMG Mori DMC 1035 V ecoline milling machine, certainly set us up to raise productivity without compromising on quality. We were now able to cut to size the external panels and the internal box panels on the 3 by 1,5 metre laser, bend where necessary, and on the DMG Mori we are able to manufacture the numerous components needed, such as the gears for the locks. Again all these machines were supplied by Retecon Machine Tools.”

“Additionally we purchased a Haeger fastener insertion machine, a Kasto bandsaw and set up a number of welding stations.”

“We also had to start the electronics division, where cables and wiring are cut to size, soldered where necessary and the circuit boards are formatted, from scratch. I had experience in this aspect so it was not a monumental task.”

“Only the powder-coating, galvanising and electroplating is outsourced.”


Although fabricating and forming is an integral service that Lulatec offers, the company concentrates on being ahead of the game with the development and new services that the components inside the box offer


Secure metering enclosures can either be floor or wall mounted

“All this investment has allowed us to complete the City Power contract within the specified time period, and hopefully it will bode well for us for future projects with them.”

“During the period of the contract we were not idle in trying to secure other work. We did not want to end up in a similar position as we encountered in in 2008. So we spent time on designing prototypes for other organisations and municipalities. We are grateful that we have been able to secure some sizeable orders as a result.”

“The enclosures are manufactured in stainless steel, mild steel and 3CR12, depending on client requirements, and come with a locking mechanism, metering panels, GSM/PLC communication devices and, as said previously, these days with heat and vibration sensors, as well as three-phase power monitoring. The electronic side is constantly being developed with more and more end-user data logging and real time interrogation being included.”

Other services
“We are not in the market to be a service centre, but with the equipment that we have on the shopfloor we are able to seek other projects. Our Trumpf fiber laser cutting machine is capable of cutting a wide range of flat material up to 12mm. This includes stainless steel, mild steel, aluminum, copper and brass.”

“We have the necessary tools and equipment to fabricate pylons, structural steel for the electrical, transport, telecommunication and building industries. This includes precision angle iron products from a thickness of 3 to 16mm, and a width of 35mm to 160mm.”

The other services on the fabrication side include bending, punching, marking, slotting, cutting, notching and cropping of various beams, tubes, solids and channels of various sizes. Our saw cutting is a fully hydraulic automatic CNC with the following capabilities:

• Mitre cutting from -45 to +60 degrees
• Memory up to 99 jobs
• At 90 degrees, cutting range 230 (rounds), 300 X 170 (rectangles) and 220 X 220 (squares)

“Then there is the insertion of studs, stand outs and various fastening applications in all metal grades.”

“Our DMG Mori DMC 1035 V ecoline milling machine has the following capabilities:

• XYZ axis of 635 x 510 x 460mm
• Speed range up to 8000 rpm
• It has a Siemens 840D SL control with ShopMill and
• Table dimensions of 560 x 790mm

“We can weld components in all material grades, and unlike many general engineering shops we have an electronics division.”

“We also employ SolidWorks and Sigmanest as our CAD/CAM software.”

“Going forward we are seriously looking at investing in CNC tube bending, cutting and forming capabilities which will give us more options for the company to develop high end designer type products, while at the same offering these services to defined markets by innovating and/or custom making to client requirements.”

This 100% black owned and a Level 1 BBBEE contributor is based in Longmeadow Business Estate, Edenvale, Johannesburg and employees 55 staff.

For further details contact Lulatec on TEL: 086 111 2917 or visit