The secret is in the DESign

Who invented the automotive assembly line? Everyone knows it was Henry Ford, right? Well, not exactly. Like a lot of things, the story is a little more complex. It is reported that the automotive assembly line was actually invented by Ransom Eli Olds. Olds had worked on cars for most of his life when he started to make his own. The use of an assembly line made him the first mass-producer of cars. The major reason why Henry Ford is thought to have invented the production line is because Ford took Olds’ idea and improved upon it, receiving a lot of press for doing so.

Ford’s lines assigned workers to one specific production task, each getting its own production station. When a car arrived at a station, the worker(s) would perform the specified task, doing it over and over for each unit that rolled by. The fact that each worker had one task and worked on just one car at a time allowed hundreds of cars to be built simultaneously throughout the factory.


The Directors of DESign South Africa Nick Herrmann, Rob Pereira, John Mulgrew and Dave Brookes. Seated is Bert Delaney

At Ford’s original factory, a Ford Model T could be assembled in 93 minutes from start to finish. In fact, every three minutes, a completed car rolled off the production line.

Speed aside, assembly lines are so remarkably efficient because of another important factor. Those making the product could be less skilled than previously required. For instance, instead of needing a worker that was a skilled machinist, all that a company needed was a person capable of performing one machine-related task, a task that was generally easy enough for just about anyone to learn. The process was faster and cheaper.

While the basic principles of automotive production lines are the same today, recent innovations have changed things a bit. The mechanisation of tools and parts have revolutionised assembly line production. Robots now perform some of the tasks that were formerly assigned to humans. Since production line work involves repetitive movements, it’s easy, and sometimes safer, for a robot to take over a role that a human used to perform.


DESign South Africa is one of the largest independent design and systems integration companies in South Africa


Design South Africa provides full turnkey solutions that includes design, manufacture, assembly and integration of all that goes into an automated line

Of course an assembly line is not entirely the domain of the automotive industry but it is high profile industry that has embraced automation and continues to take technology to new levels whenever it can. Many industries have automated their production and assembly lines over the years and will continue to so as all sorts of demands are put on them.

Understanding how to design an automated production, assembly or manufacturing line is one area of engineering – the tools available today to assist you are readily obtainable. However, it is another to offer a full turnkey solution that includes design, manufacture, assembly and integration of all that goes into a line. For example an assembly line is much more than welding. The line could require adhesive application, measuring and dispensing equipment, hardware fitment processes, clamps, fixtures, holders, jigs, tools, part counters, part feeders, robots and part positioners and many more, including all the electrical requirements. Key to the automation and coordination of all the components in a line is the controlling PLCs.

DESign South Africa is one of the largest independent design and systems integration companies in South Africa. DESign South Africa’s expertise includes process planning, electrical and mechanical design solutions, manufacture, simulation, robot programming, installation, commissioning, site support and project management. They are also proficient in manufacturing the required tooling, jigs and fixtures and they are able to engineer fully manual or automated production lines to suit each customer’s build requirements.

Originally founded in Hillcrest, KwaZulu Natal as a six-man operation in 1998, DESign South Africa initially sought to offer new options for process planning and mechanical design to the South African automotive industry, but has since grown into one of South Africa’s most reputable independent engineering and automation firms, employing 380 people across the country. The company’s success in the international market has also led it to open offices in Thailand, Germany and China.


Design South Africa has completed projects for many automotive OEM companies


Manufacture of jigs, fixtures and tooling is what Design South Africa provides as a service

DESign South Africa is possibly one of South Africa’s best kept success secrets, except for those in the know, boasting a number of custom solutions and installations for large international and national firms, as well as receiving a number of prestigious industry awards for cost-effective engineering and robotics solutions projects that they have completed at local and international facilities that have resulted in the company securing repeat business on a number of occasions.

These awards include Volkswagen South Africa’s Facilities Supplier of the Year on two occasions, Tenneco’s Supplier of the Year on two occasions and Toyota and GMSA’s indirect Supplier of the Year.

The projects completed include manufacturing, shipping and installing a R60 million body shop assembly line for the production of the B299 Ford Fiesta sedan and the B515 hatch for Ford Venezuela. This took place in 2012 and the multi-million rand full turnkey project is just one of a host of other achievements.

For Toyota, DESign South Africa has manufactured a wide range of jigs and tooling for the Corolla and Hilux vehicles. Other automotive OEMs where the company has completed projects include Volkswagen South Africa (VW 250 Polo), General Motors South Africa (Viva Chevrolet two door pick up and the M300 five door hatch back), BMW, Mercedes-Benz (W205 and Mitsubishi Triton) and Ford Motor Company in South Africa (Ranger T6).


The various sensor components that are used on the jigs and fixtures


Leica measuring equipment taking readings of a jig

“In June 2009, DESign South Africa was invited to quote and put forward a technical submission to Ford South Africa for the introduction of the new Ford Ranger at the Ford Silverton plant. The contract was awarded to us in December 2009. The line was designed and manufactured in Durban where testing also took place. The whole facility was then relocated to Ford’s Silverton plant and commissioned,” said Operations Director, Dave Brookes.

“Being awarded the R187 million Ford South Africa project proved a strategic achievement for DESign South Africa as we were the only South African company invited to bid and faced stiff competition from China, Korea and Germany. It was directly linked to the awarding of the Ford Venezuela contract and also led to the development of a relationship with Ford Russia with an order being placed. The project was commissioned at Ford near St Petersburg.”

DESign South Africa has also built up a strong relationship with Tenneco, one of the world’s leading designers, manufacturers and distributors of emission control and ride control products and systems for the automotive original equipment market and the aftermarket.

“We have developed and completed a number of turnkey automatic canning line cells for their plants in Europe, Japan, India and South Africa. These cells produce catalytic converters and take care of the measuring, sizing, wrapping, stuffing and the final marking of the product,” said Brookes.

“Our scope of work is not limited to the automotive industry, however. We have completed projects to supply tooling to Denel Aerostructures for the Airbus A400M contract and we also manufactured and supplied the tooling for a 36 metre long modular line at DCD for the assembly of their locomotives.”

New projects
DESign South Africa are currently involved in a number of projects but one that is keeping them focused is the installation of a body shop line for a number of areas for the next generation of the BMW that will be manufactured at BMW’s Rosslyn Plant in Pretoria, Gauteng.


Fixtures being measured by a Browne & Sharp Dea in the CMM room


DESign South Africa are currently involved in a number of projects but one that is keeping them focused is the installation of a body shop line for a number of areas for the next generation of the BMW that will be manufactured at BMW’s Rosslyn Plant in Pretoria, Gauteng. This is one of the company’s biggest assignments and it entails a complete turnkey project that includes jigs and fixtures, conveyors and the installation of approximately 150 welding and material handling robots

“This is one of our biggest assignments and it entails a complete turnkey project that includes jigs and fixtures, conveyors and the installation of approximately 150 welding and material handling robots. We will be engineering and manufacturing all the locally sourced items at our plant in Umbogintwini, KwaZulu Natal, before shipping to Rosslyn. This includes the many different sized robot bases and even the structural steel and platforms that are required. Before we ship though, we will conduct strict testing of all fixtures at our facility.”

“We are also in the initial negotiations with a development company for an investment at the Coega IDZ. The plant will manufacture pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and sedans for the African market.”

The rapid growth in orders for DESign South Africa has seen the company make a number of moves since it was established. In 2000, the company relocated from Hillcrest to a larger office in Westville. At the time company had 23 staff but has since grown by a further 357. These include 150 in the engineering department that is made up of mechanical, electrical, computer, structural and mechatronic engineers and system analysers. A further 200 are employed on the production floor and 30 in administration.”

“In 2003 we decided that if we were going to grow the company we would need to enter the manufacturing environment. As result we purchased an engineering company in Prospecton that was involved mainly in machining. This has now grown to include fabrication, electrical, painting and measuring departments. In 2006, these were combined under one roof at the current head office in Umbogintwini that includes engineering areas, a machining and assembly area, a fabrication facility and a storage area. The area under roof at the time was 2 500m² but this has been increased by a further 1 200m² in 2015 when we purchased the building next door.”

“Our first CNCs that we purchased back in 2004 were two Akira Seiki Performa’s from MJH Machine Tools and we are still using them today. We have added a Haas toolroom lathe and some other machines to the mix. Our latest acquisition from MJH Machine Tools is another Akira Seiki but this time we have gone bigger and purchased the Performa V8 XP vertical machining center with XYZ travels of 2060 x 850 x 815mm. We now have four Akira Seiki machining centers.”

“We have since added many other machines to grow our machine shop and maintain the required capacity to support our clients.”

Key to the company’s success has been its ability to integrate all the systems and equipment that it manufactures and sources from third parties. Bringing together the engineering and automation departments, including design, are a number of high-end software programmes and the engineers that use them, to ensure that the best technology and quality is achieved.


Design South Africa have recently purchased a Akira Seki Performa V8 XP vertical machining center with XYZ travels of 2060 x 850 x 815mm from MJH Machine Tools. They now have four Akira Seiki machining centers


An aluminium component being machined

“Competition requires each of us to improve what we do on a continuous basis, knowing that our competitors are doing the same. If our competitors are good they spend a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how to optimise what they do, down to the last detail. In order to be competitive, you must first have the top people – the real drivers. The top people come to you with a lifetime of practical experience, plus a great education. The top people must practice their craft constantly to stay on top, as their employer must continually expose them to the latest techniques and make sure their knowledge stays up to date with the latest technology. It’s costly, but it’s worth it. The company places a great deal of emphasis on upskilling staff and believes that optimising competence from its administrative centre to its shop floor will deliver on its key objectives.”

“Likewise with the high-end software that the engineers have at their disposal. High-end software is called “high end” because it’s exceptionally capable. We have the latest Catia, Unigraphics, Siemens simulation, Delmia and all the others for electrical, pneumatics, process, robotics and of course for programming the PLCs. For example, the robots that we include in a line are supplied by the various robot manufacturers but we create the ‘smart-end’ programming software for the PLC that runs those robots, whether they are going to do spot welding or material handling. We do not rely on the robot manufacturer to supply the solution.”

“The latest software package that we have deployed is virtual commissioning. Today’s highly automated and flexible manufacturing systems are all controlled by programmable logic controller (PLC) programmes that include sophisticated tooling, robots, transfer lines and other safety equipment. PLC programming allows manufacturers to alter production lines without having to completely retool the entire facility. However, whenever changes are made, engineers still have to integrate the new product into the existing line, with minimal disruption to the existing facility.”


Welding of fixtures and jigs plays a big part at Design South Africa

“With the Siemens Tecnomatix virtual commissioning solutions, you can debug your PLC codes on a virtual environment before downloading them to real equipment. By simulating and validating your automation equipment virtually, you can confirm that they will work as expected and significantly reduce system startup time.”

DESign South Africa has other facilities situated within South Africa to provide additional facilities and local support for their customers. The Port Elizabeth building offers 2 000m² of office and manufacturing space, and the Johannesburg and Pretoria buildings currently offer over 1 000m² of office and manufacturing space.

“Further growth is definitely on the cards in years to come, says Brookes. “DESign South Africa has maintained steady growth both financially and in personnel. We are continuing with our efforts to broaden our customer base and to continue to supply the high quality products and good service on which we have built our reputation,” concluded Brookes.

For further details contact DESign South Africa on TEL: 031 914 3120 or visit