Is the future of transport here?
Ideas from two innovative South African firms are making it possible to change the way goods get transported from A to B
Andries Louw, founder and MD of transport technology firm Milotek, is thinking big. "I want to provide African cities with a congestion-free, automated mass-transport solution that operates profitably at fares of under US5c/person/km," he says.
That ambitious plan would compete with rail and road transport solutions that are the mainstay for moving passengers and freight.
Louw, a former divisional CEO at IT group EOH, is well on his way to meeting his goal. His solution is Futran, an elevated track system he terms "revolutionary."
The fully automated, motorised units used on the track are designed to transport a range of containers, or "pods", suspended under them. The pods can be used to transport passengers or for moving freight loads of up to 20t. The track system can be suspended above an existing right of way.
"We have created a switching system that has no moving parts," says Louw. "It enables units to run close to each other even though they will take different routes."
Development of Futran was not an overnight affair. Fortunately, Louw received financial help from Imperial Holdings through its innovation fund. Today, Imperial is Milotek’s majority shareholder.
Developing the Futran operating system was not Louw’s only challenge. He also had to develop a low-cost, steel construction method for the aerial track system.
He came up with the Solomon’s knot cross beam. "It needs no welding or bolting and cuts the cost of steel used by half compared with conventional steel beams," says Louw. "I am patenting it globally. It has a wide range of applications in construction of high-rise buildings and towers."
Next came a few years of testing and refining the system on a 1km test track near Brits. Now Futran is ready to be commercialised.
Milotek’s first move is not into passenger transport but into the mining sector. It is building a 2.7km line of Futran track at a coal mine in Mpumalanga. Once it is completed in January 2018, it will transport 4.2Mt of coal a year from a coal washing plant to a Transnet loading point, where it will continue its journey by train. Louw believes the solution will result in cost savings for the mine of up to 50% against the road transport solution that is currently used to move the coal.
Milotek’s 20-year contract with the mine represents a modest scale application of its full potential. With a two-track layout the Futran system is capable of transporting up to 250Mt/year.
Milotek is still refining its system. "For a two-track system, construction costs are about R15m-R20m/km and we believe we can get this down to about R10m/km," says Louw. "Even now nothing else can compete with us on costs, particularly given the high tonnages we can move."
Another refinement is on its way. "Our system is ideally suited for solar power generation," he says. "Solar panels can be placed above or under the track system."
Louw’s goal is to see Futran applied in mass public transport. "We are making a lot of progress in SA and are in talks with the City of Durban and the Gauteng transport department," says Louw.
Technology of a different type is being applied by Cape Town-based Linebooker. A spinoff from the innovation arm of cold-storage specialist CCS Logistics, a part of Tiger Brands-controlled Oceana, Linebooker wants to improve the efficiency of road transport.
"We launched in October 2016 but only began our big push into the market this year," says Naudé Rademan, Linebooker CEO and the system developer.
In essence, Linebooker is a bidding system that brings trucking companies and transport users together on an online platform. Trucking companies have two hours in which to submit bids for the work on offer, says Rademan.
For Linebooker, the reward is a fee based on the size of the contract awarded. Up to a R2,000 contract earns it R100 while the maximum fee, R1,500, is charged to trucking companies on contracts over R50,001.
Linebooker has taken off fast. "We have completed 967 deliveries and are growing exponentially," says Rademan. Big names such as Shoprite, Lucky Star and Heinz are already on board as users.
For transport users, Linebooker’s attraction is lower costs. On average a 13% saving is achieved, with some savings as high as 21%.
Savings are achieved through streamlining the bidding and contracting process. "The current system is very manual and entails lots of phone calls and a huge amount of paper work," says Rademan. "On our system, once a customer hits the yes button on a bid we do all the rest."
For truckers, the big attraction is payment within 15 days. "It normally takes 30-40 days and even longer," says Rademan.
It is here that Linebooker is said to stand out worldwide as a unique service. "We take on the payment risk," says Rademan.