Brian Joss – It’s 5.30am at Ford’s vehicle assembly plant in Silverton, east of Pretoria, and veteran Motorvia driver Samukelo Mthethwa is preparing to hit the open road.
He’s just spent around three hours loading and securing seven new Ranger pickups onto the double-deck open trailer attached to his truck.
As a driver, Mthethwa is responsible not only for driving the truck, but also for the loading and unloading of its cargo. The rig uses hydraulically operated ramps, which can be tilted to maximize the available space by tucking the end of one vehicle under another. Some vehicles are backed onto the trailer while others are driven in nose first. With more than 10 years of experience under his belt, Mthethwa has this routine down to a fine art.
These seven Rangers are destined for export to the UK. The 640 km journey to Durban Harbour will take him around 11 hours, with compulsory stops on the way. Once he has unloaded all seven pickups into a secure parking lot in the harbour precinct, he’ll be able to call it a day.
Delivery to one of Ford’s 140 dealerships in South Africa, Swaziland, Namibia, and Botswana is a bit more complicated. Dealers order specific vehicles from the plant, and these are loaded in reverse order based on the planned delivery schedule, which includes each dealership en route to the truck’s final destination.
Much of Mthethwa’s trip will be along the N3 highway, which is one of the country’s most important economic arteries. He will have to make a compulsory stop at the Heidelberg Traffic Control Centre, where all south-bound trucks are checked for overloading and roadworthiness before getting further down the route. Van Reenen’s Pass is the most notorious and dangerous section of the N3. The long, steep descent is harsh on braking systems, and according to N3 Toll Concession, the company responsible for managing this section of the highway, wind can reach speeds of 141 km/h up the pass and start blowing trucks over at 126 km/h, and snow can render it impassable.
During his trip, dispatchers in Motorvia’s central monitoring office and control centres around the country will be tracking the movement of his truck via GPS technology to ensure it doesn’t deviate from its route. In the event of a hijacking, which is a serious concern in this industry, a control centre will immediately activate response teams for recovery.
“Around 720 vehicles leave our plant every day, about 80 per cent of which are destined for export,” says Ockert Berry, VP Operations, Ford Middle East and Africa. “While domestic vehicle sales are still an essential component of our business, we have strategically mapped our revenue pipeline to target exports and drive export-oriented growth.”
Ford exports vehicles to more than 100 left-hand drive and right-hand drive markets in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Mexico. The locally-built Ranger is the top-selling pickup in Europe, and South Africa’s top-ranking light commercial vehicle export.
Due to unprecedented demand for the Ranger globally, and an increase in production capacity on the back of a recent R3-billion investment, Ford, together with Transnet, evaluated how a multi-port strategy could benefit both parties by improving the use of current assets and reducing costs, as well as addressing the ongoing congestion in Durban Harbour, by utilising other ports.
“Up until the first quarter of 2019, all incoming and outbound Ford vehicles were shipped through Durban Harbour,” says Berry. “It has South Africa’s largest Roll-on Roll-off terminal and is the best equipped in the Southern Hemisphere. However, it has become increasingly congested, and so, in April, we broadened our outbound logistics portfolio by adopting a multi-port strategy to support increased export volumes. We are now also shipping Rangers to markets in Europe twice a month from Port Elizabeth Harbour.”
In total, Ford charters 15 to 20 incoming and outbound vessels a month. These dedicated car carriers, also known as Ro-Ro ships, have built-in ramps which allow vehicles to be easily driven on and off. Vehicles are driven directly into the ship via an internal ramp system to multi-level decks, where they are securely lashed to the floor so they can’t budge an inch during their long ocean voyage.
Traditionally, Port Elizabeth-based automakers transported their vehicles to Gauteng by rail, and these rail assets returned to Port Elizabeth empty. Ford has engineered backhauls – using the return leg of the rail journey to transport export Rangers from Gauteng to Port Elizabeth – which both improves efficiencies and shortens delivery times. Rail is a practical and cost-effective solution for moving large numbers of vehicles using specially designed rail cars called auto racks.
“The cost of vehicle transport logistics, including pressure from rising fuel prices, is substantial enough to warrant constant attention and innovation,” says Berry. “We are continuously looking at ways to increase efficiency and drive costs down, to mitigate whatever happens in the economy and the supply base.”
It’s now 05:45 and Mthethwa climbs into the driver’s seat, honks the horn – a sound he’s loved since he was a little boy – and hits the gas, pointing the nose of his 18-wheeler to the main gate, towards the asphalt ribbon beyond. He takes a last swig of coffee, selects a favourite playlist, and looks forward to filling his lungs with balmy sea air when he reaches his destination.