Controlab PTY (LTD): Road testing to a new level

The South African Government’s push for infrastructure improvements has created a raft of opportunities for construction-related companies. Of course to fully grasp the nettle, businesses need to be well positioned and prepared for growth – and in most cases the need for expertise is another pre-requisite. Such is the lot of Controlab, a business with its roots in the 1960s but with a firm grasp of 21st Century technology in the field of science.

ControlabHeadOfficeHeadquartered in East London, the company provides a broad range of laboratory testing on soils, aggregates, bitumen, asphalt, concrete and geotechnical investigations, which are essential in determining issues like the composition and structure of buildings or road surfaces. And that of course is good news for Controlab, given the ongoing impetus for road improvements, driven by the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL), as Marinus Proudfoot, Managing Director and CEO explains:

“We work on the civil engineering side and our technical labs do the geological and geotechnical testing to ensure that materials meet required standards in terms of composition and acidity. We cover a broad variety of industries but mainly work for Government departments, road agencies, consulting and geotechnical engineers, contractors and builders.”

Controlab started out in 1965 as a part of a consulting engineering firm in East London, which included a testing laboratory. Over time it was decided that this part of the business should operate separately to break away from the perception that it was tied to a specific engineer – and following a number of name changes, Controlab came into the collective conscience in April 1990.

Today the business still has its main laboratory located in East London and operates branch laboratories in Port Elizabeth, Mthatha, Kokstad and Cape Town. In March 2010 the company launched Controlab Zambia Ltd. in response to Zambia’s rapid infrastructure development; with a laboratory based in Lusaka, the business is able to analyse civil engineering materials and provide geotechnical testing services.

Significantly, the company also operates a number of site laboratories around South Africa, which have helped Controlab to develop an excellent reputation for working relationships on-site, while allowing the company to add value to the service.

“In total we have 12-13 laboratories at the moment but our site labs are temporary, usually sited for between 18 months and three years,” describes Proudfoot. “The buildings are supplied by the contractor on site – which is usually SANRAL; and we bring the equipment and once built, the labs are audited by the Roads Agency,” he adds.

Deon Louw, engineering technologist with Controlab adds that these relationships are enhanced by the level of expertise the company can offer: “One of the things that makes us different is that we can add services closely related to each project. For example, we have a qualified environmentalist who is fully versed on legislative requirements and can assist clients with complicated issues.

“Above and beyond that our labs can analyse and also make recommendations based on test results. John Atterbury and I spend a lot of time not only giving companies the results of our tests but also explaining what this means to them – and that is because we have professional people in our organisation that have the experience within industry to explain the implications. We are also sometimes asked to help in the design of concrete or asphalt composition and we are comfortable helping with this because we can fully understand the needs of each customer.”

The testing processes are diverse and consequently the equipment used is also varied. The company conducts a broad range of tests and each process has been critically analysed to ensure Controlab maintains its SANAS accreditation (ISO/IEC 17025), which was first awarded in February 2008 and covers over twenty different testing procedures.

This accreditation is essential for any company looking to do work in South Africa, particularly with Government agencies. Controlab has devised a meticulous system of daily checks on equipment for calibration and wear and tear, as John Atterbury, geotechnical technologist and laboratory manager describes: “We have a mixture of equipment depending on the type of investigation we are undertaking. For example for geotechnical work we may engage earthmoving equipment, while on smaller road upgrade projects there may be more local labour deployed. Samples are brought back to the main laboratories where we use specialist equipment to determine composition, stability and settlement.

“The tests will look at particle size and composition through hydrometers and we still use Casagrande apparatus for Atterburg limit testing which was designed back in the 1930’s. We also use centrifuges and presses and more specialist equipment for strength testing; most of the equipment is purchased locally and we are constantly testing calibration and carrying out preventative maintenance to prolong its life span, although some of the equipment for, say nuclear gages (which provide density measurements), has to be taken to the suppliers for regular calibration. We are now starting to look at manufacturing our own equipment where practical, which will help us to increase our capacity as demand increases.

“We are extremely regulated and maintaining our SANAS accreditation is vital to the business,” he continues, “we are audited on a regular basis but also have our own Quality Assurance Manager,Ricky Naidoo . We present accurate results which will assist in making sound engineering decisions, not only must they be accurate, but traceable in accordance with audit standards.

“There is a huge requirement to ensure that our daily checks are correct so we have introduced systems to check that nothing goes wrong. We have to check everything before we can start testing every day.”

Maintaining SANAS standards is one of the main pressures Controlab faces – along with the need to retain a competent workforce. Much of the work is mathematical, involving calculations and formulae and finding the necessary skills to recruit the next generation of laboratory managers is an ongoing challenge, as Proudfoot explains:

“We are going through exciting times and it is a great time to be here and in this industry. SANRAL is embarking on an aggressive campaign to upgrade all the national roads. There are lots of developments across the whole Southern African region and we have enjoyed significant growth in the last two to three years consequently.

“However, the availability of competent lab managers is an issue and we have to educate people to ensure we can meet demand. We are trying to address this issue and we are training the younger echelon of technicians to become the next managers.”

Controlab also maintains close links with universities in East London and Pretoria, providing facilities for students to carry out practical work – which benefits students and the company alike. Universities are also able to given the company an idea of students with an interest in materials, who might prove future qualified candidates.

Whilst Controlab in its various guises has built a solid reputation over nearly fifty years, there is plenty of competition within the marketplace. Pye van Heerden, Operations Manager, says that one of Controlab’s key strengths is its independent ownership:

“Marinus came into the company in 1986 and since then we have nurtured a close knit culture for all 180 employees. There is a personal relationship between the top dog and the person testing in the laboratory and within our company everybody is a face to touch point. That sets us apart and means we have an extremely low turnover of staff meaning we retain our knowledge and expertise.”

With the right skill sets and appropriate numbers in place, Controlab is set fair for a fabulous future, including an expanded footprint across the SADAC region according to Proudfoot: “Zambia is a recent development and we are now looking at a second investment – the real challenge comes from investment in human capital and skills. Mozambique offers another possibility, in particular the northern part of the country where development of a new port along with existing gas drilling offers us lots of scope.”