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This blog contains the popular commentary "An Engineer's View" which is a regular feature of SA Mechanical Engineer. The commentary reflects the personal views of SAIMechE members, typically those who have accepted leadership positions in the Institution.

 

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Top tags: an engineer's view  Chris Reay  engineering education  engineering profession 

That was the year that was

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 05 December 2016

As we come to the end of another year, we must reflect on its having been a bad year in many respects.

The engineering profession has seen unparalleled demise of jobs across the board. Mass retrenchments under section 189 rules have effected most of the large employers. The radical decline in new projects is evident. It has demonstrated the impact that our mining industry’s demise has had on the whole downstream industry.

We are stuck in a hiatus of no growth, unclear policies and government more concerned with political agendas than real demonstrable action to get the economy moving. The protests affecting higher education are a major worry as the effects on education and graduation of students is having a significant impact on professions. We now wait to see what the outcome of the review by the ratings agencies will be.

Employment has taken a knock and disposable income as well. The emergence of entrepreneurial activities is being suppressed by lack of funding for SMEs at a time when we need this to drive new business.

Raw materials

It does however appear that commodities are showing promise again which we hope will ramp up the projects in mining and processing. Can manufacturing get a leg up from this as it limps along at ever decreasing outputs?

I do believe that a Trump government will see some positive effects on the demand for materials for the projected infrastructure programme in the USA which should have a role for our raw materials. This is what we should have been doing with the NDP which has been stillborn since 2012 and only now getting some attention to address our infrastructure needs.

It shows how rapidly the economic recession has transformed the country. I reflect back on as recently as 2014 when the profession was actively deliberating and planning the solutions for the scarce skills agenda. That has terminated as we now contemplate how to get our existing skills employed.

Backlog

The registration of Engineers, Technologist and Technicians has overcome the backlog and extended waiting times at ECSA. We now need to concentrate on developing our Mentor force using the material in the PDP. This will form a major part of SAIMechE training in 2017.

Funding for the PDP programme is now available from the SETAS. There are plans to develop an online webinar based support programme on the PDP which should, in particular, facilitate the requirements of trainees who are located remotely.

This being the last edition for 2016, may I take the opportunity of wishing all members a restful December and a prosperous new year.

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Reinvention and change in personal development

Posted By Chris Reay, Wednesday, 19 October 2016
When the economy is down and fortunes are being decimated, there seems to be a purpose in pursuing personal development to enable us to change from the old normal routines to develop a new ‘normal’.
 
One which is created via our own inspiration and desire to change by seeking new goals and personal
practices. There are a variety of change agents providing guidance and assistance in this challenge and it makes sense to scan the market to locate the content that suits your own aims. Over the years I have studied a number of self-development books and videos and attended many interactive sessions.
 
On reflection, the weakness in achieving the outcomes is largely my own inconsistency in following the well-scripted content and following on keeping up the basics that apply to any new development. It’s so easy to resort to business as usual.
 
One of my favourite gurus whom I follow when it comes to the basics is Jim Rohn who makes a lot of sense. He starts with personal development defined by very practical approaches that essentially cover focusing on developing self-discipline. He follows logic reinforced with reason: life and business is like the changing seasons. You cannot change this ebb and flow but you can manage the process.
 
How many Members of our profession pursue the challenge of personal development as distinct from traditional CPD or technical courses? Do we set goals and have them drive our behaviour? Do we get trapped by economic necessity and settle for existence rather than substance? Perhaps we should include in the CPD curriculum some personal development content which should enhance the processes we use to perform our work and achieve a goal mindset.
 
This approach is being used increasingly by the purveyors of entrepreneurial training and development
programmes and their adoption should be encouraged by many starting out on a new career. The process lends itself to mentoring and should be included in the training curricula for mentors in guiding
the learnings for the 11 outcomes.
 
Is this a topic we should address in some of our forums?

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Emerging changes in the mining industry

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 11 October 2016

A noticeable movement has been occurring in the mining capex industry which is focusing on the diversification of product lines, maintenance and life of current products and training of resources to achieve these new objectives. This is also being reinforced by expanding the local SA market into Africa.

With the shortage of capital plaguing the market, this make sense. Situations are arising where suppliers are providing fulltime permanent staff to maintain and service the equipment on site to, for example, supply the compressed air requirements for whole site with senior Engineers Technicians and Technologist as part of the on-going site team.

Similar refurbishment processes are occurring in the field of adding wear resistant surfaces by metal spraying into worn components resulting in a high grade of surface protection on plant which is otherwise fully reusable.

Electra Mining displayed some novel new development in situ maintenance illustrating the approach
to asset recovery and re-use. The concept of clustering of similar industries is happening where like-mined suppliers cooperate to provide missing gaps in the supply chain from their collective capabilities which assists in being competitive with overseas suppliers.

A further area of development is occurring in the rental market for specific equipment such as pumping where collective suppliers can make available tailor made solutions for clients on a rental basis across a wide range of water or pumping related options encompassing mining, municipal, marine, residential requirements and disaster relief applications.

Some 40,000 visitors attended the exhibition and the standard visitors was exceptional, and there were over 800 exhibitors on display. It has been the largest specialised exhibition in Africa since 1972.

We can only hope that it raises the bar for the industry in SA and north of us together with the innovative new work being developed in the profession.

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Could we have a revived gold and silver era?

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 23 August 2016

One can hope that the predicted pending implosion of the world currencies and monetary system will create a flight to gold and silver which, if SA plays its cards right, should reinvigorate our mining industry. Predictions of the gold and silver prices rising by multiples emanate from their obvious roles as a safe havens more than as a base for currencies, although that remains an option. No one really can predict the future monetary model. The world has never had the massive issuing of currency by central banks, politely known as Quantative Easing (QE), and negative interest rates before, so there are no precedents. There is an odd and worrying counter play between deflation and hyper-inflation looming.

The number of views as to what this all means and what the results will be are as diverse as those making predictions. Suffice it to say that overriding aspect remains undisputed: the massive debt burden that the global governments and the public are carrying, effectively debiting the credit cards of the next generation. QE has in effect just kicked the can down the road and is postponing the pain of reset that should have occurred after the 2008 crash. The eventual reset would likely mean the collapse of much of the central banking system and debt write-off .

Let’s hope we can get the gold and silver mining industry going again along the lines of its former glory. Would mechanised methods be used, and can we create a sustainable all-stakeholder structure that includes safe mining practices, well rewarded Miners, decent living conditions, treated mine water, associated and supported industries such as agriculture and localised manufacture, and cooperative unions?

Studying the current developments by Sibanye Gold gives one a real level of confidence that this can be achieved. If Sibanye ‘s model can be successful at the current gold price, imagine the opportunities if the price goes near the projections of US$ 5000 per oz and silver maintains its price ratio with gold.

Clearly this is not in the Treasury plans to get this growth going in SA, but it could emerge by default as a windfall from the stressed global economy. But assuming this works, then we must ensure that it becomes the enabler for both the traditional and new downstream industries that have always been the hallmark of the SA mining industry.

A big challenge is the investment required to revamp the mines under close-out or care. Can the vast resources of retained funds by investment funds and industry be a source of this financing? After all mining feeds the very industries that would be involved.

The reverse flow of skilled and experienced engineering resources referred to in last month’s leader article continues and is witnessed daily. Thee is still no evidence of serious activity in the National Development Plan (NDP) and the 19 Strategic Infrastructure Projects (SIPs). If the Minister and the group from the private sector really want to do something effective, surely this must be one of the growth goals? There are so many competent resources on the market that one would wish to see actively involved in managing the SIPs rather than scouring the industry for new jobs.

With the encouraging shift in the political balance following the municipal elections, will we see some active realisation by government that their neglect of the economy becomes evident to them?

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Employment bloodbath

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 11 July 2016

If we thought the 2008 crisis was bad, it appears that 2016 is going to be worse. The metrics are scary. In summary, the normal net flow of resources is from the candidate market to the employer. The net current flow is the reverse of this with noticeable movement from the mining, EPCM, EPC, consultants, manufactures and many contractors and suppliers of goods and services. Official projections of GDP growth for this year now hover between 0,1 and 0,5%. It is evident that the bleeding is getting worse.

When one contemplates the growth rate targeted in the National Development Plan in 2012, it was to be 5% pa for the next few years -10 to 50 times the current rate! Much good was work done then by various groups to estimate the scarce skills that we would need to find to provide a basis for a development strategy. This motivated the implementation of training and mentoring models for new local feedstock and the seeking of specialists to supplement many of the specific roles. I however harboured deep suspicions that, ignoring the impact of the global recession here, SA would not get into implementing the NDP in any effective form and I have been proved right. It was naïve to have expected anything else from the ANC government. Action has never followed the reams of plans that have been hatched at great cost, only to lie fallow in the offices of incompetent bureaucracy. Now we have no money to invest. Much goes to bloated public service salaries and over inflated tender awards (corruption). The NDP would have at least triggered some velocity of money, confidence and employment.

This a time when many will take a hard look at the essentials of retirement planning or even, if that has been activated, the many strategies that have failed to keep up with the realities of changing demographics. How many of those early policies taken out at the time one started working are now worthless as a result of inflation and the influences of the broker who persuaded you it was in your interest to change to another policy more likely to broker advantage? Or with the trends of life, when work opportunities were abundant, one could shift jobs, get better remuneration, live it up more but fail to save or build an investment that actually grew in real terms? Retirement is in a crisis. Most funds are classic Ponzi schemes: new entrants needed to pay for those at the top end or the fund fails. Do we have enough young entrants for this structure?

How has the employed class been affected by the structure of the financial, and in particular, the fiat based central banking systems that have indulged in the promotion of debt based credit? This mechanism starts to explain the evident shift in political behavior: the emergence of the middle and lower-paid class in moving to the right, effectively giving the middle finger to the establishment: the rapid rise of what I believe will be called the Trump and Sanders movements in the USA in which Trump had the most primary phase votes in American history after he, as a new entrant to the field, defeated 16 of the established Washington politicians; and the Brexit action in Europe giving notice to the EU Commission that is unaccountable to the taxpayers and indulges in a command performance. It’s the gatvol syndrome at work.

The protests in SA are a similar notice by the electorate: they are fed up with watching the wealth rise to the political elites and big business at the expense of their own livelihoods. Mayors of poorly run municipalities earning R2 million-plus annual salaries (and no doubt some attractive kickbacks as well) is a blatantly overpaid politically motivated item. What qualifications do they have to oversee the expected built environment functions of the Councils? Unqualified cadres are employed in engineering roles, and the infrastructure collapses.

Engineering resources will always be needed to build the country. Perhaps we need an “Engineering Party” to make the right noises in Parliament. Until some real changes occur to the Mines and Minerals, Act, the Labour and BEE Acts for starters, SA is not going to grow to meet any semblance of wealth generation.

However, with the world of work changing so rapidly, the entrepreneur and small businesses are going to have to be supported with a reduced regulatory system. Economic freedom, but not the EFF way.

We have so much engineering talent in the retired age group that has the experience to train and mentor young entrants to the profession. With employment in reverse, it isn’t happening.

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Becoming Informed About Tomorrow's Jobs

Posted By Anisa Nanabhay, Manager: National Office, Monday, 27 June 2016
Updated: Thursday, 30 June 2016

It is not often that I make use of content created by others. My excuse for occasionally doing so is to believe that so much good information misses us here. To remain at least partially discreet, I believe that using one article is plagiarism, but combining a few is research. Below is an interesting perspective on the development of future engineering careers, a combined creation of a number of views taken mainly from IEEE USA’s Today’s Engineer, to whom acknowledgement is given, and to some extent a distillation of my own.

At the start of the year, many of us speculate on what the next 365 days will bring, and analyze what impact these speculations might have on our careers and personal lives. No one can predict the future, but those who make the effort to become informed will be more successful than those who do not. The career-savvy individual must scan the world continuously, seeking out information from a variety of sources. Past Today's Engineer articles have dealt with various strategies and techniques for doing this and are available in the Today’s Engineer archives. From information gathering, intuition, history and experience, patterns will emerge that may provide insight into how to manage your life. 

What do futurists see as some of the emerging trends? The ''eco-economy'' will create new career opportunities in technologies, processes and services that are environmentally friendly and economically sustainable. Renewable energy and conservation/recycling projects will be employment growth areas, as will be biotechnology and nanotechnology. In addition, increasing workplace diversity will require all employees to be respectful of other nationalities and cultures. Digitization is evolving rapidly across all functions.

Continuing education will be the norm for all workers and will create additional opportunities for older, part-time learners. Employees will market themselves virtually as individual goods and services providers to employers locally, nationally and internationally, as Internet use and telecommuting options grow. Further, employers will use the Internet as their primary tool to find the most qualified employees, and employees will seek out and apply for jobs on the web. Professionals will blend skills from two or more disciplines to create new professions. Service industries and professional specialty occupations will grow as well. Finally, as health and wellness continue to become more popular, so, too, will career choices in such areas as recreation, nutrition and the design of healthier homes and workplaces. The more knowledgeable you are, the more successful you will become in life and your career.

Hence the importance of the process of the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme being required by ECSA here in RSA for our Engineering resources to qualify for on-going registration, recognition and ultimately sustained competence.

Despite the difficulty in making the decision, more people are making significant career changes and in addition are moving jobs more frequently. However, it is possible to make a career change and remain in the wrong career. This happens to those who don't use a good method to manage the change. There are many articles posted on the internet providing processes to guide this.

Engineering degrees are now increasingly being touted as stepping stones to other professions. IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer points out that engineering graduates automatically have a foundation that can be applied to most other professions. Engineering graduates have usable knowledge in mathematics, physics, chemistry, software, humanities, English, speech, social studies, history and economics as well as in engineering, giving them more breadth and depth of knowledge than most other disciplinary educations.

That diversity can help engineering graduates migrate to other professions, such as medicine, law, business management, and computer science.

The current economic recession in SA is threatened to persist as long as we cannot find any growth initiatives to replace the dependence we had on mining and commodities sold in the raw state with little beneficiation. Many of the engineering resources that have developed in that industry and its downstream businesses will be forced to consider new directions.

As engineering as a discipline is probably the most adaptable skill world-wide due to its scientific basis (the rules of science are the same everywhere), so our own Engineers will need to keep up to date and become global. It clearly is now a knowledge world.

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Can the Engineering profession create an urgent, united front movement?

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 19 May 2016
SA must have more government plans gathering dust in state offices that any other country. The problem is that it seems to be where they remain. Any action or implementation does not appear to follow. The classic case must be the National Development Plan which largely consists of projects that create the built environment, the natural habitat of the engineering and project management professions.

It is now well known that the capacity of what we call the Owners’ Teams is lacking in skills and experience and positions are largely filled with cadre appointments. It is also a project management reality that if the Owner’s Team is deficient, the project will fail in meeting deliverables, programme and budget. In our case it does not get off the starting blocks and is thwarted by incompetence, political indecision, lack of policy, red tape, bureaucracy and now evidently corruption in high places.

In our professional community there exists a skilled and experienced engineering, project management, contract management and artisan resource that could collectively make a sea change impact on managing the projects in the NDP from Owners’ Teams to operations and maintenance if only the system would permit this to happen.

It of course depends on the availability of funding which, way back in 2012, was meant to be used to get the 18 strategic infrastructure projects going. We get told that funding is in short supply whilst the politicians speak of an enormously expensive 9600 megawatt nuclear programme that will at the time, if and when it ever transpires with our record of project "successes” (Medupi, Kusile and the Durban Jhb pipeline spring to mind), it will be vying with the future massive development of PPP based renewable energy projects that will shift the whole power game.

This is a challenge to the Council for the Built Environment (CBE) and the Voluntary Engineering Associations (VAs): why can you not all get together on an urgent mission to put the case bluntly to government: either you use us, or you abuse us by our non-involvement in turning the SA economy around in management and execution of infrastructure development. This must include the training of new resources into the profession on these projects so that they are competent to take up the baton from the ageing centre of gravity of the profession. Whether we believe it or not, the era of the baby boomers provides the experience for the engineering skills in SA.

If this movement was sufficiently evident and effective, it could be brought to the notice of the rating agencies in an attempt to show we mean business in using our capacity to actually do something worthwhile. If we wait for the predicted decline to junk status and possible eventual appeal to the IMF, be warned: the IMF are a nasty bunch and will make demands that could drive any remaining self-respecting professional from SA.

We are simply watching the economy decline into a comatose state. It is time that the President’s Forum as a start addressed this matter with vigour and intent.

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Delusions of grandeur

Posted By Chris Reay, Wednesday, 13 April 2016
I decided for some masochistic reason to take a look at the National scarce skills list - top 100 
occupations in demand that was gazetted for public comment on 24 April 2014. There was considerable energy spent at the time (from 2012) during which this list was compiled involving various voluntary groups assembling at workshops to find a sensible way to construct such a list. After many meetings and refinements, the documents were submitted to the Minister who promptly asked for comment from the persons who had compiled the report! That seemed pretty pointless as the onus was then on the Ministry and the DHET to come forth with suggested solutions to enable the recommendations of the report to be implemented. Predictably, it lies in limbo, no doubt gathering dust with all the other reports that have been the result of studious research and plain hard work.

According to the SONA in 2012, the President announced that over the next three years SA would spend R840 billion on the 18 SIPs projects making up much of the early part of the National Development Plan (2010-2030). Well, fast forward from 2012 to 2016. Any signs of progress? At the time they were announced we asked what metrics are to be used to measure the progress of projects against the plan.

Clearly we seem not need them as it is intuitively evident that not much has happened. More recently the Phakisa maritime development programme was announced and so far, looking at the planned deliverables, not much is evident there either.

What is it that drives this national characteristic to have endless indabas, conferences, issuance of plans, green, white and all colours of papers that results in nothing actually being actioned? The Durban to Gauteng pipeline is years overdue and has escalated from an initial cost of R9 billion to R23 billion, and nowhere near complete. Look at Medupi and Kusile - enough said.

There seems to be one apparent factor that pervades all these projects as well as countless late or failed municipal and provincial projects : the quality of the Owner’s team. If the Owner’s team is deficient, one can rest assured that the project will be a failure.

If we consider the renewables projects, they seem to have generally been successful. However, the
technologies have been developed overseas and proven in similar environmental circumstances. They are essentially procure and construct, hardly placing much load on the local management knowledge and initiative.

With the current expectation of a nuclear development with generation 3 reactors do we really think we can produce any better results than our national projects are achieving now? Concern over the impact of corruption on this programme is real based on the endemic status that corruption has acquired in this country on so many big cap projects.

Our gazetted scarce skills top 100 list covers about every engineering discipline we have. It is fascinating that the Ministry has targeted "30,000 additional Engineers by 2014”. The list is still stuck in a 2014 time warp as no further dated actions are evident following its publication for comment.

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Will gold shine again?

Posted By Chris Reay, Wednesday, 16 March 2016
Updated: Wednesday, 09 March 2016

Studying the current state of the world economy following, amongst other effects, the end of the commodity cycle, there is a growing concern that the worlds’ currencies, which have since 1913 been effectively fiat based (ie no value backing such as gold), will eventually collapse. Historically currencies do this. The US Dollar as the world’s reserve currency might remain the strongest of the lot until there is the impact of deflation and hyper-inflation resulting from the quantitative easing with fiat currency.

Ultimately, it is all a result of the debt based currency systems which have been manipulated to create the biggest debt bubble in the history of money and currencies. Anyone interested in the impact this is having on world trade should look up the Baltic Dry Index records. It is a very interesting metric that measures the shipping movements between continents. It is at the lowest index level in its history.

Out of most misfortune one hopes for the glimmer of positivity. In the current economic saga is the possibility that there will be a replacement world reserve currency that would be based on a value backing, and the most obvious is gold. Silver may have its role as well.

Some protagonists of this are predicting a massive hike in the gold price. Two interesting issues are evident. China is buying large quantities of gold, and the USA banking system and Fed are doing their best to suppress the price. Gold is no longer following the commodities index and going its own way.

SA does not have any perceptible agenda on the table, let alone observable action, to get economic growth going to uplift the rate of wealth generation and make an impact on the rating agencies. Would the rise in the gold price to such an extent happen such that it provides acceptable margins above the cost of recovery in a stable manner and be an option to get our gold mines going as before so as to help a bit?

It is of concern that we are losing, and have lost, a significant number of our experienced resources including Mining Engineers who have in the past managed our gold mining industry. We see them leaving the industry: retiring, leaving the country or moving in to other careers. From our historic role as number one we are way down now, not sure where.

For one hundred years SA has effectively grown its economy based on mining and commodities. The investment into that has almost ceased. Have we learnt anything from history that should have prepared us for the end of that boom, and undertaken development of other industries?

The NDP has proven to be stillborn and the excitement created in 2012 on the need to train up skilled resources to enable us to build the SIPs has waned into a dilemma that we now have surplus skills and no projects. It appears we have no funding for them now.

Did anyone have any confidence in the budget speech and its rhetoric? I did not. If I had not known we have a serious economic recessionary environment on our hands, I could have believed it was a business-as-usual budget. Do you really believe that government will cut back on the blue label and the top of the range Mercs? Please, where is the real strategy to create growth?

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An appreciation of the contribution by John Walmsley

Posted By Chris Reay, Wednesday, 09 March 2016

Our long serving Members will recall the articles written each month by John Walmsley who for many years was a member of one of the SAIMechE’s specialist groups, The SA Institution of Nuclear Engineers which operated as a branch of the UK body.

John passed away in October last year with complications arising from asbestos exposure in his early days. It is suspected that it could be a result of working with the type of piping insulation used in power stations.

John qualified as Nuclear Physicist in England prior to joining Eskom where he played a major role in the nuclear department and in the Koeberg Project.

John had a very visionary view on the role of nuclear power which was the main content of his regular articles, expressed in his skillful and erudite manner. He was an excellent writer, the quality of which was commented on by most readers. Writing a regular feature for a monthly journal with its unforgiving deadlines is a major commitment, especially when done as a free service and when it becomes an element of the publication that readers turn to with great expectation.

John saw a definite role for nuclear power in the SA mix but certainly not in the magnitude as currently identified by government. Disappointed at the closure of the PBMR project, he hoped that other developments in nuclear would emerge of the same scale. With his background in nuclear physics he was able to give some in-depth evaluation on the various technologies that are available and that are being researched and tested at present.

John was involved on promoting and encouraging the development of engineering resources for a future nuclear programme and had addressed many aspects of this including the following:

  • Promoting teaching, research and innovation capacity in South African Universities in strategic areas in the nuclear field
  • Facilitating nuclear skills development through skills transfer programs as part of technology acquisition from local and international suppliers
  • Creating a continuous pipeline of high school learners into the nuclear industry
  • Developing a critical research and skills base to support the nuclear programme

John retired to Fishhoek with his wife Susan and was a regular player at the Clovelly Golf Club. We had some memorable sessions quaffing good wine at the Waterfront pondering over the state of nuclear in SA and the issue of having the local SA branch of the UK Institution becoming an independent SA Institution which in fact did never materialize.

John will be remembered as having a sense of notable intellectual humour. His contribution to the SA Mechanical Engineer was significant.

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When demand is down

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 26 January 2016

When the economy recedes, there is a temptation to cut back on any activities that appear superfluous although in any business there should really not be any, unless they are intentionally provided to buffer the business constraint. I guess it becomes evident that when business is bad, the constraint is deemed to be in the market. That being the case, it makes strategic sense to subordinate other activities to that constraint by elevating the resource loading in marketing and sales.

Such subordination could include training up other line persons in the organization to find a supporting role in sales. Sales training should be an existing function in any organisation so the sales team could be extended to include these resources.

What about marketing, which is strictly the identification of opportunities, where sales is the exploitation of them? It is often said that everyone should be a sales person for one’s employer. Involving the rest of the team in the marketing and sales strategy can generate a lot of unexpected new options and get the spirit and drive going across the organisation.

A recent global survey, which included SA, revealed that in these slack economic times, the number of employees actively searching for a new job increases noticeably. In the case of sample SA, the results showed that more than 4 in 10 employees were seeking new positions, and our statistics indicate that this is higher than the global average by some 16%. The quarterly shift is particularly evident.

The expectation (following the big strikes and the commodity price collapse) for retrenchments in the industries affected by mining investments has been borne out dramatically. The impact on the value chain from capital investment in new mines all the way through EPCM, EPC, Consulting Engineers, main contractors, suppliers to the small business providing nuts and bolts, is a harsh reality. It becomes even more stark when we realise that SA was effectively built and developed on mining for the last 100 years.  Thus the need for radical strategy shift is urgent. A big, new marketing and sales challenge.

Essential to this is the need to define, locate and employ the human capital to operate the business. All business is doing it, but not well. My own research with many industries over some years on identifying the constraint in the business shows that there is an overwhelming belief that it exists in the lack of having the right people in the right place at the right time. This is almost a no-brainer. In my own, and in the opinion of many in the industry, is that the current process of recruitment is flawed and has been usurped by the role of HR. HR should focus and interact on the internal resources and keep them happy or at least find out what makes them tick. That might then reduce the frequency of the look-elsewhere-and-lose-staff syndrome. Recruitment is a different process requiring different skills, tools, databases, market knowledge and expertise, especially in engineering.

Until management addresses the human resource constraint with processes that protect and elevate the constraint, things will not change. It should be seen as a strategic issue at board level. It will simply be more of the same. Delays, lack of knowledge within the recruitment process, poor selection in terms of environmental/cultural fit into the organization will continue. In the days when the line spoke directly to the recruiter that understood their business, appointments were faster, better and more permanent. At least in engineering. I know, I have been on both sides. However, too much emphasis is placed on finding the perfect fit at below market value, and too little on the need for induction and mentoring in the new role. The metrics of selection are outdated and mostly inaccurate. A good start is so often messed up with poor internal conflict and dubious management skills. Hence the high turnover rate.

We are finding that matching by functional auditing is breaking the mold and needs to be seriously considered by management.

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Entropic creep revisited

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 08 December 2015

A complex factory and a teeming metropolis combined, busily devoted to constructing, repairing and maintaining its systems to ensure that it delivers its support to the mega system. A frenzy of electrical energy that, if scaled up to visible dimensions, would represent the energy of a lightning strike. It works to a plan that all parts understand is part of the grand architecture”.

 

What is being described here is a living cell, of which you typically have some 10,000 trillion in your body. And as long as you are alive, they are all working pretty well. They work hard to ensure that your energy and survival remain at a sustained level. In another way one could conclude that the system entropy remains low as there is normally no degradation until we actually expire. Even then, at atomic level, the parts rush off to work elsewhere.

 

While the body collective is at work, it will be receiving energy in the form of sustenance to feed the cells. As long as we feed in sufficient energy, we will get work output. If we overwork and take out of the system more than we put in, the active system will die.

 

In this exercise we will assume that the system is the SA economy with all its persons acting as the cells, the actions of which should be planned by a cohesive design to create the energy such that its consumption is less that its production. That design would be the rules and practices set up by those in the role of having been elected to do so. The problem arises when the architecture is flawed and fails to provide a net energy growth by suitable conversion.

 

This is a long way round, couched in technical speak, that implies that the model in question is running out of money and all indications are evident that it will do so within the next 2 to 3 years. The intervening circumstances however will be horrendous.

 

We need a built environment to provide the right conditions for the people to generate the energy (wealth) to sustain the system. We as a nation are in serious trouble with the deterioration in the number and type of projects that build the economy. Engineered projects are not happening. The commodities base of the historic economy is dying, if not already dead, and the downstream activities are starved of action including the EPCM, EPC, contractor, supplier and service roles that have been the backbone of the SA economy for 100 years. We are witnessing more retrenchments in our measured scarce resources than take-ons. The result is scary to watch and many facing the situation are seeking opportunity outside SA. Our own policy makers seem to believe it is all the global economy’s fault and wallow in their comfort while the citizens face accelerating hardship of unemployment and despair. If we ever, by some magical formulation, reverse the rot and start to provide a growth path, we will then, like an ironic twist, face the biggest skills’ scarcities ever. We do not have the project environment to enable our young engineering resources to train and gather experience. Thus the centre of gravity of the useful, experienced resources is perceptibly now in the 50-70 age group who we must utilise as Mentors and Coaches for the younger resources. But where are the projects?

 

What can we as the engineering intellectuals of SA do about this? For decades we warned about the electricity crisis and have been doing so about the water situation and lack of infrastructure maintenance which is now emerging as predicted. It was ignored. How do we get the message of entropic creep into the minds of government? We know it is probably beyond their comprehension to understand anything with a thermodynamic flavour which is why we endeavour to provide “simple” analogies.

 

Foreign investor attitude is changing: billions of dollars that were directed into our shares and bonds over the past two decades are being withdrawn. When the tax base revenue declines below the endemic ability of the government to spend on so much non-productive activities, we will of necessity have to go cap in hand to the IMF. That will change the rules of the game by force.

 

Try messing with the proven mechanisms of a living cell. It is usually catastrophic.

 

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Do we have a Trump card?

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 08 December 2015

I have been watching with interest the nomination process that is happening in the USA particularly with the Republican Party bun fight for their nominee. The debates are prolific with typical political innuendo and the desire to try to convince the public to accept each partys’ policies or attempts to have any. A rather grey bunch of the inevitable professional political candidates all seeking to make a living off the taxpayer by being elected to a nice paid position without ever really having to get any action to meet the word.

One exception has emerged in the person of Donald Trump. This has caused a great deal of anxiety in the ranks of the republicans and it seems Democratic Party as well. A number of reasons have caught the voters notice; he is not a politician being sponsored and influenced by election funding from future lobbyists and superPACs, he is self-funding his campaign, he has proven he is a successful businessman, he employs thousands of people including legal status Hispanics, and he is the only candidate who has raised the matter of illegal immigrants and bringing jobs back to the USA.   He has adopted a campaign message stated as “Make America Great Again”. What is striking is that his policies do not align with the traditional republican mandates. He is clearly showing the value of leadership and how desperate the people are for it. He is creating a movement.

The press has displayed its traditional biases but are finding it a challenge to have to accept his domination in the poll results so far. As Trump keeps pointing out in his speeches, the USA has a debt load of nineteen trillion dollars and growing as its trading partners keep having trade deals loaded in their favour. This seems to have missed the notice of all the other candidates. 

What if any message does this have on SA? It is not a trivial indication that the voters are fed up with political inaction and ineptitude. The real concern voters have is lack of jobs. Not too different from our situation. What is striking is that in the recent ANC’s national gathering to review progress and future action, the economy and jobs did not even get onto the 7 item “action” list. 

Daily we watch SA business shrinking into losses, projecting an uncertain future and now retrenching the skilled resources (largely engineering) that formed a major part of the scarce skills lists published (again) following the tabling of the stillborn National Development Plan. The most obvious question is how does SA handle the collapse of the resources and commodities bubble? It really did not effectively participate in the commodities boom since 2008, hamstrung by policy uncertainty, labour strikes and power shortages, so there was little if any funding stored away for the present rainy day. Where is a replacement strategy?

If one follows the logic outlined in RW Johnson’s recent book on “Can South Africa survive?”, it is going to require a very concerted and effective policy and strategy change to get us out of the declining trend which may inevitably go the way of Greece, and possibly going cap in hand to the IMF.

Does SA have a Trump who can get up and take a bold stance against our over politically mandated economy and lead SA out of our mess and into a promised land?

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The implementation of the Professional Development Programme (PDP)

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The global economy is on the decline and that of South Africa is suffering from both that and its own almost endemic ability to mismanage itself into a siege economy where we cannot blame outside influences. We had better get on and dig ourselves out of this hole by adopting policies that have some economic structure in place of the focus on political mandate driven ones that seem to be in the DNA of most emerging African economies.

As Engineers build the environment, and that environment will need to keep being built and maintained, we as a profession cannot contemplate that we will not be needed. It is evident that whatever the growth state of the economy is, engineering resources are always a scarce skill, and whilst one may measure numbers and deny that this is a reality, when it comes to quality, skills and experience, it holds true. Don’t be blinded by cycles, they are fact of life. Of concern however is the growing gap in the age demographics where the rate of retirement from the profession and the lack of commensurate restocking from the entrants to the profession is causing the centre of gravity of available skilled engineering resources to move into the higher end of the age spectrum.

Your Institution over the last three years has developed and beta tested the PDP, and is at a stage where it is ready to move into a productive phase by involving all the necessary players. The goal is to produce professionally registered engineering resources for the economy. SA is still well below the accepted international norms of numbers of engineering resources per head of population, a relevant number if the level of a competitive industrial economy is to be achieved. In meeting this goal, there are a number of necessary conditions (NCs) that have to be in place and all operating at their required level of performance. No goal can be achieved if one or more of those necessary conditions are not in place or working.

The PDP business case has thus identified the following NCs.

  1. An accredited competency standard under the authority of a regulator – the New Registration System (NRS) with ECSA.

  2. Candidate engineering resources – graduates from tertiary institutions that meet the various qualification accords – Washington, Sydney and Dublin.

  3. Employers – providing the workplace environment and supervision roles.

  4. Mentors – registered and trained (by SAIMechE) in the application and facilitation of the NRS.

  5. Money – to fund the training and mentoring activities required by the candidate. SETA and any other funding to pay Mentors to facilitate cells of candidates.

  6. A curriculum that provides a methods guide to the parties that becomes "the rules of the game” for all parties to follow and which facilitates the processes that meet the needs of the candidates to be able to submit the evidence to the regulatory authority to enable registration.

It therefore must be clear on evaluating the above that if any one (or more) of these is missing or does not perform, then the goal will not be met. Registration is not an end in itself. It should be seen as the recognition of the ability to meet the appropriate competencies defined in the eleven outcomes, but also to provide the successful candidate with a basis of on-going improvement to aspire to meet the challenges of the built environment.

The PDP in fact under its facilitation and guidance, provides the successful candidate with an SAIMechE Certificate of Competence that meets exactly the needs of the NRS for the ECSA submission format.

In this sense, the SAIMechE is trying to be proactive and keep the show going however the economy performs. It is now time for these parties to get in on the act.


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Recruitment is in need of a radical change

Posted By Chris Reay, Friday, 21 August 2015
Recruitment processes have in reality hardly changed since the invention of the CV. The same information is requested, searched for and provided and the processes have only changed with the developments in the speed and access to information and to people. Emails, electronic job boards, social networks, video conferencing and of course the time tested personal networks of peers and the extension into head hunting continue to be the order of the day. Decades of business as usual.

All that has really changed is the speed of the movement of information. The fundamentals of the process have not changed. Advertise in the media, receive applications from candidates, select via CV, sort to a degree with word search, short list, interview, carry out reference checks, qualification checks, decide on the remuneration and make an offer. All being well, the right candidate is selected and starts with your company. Both parties hope that they are well suited and get on together. All usually done in a hurry with too many intervening parties applying a worn out system.

Let’s try to define the goal of recruitment. It should surely be to acquire human resources to optimally provide the talent, skills, productivity and dependability to serve the organisation’s business objectives. 

The use of the word optimally would embrace the overall cost of employment. This therefore includes the costs associated with the hiring process, the remuneration, training, development and other rewards and expenses of the employee. The employee is thus a major part of the business of achieving the throughput of the business.

We hear the repeated cry from employers that the war for talent never ends and frustrates productivity in projects, manufacturing, production and services. Who then ever stops to consider where the constraint exists in the business and what one should do to relieve the constraint? It is evident, that on extensive analysis, the most common business constraint is in the ready availability of skilled resources. This makes sense if the business appreciates that it is the people that enable it to operate.

What then does one do then to relieve the constraint? Subordinate to it, enable it to operate at maximum efficiency and elevate it until it is no longer the constraint. That’s proven TOC (Theory of Constraints) theory and practice that has enabled the advance and competitive advantage of business that apply this internationally to any process.

In recruitment, it’s time for this application. This means applying protection to the constraint by buffering it. If business knows the type of resources that it needs or is going to need in future then why not build a buffer of the type of resources required? How does this work?

Avoid the last minute rush to start the process of locating the typical resources required.  Why not align with a niche resource consultant to build a buffer stock of prescribed types of resources so that when the rush is on either through departure of existing resources, or the need for new capacity for new projects, you can call on the consultant’s known candidate buffer stock who has been working with you, getting to know you and your needs. 

We can add further advances to this. No longer relying only of the same old processes that cannot identify the attributes called for in most job specifications that have no way of being evaluated, in particular the human characteristics such as attitudes, temperaments, emotional intelligence, ethics and motivation for example, replicate the international successes being achieved in utilizing the tools of functional auditing that apply 24 well proven constructs to align the employer profile with that of the candidate. It does not replace the technical attributes, but adds to the success of identifying and retaining new talent with the metrics that really matter. It’s all done on-line by the candidate and has been developed to identify manipulation, impression management and variations from the employer’s "culture” profile that is established prior to the recruitment process. It is not psychometrics which measures against social norms (whatever they are); it enables unique alignment between employer and candidate where it matters. The myth of using technical alignment only in selecting engineering candidates remains and continues to prove its limitations. Technical knowledge can be learnt: intrinsic characteristics don’t change.

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The currency of electronic databases for physical addresses

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 27 July 2015

In the days before emails and cell phones it was crucial that one kept one’s physical address and post office address current or one was simply untraceable or able to receive written mail. Landline telephones of course were the obvious and only other mechanism and fax message depended on that facility. It was a norm that if one moved, there was the required attention paid to the physical address, and the telephone book was then invaluable.

It is evident that since the advent of emails, cell phones and now smart phones with multiple messaging options, that keeping physical addresses up to date is really only kept live by the banking systems insisting on having the FICA data but that is normally only updated when the banks call for that.

As long as print is mailed then physical addresses need to be kept current This is an issue that faces the likes of SAIMechE with the magazine, and it suffers from two issues that arise with physical addresses: change that is not notified and the inaccuracy or limited information provided by the Member which results in the item being either returned to sender of dumped at the posted office. Very often outdated or unattended mail boxes are too full to take any more mail. Problems with the efficiency and reliability of the post office itself frequently add to the amount of undelivered mail.

Address databases are renowned to be inaccurate or badly configured. I am at least three separate customers in my bank. Implementing a FICA update for the current account information does not get fed to the other accounts. It would seem that modern configuration management is a foreign practice to most banks as the format for collecting the same data varies across departments, even though the ID number is common.

It is unlikely that physical address accuracy will never be required even with all our advanced electronic communication as some form of hard mail will need to be used. It just seems that the processes for updating the address on a systematic basis is flawed. Updating of mail addresses is invariably left late so that mail continues to go to the previous address. Will GPS via mobile smart phone location ever be able to be a source of this at an accuracy that is dependable? Now that’s an app opportunity.

Let’s look at a specific case. We have about 4000 addresses to which our magazine is sent each month. On average about 5 percent are returned for reasons that the address is incorrect or cannot be located due to paucity of detail.

The best way we can keep up to date with addresses of Members is to request a regular email feedback on the receipt of the Torque newsletter on a prescribed format with the option to tick “no change” to keep it simple.

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Self-drive cars

Posted By Chris Reay, Wednesday, 24 June 2015

An up and coming hot topic is the emergence of the reality of self-drive cars. The general reaction is to respond that they will and could not ever work as a norm. But we have seen many crazy ideas that were originally conceived in science fiction or futuristic insights that have become a reality. Take the wrist watch worn by James Bond or the communication between the car Kit in the Knightrider series. 

Some exuberant investment advisors are predicting that the technology behind self-drive cars will be the next big one in the order of the smart phone or even the internet. In their space they are trying to attract investors at the early incubation stage to invest before the technology matures. It will depend on very sophisticated processors interacting with sensors and then with the mechanical and electrical 
functions of the vehicle so the role of the engineer will remain crucial in this development. I particular it would seem that Mechatronics Engineering will have a massive future added to by the growing dependence on robotics and mechanized replacement of manual labour.

Fast forwarding to the future when the self-drive car becomes the norm does raise some interesting 
questions and issues. What does the driver actually do? I guess one sets the destination data up via the GPS and hits the start button and that’s it. Sit back and take it easy or would one distrust the system and sit back in a state of anxious stress that the car will not avoid another person-driven vehicle behaving like a normal Cape Town driver does when in a state of road rage or plain impatience. 

It would seem that the best situation would be when all cars are self-drive and no people are involved in the process. What then are the risks? What if the power system (battery) fails?  A low level warning should bring the car to a gentle stop in a safe parking area identified on the route map.  Some form of protection against manual override by a frustrated driver must be implemented who would otherwise create the necessary but irritating avoiding action by the smart self-drive cars nearby.

Let’s however consider all the advantages. On the assumption that going physically to the office is still a requirement i.e. virtual offices have not eliminated this need, then imagine settling into the car with 
one’s digital equipment (very smart phones and tablets) and working on some productive activity instead of getting impatient with the traffic or cursing the traffic cop that saw you using the phone at the wheel. And if the cop does stop the car or the camera records an over-speed, then should the ticket be made out to the processor for an error in judgment for not observing the speed sign via visual sign reading? Most likely there will not be any traffic cops as everything will be via electronic communication cameras and digital records. A fine notice comes up on your vehicle screen.

The real benefit will be for the pubs, nightclubs, house, parties etc where one will not have to worry about a sober driver or being caught by the breathalyzer. Simply jump in, grab one for the road and off you go safely into your garage where the gate and door all open in advance of your arrival through intelligent programming sent out by the car as it arrived. Booze industry, watch this space. Maybe another good investment would be shares in SAB. 

And of course all these smart self-drive cars will be electric powered with advanced battery technology 
where the batteries can double up as home energy storage on a swop out basis. And all charged by one’s own solar system, but still connected to the main grid in order to both draw from the system or feed back into it. I actually fancy this era. All made by Engineers.

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Ode to the SA economy

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Was Shakespeare’s Macbeth reflecting on our Alliance style economy…?.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

          And then there is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, on contemplation….     

To BEE, or not to BEE - that is the question: 
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer 
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune 
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, 
And by opposing, end them.

A brief analysis of records of the power strategy set up in the late 90s illustrates how, what appeared to be a well-structured and integrated plan, simply fell apart. Of significance is the complete lack of achievement to privatise a growing proportion of generation and distribution via IPPs, a situation now being forced on the system out of survival. The strategy to implement the REDs was abandoned. Then add the decision to cancel the PBMR, which if pursued with the same vigorous focus of the synfuels, uranium enrichment and arms development projects under sanctions, could have placed SA as global leaders in small nuclear plant. The planned completion of the additional 2 coal plants has not been met. 

The availability of the existing installed capacity dropped from the earlier 80-90% to 50-60%. Planned maintenance was neglected. Eskom now has a funding crisis. It has failed to provide for replacement of assets. And now it is limiting the ability of the economy to grow. All in all, a dismal record of failure of the government and Eskom. Forget excuses, apartheid etc. It's the sheer incompetence and poor management to execute their own plans. Too much has not been achieved to be anything else. We had the experience and skills, but politics overcame pragmatism. I repeat what I said some weeks ago: things are done by people: better people do things better. When will this change?

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How about some innovation and action on the energy crisis?

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 26 May 2015

I believe that the real crisis in our base load system has not yet been reached, and the inevitable worst case scenario is to come if the period over the next 10 years is analysed. If we make an assumption (as naive as this may be), and the economy grows over the next 10 years at an average of 3% per annum, then the demand on the installed base load system will grow by 34% by 2015. If the effective available base load now is 40GW, we will need to add some 14GW capacity but that is only on the assumption that the existing fleet of units does not suffer incremental attrition through ageing and hard running that stresses the system over its design limits. 

But let’s look at the equations on the assumption that in this period Medupi and Kusile actually come on line and add 9,6 GW,  and the oldest of the 6-packs now running meet their end of useful life. The net gain would be say 2,5GW capacity. The chances are, over the next 10 years, that more attrition is likely. 

In the event that say 12GW of new base load capacity is needed, this is equivalent to 2,5 new Medupis or 6 Koebergs. We know that SA cannot build Medupis very well – so far double the initial cost and 4 years late with just the first unit. So don’t let’s kid ourselves that we will just hurry up building some new six-pack fossil stations, and the likelihood of 6 Koebergs or the equivalent in nuclear would take a minimum of 12 years for the first unit to be ready. Add to this the dismal record of state planning and financial control, and we can envisage the scale of the challenge ahead. It simply is not possible to quickly correct 20 years of perpetual erroneous thinking and insufficient action. A necessary condition would be the affordability given that SA is currently near junk investment status.

With the commodities market in decline and on which SA has historically depended via foreign investment in mining, we have to realise that unless we jack up manufacturing and are competitive in world trading, we are heading for what could be national bankruptcy. 

The current climate makes us more risk averse than ever. How innovative can we be? Some ideas.

If any funding for another fossil station is ever available, rather re-direct it to providing solar water 
heating and PV panels for every home in SA. Invest in the best PV panel, solar water unit, battery and 
grid inter-connect device factories with the best technologies that can take all low-order water heating 
i.e. hot water geysers out of the base load system, enable the PV panels to work both on-line back-feed to the grid and charging of the batteries complete in a one-stop package with inverters, switching etc. 

Train up Engineer and Technician teams to be able to install, commission and maintain the complete 
system. Do it all on a massive scale with private sector skills and sufficient competitive organisations as was done with the wind and solar farms. The technology must have SABS certification to avoid the 
bandits in it for the quick kill. This will require constructing an attractive long term cost to the user with 
the capital cost being tied to the asset value of the home via a structured debt note that stays with the
home or building. 

The incentives can be seen as the horrific on-going cost of Eskom-provided electrical energy, the stability of the returns that are associated with the mortgage instruments, and a base charge that is offset by lower consumption of high price electricity for low order energy use. 

Who then knows when electric car fever will hit SA? Could we take a leaf out of Elon Musk’s USA initiatives – SolarCity and Tesla, and if possible, license their technology? Tesla has, and is developing, a battery based on their current market leading Lithium-ion  pack design, to be provided to homes together with the solar energy systems, and where the car batteries, once they lose their initial high energy density, can be used for home use. So material sustainability is also achieved.

If a smart South African can go to the USA, invent and build SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity, then come on guys, what are we doing about solving our SA challenges? And ours are not even rocket science which SpaceX certainly is. We tend to spend too much time looking for reasons ideas won’t work and playing the blame game.

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What's going on at Eskom?

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Does Eskom really want to remove 1081 white engineering resources and 2149 white Artisans from its employ to meet BEE tick box requirements while it faces the challenge of getting its assets working at a desired level of reliability? Does it think this is a valid idea in the face of a 10 year, at least, history of its assets declining in availability to the point where it has to load shed to keep it from a potential domino collapse through inability to meet demand? It is beyond comprehension that with its deplorable record of project management on the new projects and questionable operational integrity eg Majuba and Duvha events, that it can consider shedding experience and skills (of any colour) until it can convince me and any other citizen that depends on electrical energy that it has an answer to the graphic and metrics below.

 

If the above graphic does not strike alarm and concern into the reader then nothing will. In case of this being in doubt, let’s look at the goal metrics that apply to an electrical utility’s installed capacity. In the “orange“ period above, the targets were set and drove the behavior of operations and maintenance of the assets.

Uptime : 90% ; planned maintenance: 7% ; unplanned outage: 3% (This was the 90:7:3 programme)

85% was a common achievement across most of the power stations. The 7% was mandatory.

Currently we are informed that the following is being achieved (with variations, but of the order shown)

Uptime: 65% Planned maintenance: ? unplanned outage: up to 35%. Hence load-shedding.

We now have a “war room” and musical chairs in the board and executive. Load shedding is now regular, new-build costs rising and high anxiety among consumers. If you bother to review the last Eskom annual report, one can get no idea at all of the mess it is in. Great, rhetoric and wonder-numbers that convey things are going right. What we now see is an exhibition of bungling policies, incompetence and mismanagement. We are none the wiser as to the action plans. The damage to SA is a crisis.

Fellow Engineers, let’s solve this problem.

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