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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. If you are a SAIMechE member and would like to share something valuable with your community, please send your submission to info@saimeche.org.za for consideration.

 

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

Seeking the good news

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 18 March 2014

If ever there was a time when we wanted the good news, it must be now. A time to listen to that classic hit by Crocodile Harris " Give me the good news”

If we accept the word forever
Maybe we should live together
And not be scared to watch
The late night news
You can't use guns to build a nation
A bullet never was creation

Engineering wise, SA is really in the doldrums. Can we be positive and expect that things should now get better? That, of course, only happens if people make it happen, so we can do some dreaming that we hope will turn to reality. Positive thinking helps. Consider the options:

The active start to the National Development Plan. The 18 strategic infrastructure projects actually start to happen. The talking and conferences that have consumed any energy associated with them stop and the action starts.

We get let into the secret by treasury as to how these are to funded. The engineering community is invited to participate at the highest level in the Owners’ teams, the project planning and conceptual engineering to ensure that the projects are correctly structured, engineered and managed. The politicians wake up and realise that it’s all about the built environment, and that is created by science and experience, not hollow, electoral promises based on ignorance.

Government and private business interests start to work together for the common goal of increasing the economic growth rate: what about an economic codesa? Corruption gets serious attention.

The unions and the mining industry together reach a win-win understanding and proceed to jointly add value to our massive commodity assets sitting underground that are useless unless mined and treated in a competitive manner. This in turn encourages the reluctant and unconvinced investors to consider SA as a less risky investment destination. Funds start to flow into the economy again and the current account deficit reverses back to a reasonable level. The Rand stabilizes.

Education? Well, while we are dreamimg and hoping, the training and development of teachers becomes a reality as this is the primary necessary condition for our youth to acquire the essentials of literacy and numeracy. The 30 % pass rate becomes history. Idle Funds in the skills development and Seta accounts are applied to the training of engineering resources including the funding of Mentors.

Last but not least, the government becomes convinced that cadre deployment in place of resources with skills and expertise is a disaster.

If you are willing to be part of the solution, by clicking onto http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JACJjid9WWY should provide some inspiration.

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HR : where is the added value in recruitment?

Posted By Chris Reay, Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Some recent investigations into the views that engineering resources have on the benefit that they accrue from the HR function in their organizations is most revealing. It is almost entirely negative.

I adopted a neutral role in the inquiry process so as not to influence the issue from an emotional perspective as I have my own views on the role of HR in the recruitment process. It just was so evident that the consensus confirmed my own views.

The first issue raised is how much do HR practitioners know about the role of engineering functions that enables them to assemble a job specification that is meaningful and practical?

The second issue raised is how much do HR practitioners know about the role of engineering resources that enable them to actually evaluate CVs with any credibility?

The third issue is how many engineering resources feel almost insulted when requested to be interviewed by a young inexperienced HR person who may be half the age of the candidate and possessing some soft skill qualification perhaps at the most. Those that pass this session of questionable worth are then selected to proceed to the line management interview.

Then the issue is raised as to the time line management spend evaluating the CVs presented to them. It continues to astound me as to how fickle this is. If the assortment of technical boxes is not ticked or the candidate is too old or has not been in the same type of business, there is invariably a rejection. I have seen more time spent adjudicating offers for a conventional pump than spent assessing the credentials of the most valuable asset in the company: the Engineer.

We have a scarce skills problem and do not think that the current economic downturn is going to have any significant impact on this other than in the short term in specific roles.

Some suggestions to address this issue.

  1. HR must desist from making it apparent they are constructing their own job needs by becoming a valueless and time consuming constraint in the throughput process of recruiting engineering resources into employers.
  2. HR must cease the process of "cutting and pasting” as many functions in intricate detail into job specifications. Some of the inclusions are hilarious at best.
  3. Any job specification that calls for a large number of very specific skills and experiences that the employing body is calling must ask themselves: where is their own succession planning? Who "out there” is expected to provide these in place of your own organisation?
  4. Enable communication between the candidate and the line Engineer to discuss detail even before the formal interview.
  5. Use recruiters that understand Engineers and engineering as a profession.
  6. Start seriously undertaking the training of Candidate Engineers within the employer organization and stop expecting 35 year old Engineers with 15 years of high value project and business experience to be waiting around for your call.

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SAIMechE’s suggested contribution to solutions for the scarce skills challenge

Posted By Chris Reay, Wednesday, 06 November 2013

At the recent workshop held by the Department of Higher Education (DHET), the President’s Infrastructure Coordination Committee (PICC) and the Council for the Built Environment (CBE), the objective was to assess the status of the scarce skills in South Africa by assembling Occupational Teams (OTs) that would be assembled largely from the voluntary engineering organizations and academia. Two days were spent following the earlier work done by the PICC/DHET/CBE team to prepare a list of what was determined by the 18 Strategic Infrastructure Projects (SIPs) to be the scare skills for this programme. This list covered the management, professional and trades identified as such by the Organising Framework for Occupations (OFO) model.

The 18 SIPs are identified at a very high level, for example SIP1 being "Unlocking the Northern mineral belt with the Waterberg as the catalyst”. For what was alleged to be "security” reasons, not much else is published on this SIP to expand on the detail, but it can be reliably gathered that a large component will be for coal mining development to take up the supply that is dwindling in the Witbank/Middelburg area.

The projected list of scarce skills, when reviewed on the basis that it should enable some effective action to commence, is in my view a rather useless piece of data insofar as the Mechanical Engineers are concerned. It simply shows "about 500” needed at a scarcity level of "20-50%” whatever that may convey.

The SAIMechE team filled in their answers to the OT list on the wide spectrum of questions and these will then presumably be assembled and evaluated for action with all the others. Most of the questions we have been addressing for years that seem to do no more than lead to the next conference or workshop. One simply comes away with the feeling of perpetual talk and no perceived action.

The first concern the team had was that the workshop called for voluntary conveners to fill variety of time consuming roles, and this just seemed to illustrate a poor business model. Here we have the National Development Programme (NDP) with its first 18 projects worth hundreds of billions of Rand in total installed value (TIV) that has no funds to pay for a properly structured resource development team that would comprise a fraction of a percent of the TIV cost. It simply illustrates the importance given to this role in the success of the programme. There is no contracted leverage with voluntary teams.

The SAIMechE team made three constructive, actionable suggestions. Firstly, establish a top level professional resources team who would be paid to get the scarce skills issue measured and solutions developed, and which would be in a position to advise the SIPs owner’s teams on the appropriate resources required at owner’s level that could be seconded from the profession in a similar way that the accounting profession does for state bodies.

Secondly, develop a model for evaluating availability of scarce skills to identify the scarce resource with the relevant, engineering specific attributes. It is based on the Engineer’s credo that you do not know much about anything until you can define and measure it. Scarcity needs to have two references to be measureable: what you have and what you need. Accordingly SAIMechE could offer to facilitate working with professional engineering resource recruiting bodies to create a large and well configured, best-in-class, dynamic database of engineering resources for these and other South African projects. By simply stating that we need a number of Mechanical Engineers does not resolve the issue. The only time the real scarcity is known is when the employer specifies the need at granular level of definition. For example one can search on Mechanical Engineers and get hundreds, but then ask for those with the specifics such as 10 years of coal plant processing experience or conveyor and coal chute design, one may be lucky to find a few if any under today’s dwindling expertise that largely exists in near retirement age groups or who may have emigrated.

Thirdly, with this information and working with the employers undertaking the projects and who issue the job specifications with these details, we can identify those who should be taking on the Candidate Engineers that wish to do their training under the SAIMechE Professional Development Programme. SAIMechE would be the paid conduit to provide information on scarce skills to the PICC or the CBE on an on-going basis enabled by the dynamics of the model. We need to ensure that the expectation of perpetual voluntary work by professionals is not presumed. It’s a business reality to pay for value. It would it addition be of value to be able to second experts from the Membership, exploiting the immense, collective intellectual capital of the Institution and effectively meeting the essence of the mission statement.


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The realization on scarce resources

Posted By Chris Reay, Friday, 20 September 2013

After many months (years?) of no apparent action following the publication of the National Development Plan, various bodies are now awakening to the reality of the resource requirements in order to be able to effectively manage and spend the billions on infrastructure projects.

It was always going to be a tough challenge: R800 odd billion over three years. Someone was smoking something to actually believe that this was viable. Dwell for a minute on the realities of project spend patterns. Firstly, no spending pattern is ever linear, or in terms of Rand over time, would it ever represent a consistent average from start to finish. Thus represented, it is the area under the curve that amounts to the total project spend.

Forward to reality: project spending patterns have the s-curve feature: they rise slowly as concept, design, procurement occurs and then start to climb steeply as deliveries and construction follow. It then tails off at commissioning and handover. The essence of this that there is a peak, and for the area under the curve to meet the project budget, the peak is considerably higher than the average.

What does this mean? Most likely it means that resource needs are not linear and have the same peaking nature. So when estimates are produced reflecting the numbers of resources needed, are these factored by the time axis? Most times not, and we invariably get the classic multi-tasking that is imposed on the scarce resources. This then adds to the potential delay in due performance dates being met. Multi-tasking creates its own delays, and anyone who believes otherwise should attend a few workshops that demonstrate this admirably.

Let’s then add another classic activity that for some pernicious reason remains the foundation of project planning: critical path scheduling. How many projects ever give consideration to the only development that has had the most time and cost saving successes on projects over the last 50 years? It’s called critical chain scheduling. As an aspirant believer in this process, it continues to amaze me that management does not know that it even exists let alone how it works. Far worse is the regular experience one has in presenting the process to the potential users, who most times praise the fundamentals that define the process, but return home only to be faced with the common response - business as usual.

Well, the NDP could do a lot worse than, once the reality of limited skilled and experienced resources has sunk home, have a good look at adopting a critical chain scheduling philosophy. It may just assist in preventing the project durations and costs to emulate the dreadful experiences we seem to have with most major projects such as Medupi.

The usual responses continue to be heard to using such a significant variation to standard procedure. It is too difficult: management won’t understand it. Perhaps then we need to study the experiences of major USA and Japanese projects as examples that have proved the point. The main changes occur in the human behavior of project management due the discipline imposed by critical chain principles: prioritising projects, assuming most durations are overestimated, aggregation and buffering of the safety before it’s lost, starting on time and measuring progress in time and not money. It not only sounds sensible, but it actually works.

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The more that things change, the more they stay the same

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 19 August 2013

It is hard to comprehend that our once successful and world class power utility is now in such a parlous state of diminished competence. The engineering professions have since 1992 warned that, if the government believes in its economic growth projections based on GEAR and ASGISA, then as with any power utility that depends for base load on the 6 pack fossil or two reactor nuclear plant configurations, then start building them without further delay, and to stop kidding themselves that private power interests would want to get involved with investing here on the returns available with the (admirable) historically low unit cost of Eskom’s supply.

Aside from now facing the reality of a major national economic driver failure and the frustrations and anger of business and citizens, Eskom will have to face up to the formidable task of recreating the lost institutional memory and capital in the form of experienced engineering resources to manage both the capital programme and the maintenance of a very stretched system. My own observations and interaction with Eskom, commencing some four years ago on the efforts to provide resource input to the Capital Development Department have been nothing but amazing in the naivety and misplaced belief then that all new Engineers would need to be black females! The affirmative action obsession will come back and bite them big time. Eskom now faces the additional challenge of global demand for good and experienced power engineering resources. In a hysteresis-correcting like manner, they will have to bend back dramatically to reverse their losses, as their mistaken belief that training is going to solve this one should not fool the public. We all know how long it takes to mould a useful, productive, experienced Engineer.

Overall the blame for being politically naïve and failure to heed the advice of experts must lie with the government and the Minister of Public Enterprises. It is hard to believe that those tasked with the responsibility for energy management fell into the realm of unconscious incompetence ie they did not know that they did not know, as the warning bells were loud and clear long ago. I recall Ian Macrae, a past CEO of Eskom, stating "if you stop Eskom growing, you stop the economy growing” How true this is going to be. What must international investors now think about SA as an investment option? Load shedding, rationed power, inadequate skills to recover, the possibility of skills actually depleting further…..and worse, it seems not much convincing light at the end of the tunnel. It is now time that the government and Eskom paid some attention to the significant collective expertise that exists out in the community in the form of retrenched and retired white Engineers who have earned their T shirts in the power industry. Eskom’s current constraint to recover throughput as an active power generating asset will be the supply and retention of skills. It will take some inventive strategy to get that act together but until I see some real serious concern to realize this, then the consumer is going to add desperation to the frustration that power rationing, higher tariffs and unforeseen outages are the future for a long time. Below are some of the statements from the Eskom annual report which I include for a bit of light, masochistic reading:

"Eskom was recognised as a utility of global stature in 2001 when it received the Financial Times award for the Global Power Company of the Year.

Power outages in 2006 and 2007 have brought into sharp focus the vulnerability of the power system. Several factors came into play – higher than expected demand, unplanned outages, and more importantly, a diminishing reserve capacity. In recent years the reserve margin for generation capacity has shrunk to between 8% and 10%. We aspire to a reserve margin of 15%.

As the provider of 95% of South Africa’s electricity, our contribution may be the most fundamental of all in supporting economic growth in South Africa – another reason for the exhilaration and heightened sense of mission that have characterised Eskom’s activities over the past year”.

Missing conclusion: We ran out of power because, together with government, we were not competent or experienced enough to plan and manage the energy system of the country. Our exhilaration may be short lived, as the disillusioned consumer must now pick up the tab for our actions.

Just in case the reader did not notice, this is a word for word repeat of the SA Mechanical Engineer leader article of January 2008. The more they stay the same….

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The gathering storm

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 22 July 2013


Engineering practitioners are feeling the pinch that is engulfing most of the citizens of South Africa. We observe daily the reaction to the rising cost of living, the almost demonic rise in basic expenses that far exceed the published inflation figures. We indulge in the ritual of finding reasons, and it being such an emotional issue, we collectively are failing to rationally respond to finding solutions. Let’s firstly take a look at one of the typical, evident symptoms.

The generation and distribution of electricity must without question be an absolute and necessary condition to enable a country to build a modern economy. A quick review of the history over the last two decades reveals that Eskom did not build any capacity into the system until the load-shedding crisis of 2007-2008 made it blatantly apparent that we were in big trouble. The projections by energy experts and Eskom themselves since 1997 were not heeded by government. It thought it would rely on the emergence of independent power producers and not did listen to the warnings that such players only took part if the investments made sense. Eskom had built many modern 6 pack stations that were considered world class and lead the way with large units, the use of pithead locations and the use of high-ash content coal. Eskom had developed a well versed owner’s team with a top level intellectual memory and capacity that knew about power generation, transmission and distribution. Their model was to design and install stations that did not try to experiment with untested technology and politically dictated management structures. It knew the need for experienced skills.

Fast forward to today. Our now infamous political interference habits are coming home to bite us. Eskom, on top of a few bouts of knockout increases in tariffs, then requires a 16% price adjustment per annum for at least the next five years. The surpluses that had been generated were taken by the new government for other uses instead of providing for a sinking fund. Lovely cash cow. Who worries about the future capitalization? This is then compounded by "removing” the retained intellectual memory and replacing it with an inexperienced owner’s team. This team manages to mess with maintenance as well, so that the reliability of the installed capacity is compromised.

Then the message hits home: we must build two new stations: Medupi and Kusile. We are not that good at estimating, especially as we decide to go for bespoke specifications instead of, under the pressure of the circumstances, relying on the experience of established project structures and know-how. The projected costs of Medupi rise from (well who really knows?) anything from R87 billion to now R105 billion and counting, and the date of first synchronization has moved from 2011 to 2014. The messages from the site are scary: you do not know it all. Be aware, things are bad.

So we connect the dots and what does it reveal? It takes no rocket scientist to figure out root cause. I have never indulged in that horror practice of being politically correct, and whilst I will say this, it is now the almost universal opinion in a noticeable crescendo.

Transformation without education.

If that is not readily apparent, then one should not be surprised at the dangers of a gathering storm.

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A “Grimm” fairy tale……

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 04 July 2013

The phone rang. "Hallo, Professional Engineer here. May I help you?” The voice on the other end sounded a bit desperate. "I am JZ, the CEO of a company called RSA Ltd and I am here with my Financial Director PG and my Operations Director TM” We are enquiring whether you would be in a position to visit our works and give us some advice. Our main production unit called the Economy Machine is giving a lot of trouble”. "I’ll be right over” said Engineer.

In the debriefing meeting, Engineer enquired as to the purpose of the machine, the units of production and the throughout rate. "The machine is meant to produce a product called a GDP. We set it up to meet the needs of a market of about 50 million users, and to increase its annual output by 7%. No matter what we do it hardly meets even half of the user market, and is now only increasing by about 2% per year, and is absorbing most of our capital. You can see it needs some fixing, and up to now we have not used any Engineers, only our usual consultants. We think it may be time to consider the views of an Engineer.

Professional Engineer was then permitted to inspect the machine, test various components, take readings and then produce his report, having addressed this complex problem in accordance with the Exit Level Outcomes of the Engineer’s competency criteria. The essential elements of the findings were as follows.

  1. The main problem is that the machine has three major functions that are all working against each other, thus stifling GDP at the material mixing stage. The three parts driving these functions are the Free Market Economy device, the SACP device and the COSATU device. Each is directing the raw material into different processes.

  2. There are a large number of components fitted that are not up to the designers’ standards. We have listed many that were selected and fitted based on the coloured boxes that come from the favoured suppliers, and not from those meeting the working requirements in the specifications.

  3. A lot of the raw material feedstock and many of the essential parts and correct spares for the machine have allegedly been removed from the factory, and are unaccounted for in the materials audit we did. It appears no action is ever taken to rectify this.The electrical power to the machine has frequent trips. Switchboard distribution components such as breakers are reset, a dangerous procedure, and no maintenance records are evident on any of the equipment. Much of it has been left in a dysfunctional state. Reviewing the costing records, the energy input price and labour costs have escalated alarmingly and well over the market inflation rate, and productivity of a GDP unit per worker has fallen by 40% over the last 10 years.

  4. We reviewed the company’s annual report to attempt to glean some earlier financial and production records, and noted that the auditors have qualified their audit report every year since 2000.

  5. We noticed that many of the factory workers were not busy, and in enquiring from HR, we were told that the cost of dismissing them is very high and that HR spend most of their time at the CCMA putting the company’s case against workers who have clearly failed to perform. In fact, while writing this report, the machine was stopped and the workers were out on strike apparently demanding a 60% wage increase, free housing, free medical aid and shorter working hours.

  6. We reviewed the qualifications of all employees to evaluate suitability for the operation of a high technology production business and we noted that none of the Directors and Senior Managers has any technical qualifications or experience in GDP production.

Our report accordingly recommends a complete change of management, recruiting and training the appropriately qualified staff, removal of the functions of the SACP and COSATU devices, disposal of all the pirate parts used from the coloured boxes, re-order of the specified parts, the overhaul of the electrical systems, and the immediate introduction of a hire-and-fire labour policy. Without such measures, the machine and the factory will have to close down, with the accompanied non-production of GDP and the increase in unemployed workers. The shareholders need to act to replace the Directors at the next AGM.

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The new registration system

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 06 June 2013


On the 1st April 2013 ECSA officially launched the new registration system. Initially this has been done for the category of Professional Engineer, and will be followed by those for Professional Certificated Engineer, Professional Technologist and Professional Technician. The current (or now termed the legacy system) may be selected by the candidate for Pr Eng up until the end of March 2015, but it is expected that most new candidates will see the advantages of pursuing the new system.

For the uninitiated who explores the process of applying as a candidate for registration, the extent of the documentation and the interpretation of the requirements can be somewhat overwhelming. It is all contained on the ECSA website.

The essential differences between the two systems is that the legacy system focuses on the input criteria or training and experience content, whereas the new system is based on an outcomes content and assessed against eleven specific assessment criteria. Both pursue the achievement of professional competence as the goal.

Of interest is that the process is generic for all engineering disciplines and it only identifies the discipline where the guidelines require that the type of workplace environment must be appropriate for that discipline. The essence is to develop professional competence and not a high level of technical skills. One could readily conclude that the competence criteria would apply to just about any other profession. After all, the ability to communicate well, be ethical, use knowledge, analyse and solve problems and manage effectively must apply to any profession, whether it be medical, legal, accounting or in soft skills. It is perhaps a chance now for engineering resources to take up more assertive and visible roles in structures outside of pure engineering. Could this be a mechanism by which the engineering profession enhances its social status to be better represented on corporate boards and government structures?

The need for professionalism within the engineering ranks is being identified by many employers with whom the Institution has interacted recently. Commentary such as needing the types of competency skills outlined in the criteria rather than super technical skills are becoming evident. "We can get technical know-how relatively easily today from the available sources, but we cannot get the professional competencies without the sort of development you are describing” is not an infrequent response.

Accordingly, the SAIMechE is developing the Professional Development Programme (PDP) to extend the fundamentals of the ECSA requirements into a facilitated training and development initiative that effectively enables the candidate to readily envisage a practical process of achieving the required outcomes in their workplace environment, how to interact with the supervisor and mentor and participate in peer group sessions to progressively practice and reach a competence standard at professional level to confidently assume responsible roles in industry and society.

SAIMechE has recently launched the Road to Registration workshop on the events calendar. In due course, it envisages each of the eleven exit level outcomes being offered as a full day workshop for the benefit of registered and unregistered members.


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Power disrupts. Absolute power disrupts absolutely

Posted By Chris Reay, Friday, 12 April 2013

The Editor mentioned to me the other day that she should issue a health warning with some of my leader articles because they often create an acute case of depression. This will in future be issued with the articles as it is becoming increasingly difficult to construct positive and encouraging articles about the state of the nation and the environment in which engineering has to play its role.

Last month we took a look at the status of the mining industry and one could not do much more than be pretty negative about the trend it has taken over recent years. From being top spot so to speak for decades, we have slumped to a mediocre level that replicates a number of other circumstances in our country. And the bell tolled loud and clear this week when 4 major employers in the EPCM industry advised that they were about to institute section 189 retrenchment programmes. They inevitably become the victims of the lack of new mining spend which in turn does not happen because the investors in such business have made it clear that other countries are able to offer a less risky investment climate. Most of the analyst commentary on the issue has confirmed this view. It is just appalling and almost treasonable that those in government allowed the talk about nationalization to go so far without taking a firm hand, ably assisted by incoherent mining policy.

It only goes to show that in such matters of global economics and investor confidence that they do not know. And worse is that they do not know that they do not know. It had little to do with the Euro crisis which gets blamed for everything including lack of local service delivery. Don’t mention the State of the Nation address because I will then need the advice of the intended health warning.

On the matter of power, we note with some relief that NERSA saw fit to refute giving Eskom the 16% escalation over the next five years, which on top of the increases over the last three would have been catastrophic for industry, business and the average citizen. Even the 8% is severe enough which means a doubling of the price of electricity in less than 9 years, and it does not include the mark-up that most municipalities will add on before charging the consumer.

It causes one to reflect on what has happened to Eskom, and whilst it gets the blame for such drastic price increases, it is really government policy that caused the whole crisis. To have left the power capitalization industry to virtually collapse from 1994 to 2007 was the collective decision of policy makers who again demonstrated that they did not know that they did not know. In that period Eskom became a cash-cow for government. It also became a show piece of transformation where most of the established intellectual capital and memory was methodically removed to satisfy a political whim. It became evident that political identity was more important than experienced engineering and project management skills that had been built up over decades of designing and building the best six pack stations in the world.

The effective owner’s team had been removed and replaced with the outsourcing to foreign based project houses. Costs escalated and are exhibited in the horrific escalation on the price of Medupi for example. Where was the sinking fund to finance the new station build? It became necessary to charge the current consumers to fund the capital expansion. Therein lies your 16% requirement. Whatever Eskom may say to the contrary, it is borne out by the current nightmare that personifies our electrical energy generation and distribution structures. Absolute power has certainly disrupted the economy and will do so for the foreseeable future. How do we reverse the slide to uncompetitive input costs?

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For whom the bell tolls…

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 12 March 2013

You are a Mechanical Engineer. You work in the South African industry. It would be hard to find any activity that is some way does have some connections with the South African mining industry. Connections take the form of user of the mined commodity, supplier of equipment, supplier of services, and ultimately has some dependence on the value that mining adds to the GDP of the country. If you are part of a consultancy, a project management group, a construction company, a financial group and countless businesses from large multi-million Rand organizations to SMEs, it is very likely you will have connections with the mining industry. Mining flows in the veins of South Africans and so it should. We have been told that, following a Citibank survey, we literally sit on an un-mined value of some $2.5 trillion in commodities. The largest in the world.

Just what did we do with this asset that has been given to us for free and left to our collective responsibility as a result of our being the residents and citizens of the country? The early pioneers started out bravely, successfully investing money, technology, hard work and facing unprecedented risk head-on to build and place South Africa at the top of the gold and diamond production world-wide. We have some 80% of the world’s known platinum ore and a good deal of most of the others. We pioneered the mining of high-ash content coal and assisted in the design and development of boilers that can burn it effectively and efficiently to evolve some of the best and most admired and low cost six pack power stations in the world that supported the mining industry. In the early nineties we had some 800 high tech researchers across the board tackling challenges in the mining industry. We thankfully still have a flourishing mining supply industry that designs and builds bespoke equipment to service the industry here and internationally. We had the best Mining Engineers in the world, lots of them, and the older ones mentored the younger ones as a matter of course. We were King of that shining castle.

Take a snapshot today. What comes to mind? Marikana, closed platinum shafts, strikes, poor worker living conditions, reducing productivity, rapidly rising input costs, electricity prices rising at a rate to not only render a lot of mining uneconomic, but a lot of industry as well. We have dropped in the league of gold mining countries from first to fifth. Where are many of our talented mining resources? They are now running the mining industries in Australia, Canada, South America and Central Africa. Our research group has dropped by a factor of ten. International investors are openly advising that we do not really feature on their screens at present: the unchecked talk of nationalization, the regulatory confusion created by the MPRDA and SIMS reports has taken its toll. Perceptions are real, not imaginary as the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) seems to think.

In my book, if the rule applies that those who set the rules and call the shots must be accountable, then that lies fair and square with the DMR. It is not surprising that we see these debacles in the mining, energy, education, health, security and infrastructure functions in South Africa. When the goal is political power at all costs ably assisted by inexperience and an illiterate and innumerate voter support base, then do not be surprised when a competitive nation declines to mediocrity.

If anyone can propose a solution to extricate ourselves from this mess and turn ourselves up again, then we need all the help we can get. Otherwise the bell tolls for thee.

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The steady decline to lowest common denominator

Posted By Chris Reay, Friday, 11 January 2013

I guess we have to criticize the laws of the universe, those annoying and inviolate laws of science and the basic engineering fundamentals for not taking account of the inability of those "leading” the functions of the built environment development and essential skills training in South Africa to achieve the standards required to meet these laws. Why uphold compliance with nature’s laws when it is much easier to change the need for them by a politically driven relaxation? It is clearly far easier to decide to set regulations for practitioners and contractors to use the surplus numbers of unqualified persons to be awarded government contracts for purposes of building the infrastructure.

After all, with this policy and approach we can meet the necessary political targets which seem to be far more important than ensuring compliance with structural, life-cycle and safety standards that have evolved over decades of proven engineering practice. We must learn to be satisfied with our new-found decrees from those that rule, and we can even indulge in some self-praise when we comment "……that bridge was nearly strong enough……… we were quite close really”.

So, in keeping with the above aspiration to continue our acceptance of adjusted standards and drive for the common denominator leading to "a better life for all”, the Minister, ably assisted by the cidb, has recently decreed the following”

"The key amendments include the removal of the requirement for contractors to have registered professionals in their permanent employ; this is to be removed as it is not viable to have such professionals in a contractor’s full-time employ". "The requirement for the Registered Professional is therefore being moved from a contractor registration requirement to a contract management requirement as a condition of contract”.

Essentially, the roles of the Professional Engineer, Technologist and Technician will now effectively be subservient to that of the registered Construction Manager on matters where professional engineering judgment is required. I guess with the comedy of the self-inflicted war games that have been played out between ECSA and the CBE over the important subject of Identification of Engineering Work (IDoEW), not much more could have been expected. Those unregistered Engineers or at least those practicing as such can continue to act without any fear of liability as the rules that govern registration, ethics and safe practice do not apply to them. The IDoEW deliberations commenced in 2006. It’s now 2013 and we are still counting. The profession has messed about arguing while we witness a steady entropic decline in the built environment.

On the topic of training of young Engineers in industry, I thought I would recall some gems that arose in 2012 whilst endeavouring to persuade certain employers to consider taking on basically good candidates and provide some development and experience to assist feeding talent into the skills pool.

"We do not have the time, the money or the systems to train anyone. Just find us a qualified and experienced Engineer. We need a PDI between 30 and 35, with 15 years experience as an Engineering Manager”. (Allowed cost to company will remain undisclosed here to protect the guilty.)

"We do not have time to train or develop anyone into this specialized role. Please find us fully qualified candidates who can hit the ground running”. No acceptable candidates have emerged to date.

Cyril Ramaphosa has confirmed that the ANC policy is to spend R845 billion on infrastructure in the next 3 years. I found that his recent TV interview conveyed blind optimism and was most unconvincing. I can only assume that he does not know that he does not know what is needed to do that properly. Professional government and provincial owners’ teams and supply contractor capacity appear not to feature in his model.

Anyone who cares about developing professional engineering skills should be made aware of the new candidate training curriculum that will be instituted by ECSA and the Voluntary Engineering Associations in April 2013. It identifies the exit level outcomes that define the professional and will be the fastest and most effective route to competence and registration that can be envisaged.

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Qualifications and the phase to professional competence

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 29 October 2012

I often follow the debate on the profiles, experiences, expectations and opinions of the issues concerning the Baby Boomers (born 1940 t0 1960), The Generation Xs (1960 to 1975-ish), and the Generation Ys (post 1976). These periods are derivations taken from many historical analyses of the parties who study the phenomena of the age eras and their characteristics.

Probably the most significant item that is relevant to all these age groups is that of lifestyle and the values that define that. Each age group tends to indulge in the criticism of the previous one laying blame for all the problems that beset their current lifestyles. Characteristics such as social responsibilities, work ethics, corporate practice, family stability, wealth profile and continuity of employment are significant items. It just seems to be easier to blame the earlier generation for its own generation’s problems rather than exhibit and practice leadership and responsibility for one’s own.

Corporate value systems have changed with the evolution of bottom line items that go beyond profit. Awareness of the environment, ecology and health systems have emerged strongly where the impacts of these are able to be managed with technology development.

In engineering education training and practice, it is not uncommon to witness those who question the effectiveness of present-day curricula which in real terms have not differed significantly from those of earlier generations. Obviously the tools that facilitate learning have changed with modern information technology developments such as computers, software and digital configuration. How often has one heard the comments questioning the inclusion of certain academic basics into programmes where the graduate has claimed that such learning has never been applied in their subsequent careers? In engineering curricula this may be a truism but the challenge is that due to the "connectedness” of science and technology, where does one omit such content?

The great thing about an engineering curriculum is that it addresses the challenge of tackling those aspects of life that do not radically change: the laws of nature and science remain intact, the fundamentals still exist, the approach to problem solving and the need to develop empirical competence are still the foundations of the Engineer’s world. They are the toolbox for future applications. What does matter thereafter is the training and practice of how to use them to build the environment we purport to do better than any other profession.

The matter of becoming competent to apply these principals, plus those of management and economics, then need to be assessed as to their relevance of past experiences on modern engineering practice. Have these changed other than for the tweaking required for inclusion of new technologies, materials development, and refinement of codes of practice for example? What age group is the right mentorship group? Are the retired or semi-retired the right dispensers of experiential skills and advice? Has this thinking now emerged for the reason that each generation of Engineers from the baby boomer era was both supervised and mentored by the next level in the system as a matter of course where is was not called "official mentoring” but de facto on the job development in the process of evolving the next skills layer?

There was clear period of world practice in infrastructure development with the emergence of industry, production and modern supply chain logistics. Large projects covering all the technologies were common: energy development, transport, communications and service industries emerged that had decades of continuity that encouraged sequential training and development of practical skills.

We must question why we now have an era where this has reduced significantly and it is evident that internationally well experienced skills in the lower, active age groups are in very short supply.

From a human development perspective, the period over which a candidate Engineer needs to develop sufficient competencies to be recognized as a professional will not have changed. Gladwell’s theory on the 10,000 hour rule probably applies where any person claiming expertise will have spent 10,000 hours odd developing that expertise. So the candidacy phase which is set as 3 years minimum is rarely met, and the statistics show that 5 years is the norm. If you work that out, it is about 10,000 hours.

Until we return to the era of on-the-job sequential skills development, we will have to recall the retired and semi-retired who are willing to fill this space. Regrettably in SA, we have bolstered the loss of this intellectual capacity by dumb affirmative action politics and short term financial returns. The challenge is when this capacity is not available in books or boxes, it is the only option. This capacity must be applied sensibly to the emerging graduate training programmes to make the most of their 10,000 hours needed to reach a recognized level of professional competence.

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We re-visit the National Development Plan

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 17 September 2012


In June last year, the commission released a diagnostic document which stated that the elimination of poverty and the reduction of inequality were the objectives of a long term plan, but that nine key challenges stood in the way. Let’s call these the Undesirable Effects or UDEs for short.

  • Too few people work.
  • The quality of school education for black people is poor.
  • Infrastructure is poorly located, inadequate and under-maintained.
  • Spatial divides hobble inclusive development.
  • The economy is unsustainably resource intensive.
  • The public health system cannot meet demand or sustain quality.
  • Public services are uneven and often of poor quality.
  • Corruption levels are high.
  • South Africa remains a divided society.

Then, in November, the commission produced a draft National Development Plan for 2030. It contained recommendations covering the following areas. Let’s call these the Desirable Effects or DEs for short. We can see that these are in effect the inverts of the UDEs, and hence become objectives or what we will classify as ambitious targets.

  • Create jobs
  • Education and training
  • Expand infrastructure
  • Transform urban and rural spaces
  • Transition to a low carbon economy
  • Provide health care
  • Build a capable state
  • Fight corruption
  • Transformation and unity

Then comes the following, almost casual assumption: South Africa can become the country we want it to become. It is possible to get rid of poverty and reduce inequality in 20 years. We have the people, the goodwill, the skills, the resources – and now, a plan.

Assuming that the ANC finds the time at their Mangaung conference to review and approve the plan, then the 20 year implementation process has to actually start. The ANC has never shown any glory in action and implementation to follow their renowned rhetoric, so herein lies the test to see whether the assumption made by the plan is more than the usual innuendo.

Let’s take a reality check on the proposed elements of the plan. We can approach this with a mindset that has evolved from a fairly long exposure and many practical applications of the theory of constraints, commonly abbreviated to TOC. It is evident that this NDP challenge is a case of aspiring to a number of ambitious targets that not only require the full dependence on their specific necessary and sufficient conditions, but that such conditions can exist without any mutual conflicts. The practice of using the strategic and tactical mechanisms of the ambitious target process makes the assumption that the target is achievable and is approached in a confident frame of mind rather than one of disbelieving scepticism, which understandably, most commentary on the NDP has generated so far. Intuitively, the NDP is doomed to failure primarily as a result of an historical lack of effective management execution in SA. Any amount of political innuendo will not overcome that reality. What we can only hope for is that the government, as the sponsors so to speak of the plan, will draw on the intelligence, skills, experience and proven competence of available resources to set up, design, articulate, prescribe and monitor the plans making up what we should in fact call a programme, as it

will be a collection of interactive and dependent projects each requiring skilled planning and management execution. The best must be used, not the most politically favoured.

There is one very fundamental factor that will render this programme so challenging that it should convince us of the need for the most radical, urgent, collective effort. I will simply call it the Rule of exponential projections. It is evident in reviewing the listed DEs that every one of them is essentially population growth rate dependent. From 2000 to 2011 the Mundi index shows that the growth has been 12,8% in net gain of population numbers, or an annualised rate of 1,2%. This moderately low (recent) increase in the population was due to the escalation in HIV/Aids driven deaths. How this will change in the next 20 years is an unknown, but it could increase if the treatment measures are effective. 30% of the current population is 14 years old or less and all reaching the job market age in this period. There are an estimated 4,7m unemployed persons in the employment spectrum at present, so a rough projection shows that we need to create about 4.7 m, plus those jobs to employ the 14 year olds, plus the result of the population growth over this period. In my maths, the NPC vision to create 11 m jobs (see the plan) over the next 20 years means we shall have more unemployed in numbers than we have at present. So the elimination of unemployment and hence poverty would appear to be a pipedream and we question whether it has taken exponential growth into account.

Clearly economic growth is required to create these jobs and it has to occur at a higher exponential rate that of the population needing employment. How does one converge these two lines? We either limit the growth rate of the independent variable (population) or radically increase the dependent variable (economic growth rate). If not, the lines diverge and the problem becomes greater. Many goals are missed due to the prevalence of linear thinking.

The ability to provide the management execution to all these components of the programme requires skilled and experienced resources (primarily technical: Engineers, Technologists and Technicians) to be available at the right level and numbers to implement the projects: infrastructure for example requires that the reinvestment into the assets of the infrastructure must equal the rate of depreciation just to remain static. Again we will find that the curves diverge if we cannot reverse the current trend in historical deterioration of these assets without replacement. The infrastructure is currently in a state of serious entropic decline with little evidence of major projects in the pipeline.

If the growth rate of urbanisation which is a major factor in overload and breakdown of infrastructure exceeds the rate of infrastructure growth by only 3,5% per annum, the magnitude of collapsed and underserviced urban population with all its attendant troubles will double in 20 years.

What are the simple fundamentals that must be followed in the big plan or programme? Firstly, identify the goal of each ambitious target of the programme, identify the constraints, subordinate to them, elevate them and keep following this process ensuring that interim pre-defined milestones are being met. Prioritise what will drive the throughput to meet the goal. Do what should be done and do not do what should not be done. Do not waste resources and time, for example changing town and road names, when the resources should be used to manage the required activities to achieve the programme objectives. Utilise the best available management and capacity to execute the processes.

South Africa has a major constraint in the numbers of productive resources that it can apply to this pending challenge. Unless some sense is brought into the skills space alone that reverses the current trend to enforce misplaced affirmative action, uses the experienced skilled (and ageing) work force, raises compliance levels for entrance to learning institutions, discontinues the employment of political appointees into roles instead of competent persons selected on merit, reviews the negative impact of the labour laws, formulates effective policy on small business development, and identifies measurable, interim milestones over the next twenty years, then I have to say that the great plan will fail on the basis that reality is again being replaced with political imperatives that make the appeal of the planning commission to the public to join forces "to make miracles” nothing more than hollow rhetoric we have come so used to hearing. And the exponential rule waits for no one.

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The crucial importance of the mining industry

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 16 August 2012

Most commentaries on the status of the mining industry in South Africa refer to the decline in our rankings within the international comparisons. Mining is essentially the industry that developed the SA economy and which spawned the support industries that provided the equipment and services.

Our unique Government Certificate of Competency evolved from the early 1900s to develop safer working conditions and improved skills for the activities of the mining industry. A recent international survey ranked SA at the top of the list for the value of minerals in the ground at the awesome figure of R2,5 trillion, well ahead of Russia in second place. With such credentials we have, however, declined in our competitiveness as growth markets have increased the demand for resources. We effectively lost out on participating in the last resources boom that witnessed countries such as Australia, Canada, many in Africa north of us and many in South America actively rise in the provider stakes. Various reasons are debated for this, but the most frequently identified are poor and slow policy making, the references to nationalization, the reduction in our capacity for research and development and the accompanied loss of experienced skills. In more recent times, the sudden increase in energy costs and industrial strike action have added to the reversal in our competitiveness.

In September the next Electra Mining exhibition will be held which is one of the largest of its type internationally, and which from all accounts, will be well supported. In particular the action in Africa north of us is significant and we have seen many of our project management, design and construction skills moving to manage these northern projects. Some of our EPCM companies have such projects that make up the bulk of their order book. Further afield, estimates put the human resources running the Australian mining industry to be over 50% of South African origin.

With the slump in the platinum price which has placed a number of mines on a caretaker basis or a scramble to try and manage with fewer contracted resources, can the stakeholders, being investors, government, and the mining industry address the skills issues that are even in the present circumstances in short supply? Most of those with whom I interact express the fear about what are we going to do when the lights really come on again - once the European and American recessionary conditions change and the world demand for minerals resumes?

Reports on the diminished R&D capacity and skills in the research establishments, that in the 80s and early 90s were world leaders in mining research and development, are of great concern as the ability to innovate disappears. Clearly mining activity also depends on reliable infrastructure and good logistics which are not well positioned either at present.

In the vein of " ‘n boer maak a plan” in which South Africans have shown an adept ability, can we tackle this huge challenge and get our competitiveness on the rise? It cannot be beyond our ability and willingness to do some serious mining skills development together with that needed across the whole engineering domain. It is time we saw some next steps in the action territory after the publication of the diagnostic report of the National Planning Commission. It could be in danger of becoming another book shelf study.

We really need to curtail our incessant, negative outlook on this state of affairs and try to get collective, positive group action to turn our mining status around. However, from where will this be triggered and what will catalyze the process?

Perhaps the Electra Mining event could energise some reality here. The SAIMechE is to facilitate the first of its Soap Box sessions which will be interesting to watch. Let’s hope the speakers will be able to address some of these issues and spawn some industry enthusiasm to make things happen. One can safely say that the survival of South Africa depends on it.


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Is the modern economy a giant pyramid scheme?

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 09 July 2012

Think about it. As a taxpayer and voter, you are promised by politicians that if you vote for them they will provide you with all sorts of benefits in exchange for your vote. You earn money in your job and pay tax to the government so that it has funds to provide you with the promised benefits: education for your children, health services, and infrastructure in the form of roads, municipal services, police services, judiciary, economic and fiscal responsibility to name some of them. The mix depends on the policies of each government. In SA you may only get the party’s tee shirt.

Let’s take a look at our own situation in SA. We have what the population has been assured is the best constitution money can buy. If you look carefully you realise that in fact you cannot be assured that the person you vote for will represent you because the political party will decide who to appoint to that role. But let’s not get into politics; we have enough hot air on that topic to cause climate change. What we do witness is that the persons appointed to government at the top are very well paid and appear to earn a lot more than the delivery for which they are responsible. The rules set up by the government whether by statute or by practice enable this to happen. They could be said to be taking money from the down-line without providing the appropriate product in return. How does this differ from the structures of a pyramid scheme? There is no observable exchange of value.

Let’s rather look at what happens to a lot of the money that feeds upwards to the top both via taxes as well as the flow of money to the providers of many near monopolistic trade structures. It seems fairly well documented globally that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. This is happening whether one is in a typically western capitalistic economy or a socialist economy as we can observe in both the USA and Europe. Think of the outcome of the credit crisis: many top bankers and investors made huge and obscene amounts of money via a system they developed to get the money out of the general population. The overwhelming common factor behind all these processes is that money is flowing up to the top without the commensurate product or service flowing back down accompanied by broken assurances that all will benefit from the process. Does the tendency for economies to exhibit this shifting of the wealth upwards then correlate to the emergence of large monopolistic businesses and over-indulgent government, and to the impact of the lack of bank credit to the small business and individual that were, and are, so affected by the credit crisis? It is otherwise commonly called greed.

It is interesting to note that in Australia that most of the millionaires are from the small, entrepreneurial business sector and that the impact of the credit crisis was minimal on that country. The chances of the big banks, financial institutions and businesses taking risks with others’ money was clearly lower. Is this a lesson to SA and the world at large to enable small business to thrive?

If the poor continue to get poorer then there must at some stage be a situation where the inevitable happens: the pyramid scheme collapses, and many irate investors (read taxpayers and consumers) get active to ban the scheme.

Where would engineering as a role fit into this? I do believe that in any engineering transaction which has an objective to create the built environment, the exchange of money for product is probably pretty reasonable. The product is evident, well defined, built to proven specifications by persons who are qualified and usually sufficiently experienced to do it right. When however I see evidence that the lawyers are likely to make more out of the renewable energy contracts than many of the Engineers involved, I wonder if that is contributing to the award of wealth without commensurate productivity. No names are mentioned in order to protect the guilty.

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In search of competence

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 14 June 2012
Is it time to throw a cat among the pigeons and radically review our current processes of learning? For this article I have taken the definition from the Wikipedia which has been developed by a process of reiterative adjustments and additions.

Learning is acquiring new, or modifying existing, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information. The ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals and some machines. Progress over time tends to follow learning curves. Learning is not compulsory, it is contextual. It does not happen all at once, but builds upon and is shaped by what we already know. To that end, learning may be viewed as a process, rather than a collection of factual and procedural knowledge. It is essential to then ally these process with the ability to be cognitive, defined as pertaining to the mental processes of perception, memory,judgment, and reasoning, as contrasted with emotional and volitional processes.

Let’s analyse the accepted learning processes we use today. We would not hesitate to agree that being numerate and literate is a necessary condition to be cognitive, for these are the basic tools that we use. How do we become numerate and literate? By installing the words and the numbers as data into memory and then practicing the selection of such data into processes, we then assemble information and knowledge. With this we have access to the full alphabet, a very large and common base of words, have been taught and practiced on an on-going basis the assembly of arithmetic processes, words, sentences and using our developed cognitive abilities, we are effectively carrying out a decision support system. All the basic data is quickly and easily accessed. If we lack a formula or definition, we quickly refer to the customary tables or dictionaries as our next level of recourse.

We should consider replicating this process in our need for decision support systems for our everyday roles as Engineers. Instead of attending a seminar on say pumping systems which will inevitably be structured to include only the specific experience and knowledge of the presenter, and, out of necessity, be selective and limited, we were able to have access to every work on pumping systems that had been configured in a manner that started on the generic and progressed to the specific, with the detail end of the system being open to constant updating by the user. Supporting this structured information system would be immediate, on-line access to identified subject matter experts that would take the form of Mentors.  Because this subject is so wide, in order to limit the size of the content, we apply this process to a brand or type of pump only, with the supplier being responsible for the content of the system and the updating with new data. This would then enable the new employee to effectively have on-tap, via a modern tablet and internet access, all the specific company information applicable to its products. He should be better equipped to provide decision support to the activities to which he is assigned.

We would therefore be creating by utilising mobile technology and structured configuration, a dynamic, on-line, updateable, comprehensive information system including on-line access to the mentoring services as a decision support system instead of the conventional, irregular generic and often unfocused activities we now commonly refer to as training. 

With the growing dilemma of skills shortages, job hopping, lack of and inefficiencies of conventional training, the aging of the mentor resource base, the rapid changes and developments in new products and processes, the need for capture of experiential knowledge, we have to now ponder whether we need to revisit our current practices of inefficient transfer of decision support content.

For businesses, the focus on being contextual should get them thinking.
  

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Mechanical Genes

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 15 May 2012
This week I have been invited to talk to the first year mechanical engineering students at UCT about nothing in particular, but everything in general. The challenge, of course, is to refrain from being overly authoritative and persuasive, and in the short time available, to identify what it is that students want to know. That is clearly an undertaking with some 140 students from a variety of backgrounds and pre-university experiences. The faculty is fully if not over subscribed for the year as all the tertiary institutions have to select from an over-supply of applicants. I will be interested in due course to know what percentage pass into second year and even more so, the profile of both the successful of the unsuccessful ones, premising this eventuality on the rolling average pass rate over decades of first year classes.

Inevitably one is inclined to reflect on what attracts students to take up engineering and mechanical in particular, and I cast my mind back to my own spell at WitsUniversity in the 60s. Oddly enough, we had a class size of mechanical students after first year that was well over the average class size for that era, 26 in all. We came from all sorts of backgrounds and locations but quickly became a congenial class of friends that participated in many of the typical student activities. Aside from the usual parties, rag events, stunts, raids on girls’ residences etc, a significant  majority of the students, not only  in the mechanical faculty, used old and very used cars as transport, and in many cases some did not have that luxury as we treated it then. These vehicles were either hand-me-downs from the family or acquired from older students selling them off as life seemingly enabled them to progress to better things.

It was quite normal for us to fix and maintain our own vehicles and in most cases this involved the emerging tradition of "hotting - up” to improve performance. Many hours which perhaps we can say should have been used for studying were spent in our various garages at home carrying out these activities. It would be quite applicable to characterize us "playing with cars” and the subject of mechanical excellence of even the simplest of vehicles was a hot topic of discussion and focus. Some of us developed an active interest in rallying and racing and those were the days when one could take one’s own road car to the track or on a rally route, removing only the hubcaps and sometimes the silencers. The engines had in the meanwhile been home-modified: skimmed heads, polished ports, high-lift camshafts, dual choke carburetors, straight through exhaust systems, bigger choke carbs, wide wheels, balanced flywheels, additional gears if the box would accept same, racing brake linings before the advent of disc brakes. Dynamometer tuning was done via the connections we had in the tune up industry. Some of us progressed to pit crew for our local production car and formula one drivers and the 9 hour endurance event was huge crowd attraction with our group.

I mention all this as I believe that this environment was paradise to the genetically hard-wired mechanical student. It offered diverse opportunity to engage in fundamental mechanical activities. We learned how things worked, how they should be disassembled and reassembled, how bearings should be treated, engine designs and modifications, gearboxes, differentials, combustion, fuel and air mixtures, heat transfer, power and torque curves, pre-stressing of bolts, brake designs, clutch modifications, balancing, timing and even early electronic ignition systems. I did a formula one engine design as final year project which had remarkable resemblance to a later Cosworth design, and in the laboratory we did early research on free-flow absorption type silencers. We formed the Wits Branch of the Sports Car club and ran frequent rallies and gymkhanas.

I wonder these days what real, mechanical hands-on activities the modern mechanical engineering student has at his or her disposal. With modern motor vehicle technology having been besieged by the electronics industry and any form of competition now only possible with major sponsorship, there seems very little opportunity for such mechanical dedication. Reflecting back to those days, we have Rory Byrne who was one of our "playing with engines and cars” community at the time, and as we know progressed to become Chief Design Engineer for Ferrari’s formula one team. Then there is Gordon Murray who was a mechanical student from Natal University of Technology who became Chief Designer for McLaren. Keith Helfet was a mechanical engineering student at UCT and did the designs for Jaguar’s XJ-220, XK-180 and the F-Type.

I believe credit should be given to that era when mechanical hands-on experience was almost normal for the student of the day and contributed significantly to the need for basic training.

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Feedback from members on candidate phase training

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 17 April 2012

As most members will have read about in recent communications, SAIMechE is represented on the ECSA Strategy Committee working group (WG1) that is formulating the curriculum structure for the revised process of undertaking the candidate phase training period for purposes of registration as Professional Engineer. The new structure will first be developed for the Pr Eng level and then followed by those for Professional Technologist, Professional Technician and Professional Certificated Engineer. The WG1 is comprised of representatives from ECSA and all the ECSA approved Voluntary Engineering Associations (VAs).

The spirit of cooperation between the parties is very positive, and it is encouraging to witness this collective focus which perhaps illustrates the concern that all the VAs have over the serious shortage of skilled and experienced engineering resources in the South African economy. Of note in the most recent deliberations on the input to the request by the National Planning Commission for a submission on the current situation on engineering in RSA, it was concluded that the country has one fifth of the engineering capacity that is required to meet the intended projects and operational requirements to start to move us into acquiring a developed country status. 

That as a snapshot of course does not reflect the issues along the whole supply chain in meeting the desired outcome of professional status of our engineering resources. This starts with the concern on the dismal performance of the schooling system in maths and science subjects where our education authorities’ pre-disposition to the lowest common denominator standards acknowledges pass rates of 30% as acceptable.

So what are the quick wins in this challenge? As the developed profession we must meet the needs of standards and sufficient numbers of resources. This requires us to do the best we can with the graduates from the tertiary institutions as quickly as possible now, while measures to beef up the capacity of the supply chain elsewhere are undertaken by "others”.

The focus is then on providing the Candidate Engineer with the best training and development methods and facilities during the first period after graduating. ECSA has developed the new exit level outcomes based competency standards which can be viewed on their website. These then form the first requirements in constructing the full training programme, and will be followed by the discipline specific guidelines for each discipline and aligning the generic structure of these with the requirements of the QCTO.

The aim of the latter is to enable ECSA to have the resulting curricula registered as qualifications with SAQA so that the employer of the graduates undertaking the candidate phase programme will be able to claim the relevant funds from their SETAs to assist with the costs of the programme development, the cost of remunerated Mentors and a contribution to the trainee’s stipend.

The VAs will be authorized by ECSA to oversee and mentor the programmes such that the trainee undertakes the planned activities and records the outcomes in a portfolio of evidence that form the submission for registration.

The purpose behind this article is to invite members to log in to the SAIMechE website, Candidate Phase Training Group to make suggestions and give feedback on their current and past experiences during their candidate phase training so that these can be reviewed and incorporated into the new programme. Such issues as mentoring, the type and frequency, the facilities that were needed but not available at the employer, the standards of supervision, the opportunities to be exposed to essential activities, the role observation and participation play in the process are all relevant to this venture. Please assist us in this exercise. The identification of engineering work legislation we expect to be promulgated by the start of next year. Hope runs eternal.

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The National Planning Commission report: dream or nightmare?

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 26 March 2012
Admirable and ambitious goals are always regarded as an essential component of any programme. Those recently published by the NPC can hardly be seen as anything but ultra ambitious. Populated with the usual visionary statements we have become used to imbibing at every political packaged speech and woven together in innuendo and an overdose of clear naivety as to what it takes to deliver results, it leaves one experiencing the after- effects of a fairy tale storyline.

We would all like to believe that we will achieve the developed country status that is outlined by 2030, reduce unemployment by 11 million and have education and service delivery at levels expected of a developed nation. The big concern on virtually every reader’s mind however is how on earth is the country going to get all this done, with not only an abysmal record at delivering anything (except the fated world cup stadiums), but so many of the necessary conditions to be able to action the many projects are just not in place and are unlikely to be so for a long time, if ever.  Reference to the world cup stadiums as an example of our excellence must be tempered with the fact that the whole programme cost the country an absolute fortune and was largely supported by a good deal of foreign input that would bankrupt SA if we were to address the infrastructure needs in the same way. The next big concern is that the government has only just begun to display a realization by generating the NPC that much has gone wrong over many years, where it seems inconceivable that it could not see the writing on the wall earlier: the collapse of education at grass roots level, replacement of skilled administrators and engineering resources with political cadres whom they will struggle to now remove and rampant corruption and stealing of the public purse being exposed daily. We have had the closing of the teachers and nursing colleges and cessation of time proven apprenticeship training and the perpetual decline of health and judicial services. If we add all this up, are we at all surprised that we have such diminished capacity problems? 

The NPC report makes no reference to an international study that shows that a country that has a taxpayer base of less than 25% of the population is doomed not to emerge beyond undeveloped status and probably inevitably regresses. Worse still is that our 10% taxpayer group is actually shrinking. This must be the most scary metric of the lot.

We had better all be eternal optimists to think the big plan will do more than lurch ahead slowly. The engineering fraternity has been asked to comment on the NPC and the overall and somewhat obvious verdict so far is that unless some serious investment is made in training of graduate engineering resources in a dramatically improved, supervised and mentored system, there is simply no hope of having any impact on the huge skills need of the country to effectively replace the aging, retired and emigrated engineering resources. It is a no-brainer actually, but efforts to make a difference here can be expected to meet with the usual limited cognitive capacity of the authorities able to join the dots.  Just imagine what the profession could do with a tiny fraction of the immense waste and theft that passes as government, provincial and municipal service spend. 

The measure of the real intent of the NPC will be just how many of these necessary basic activities are implemented for the plan to have any observable movement. We have yet to see any modicum of how it is to be done. It will be interesting to observe if the government believes in the comments from the profession.

The basic groundwork for the escalation of graduate training is being fast tracked by willing and keen members of ECSA and the Voluntary Engineering Associations. Finding sufficient funding just to construct the curriculum details is another challenge and without that, the process will be still-born. We envisage that the outcome of this effort will have a massive impact on driving both the candidates and the employers to join the envisaged training party. The NPC cannot afford to mess this one up by ignoring such obvious advice.

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Is SA actually striving for the lowest common denominator?

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 06 February 2012

It has been interesting, if nothing else, to read the various news reports on the recent matriculation results. What they convey is that the Education Ministry itself is not exactly a star performer in matters of mathematical interpretation or statistical determination. Celebrations have taken place to highlight certain so called achievements that, when the numbers are studied in cold, hard reality, leave a seriously sub-standard and effectively deteriorating situation overall. One can only conclude that it is politically driven distortion, nothing we do not now expect from the ANC government that has earned itself a dominant fail mark in handling the country’s education system. Here’s the celebratory bit, ably enthused about by our Minister of Education:

"The overall matric pass rate for 2011 was 70%, up from 61% two years previously”.

Here are some of the results about which the reader can conclude as to how they could possibly provide any confidence in SA developing a scientific and mathematical culture sufficient to support both our future trades and professions, and compete internationally.

Compared with the previous year, there was a 40 % higher number of dropouts who did not write matric, thus enabling a higher percentage pass rate.

"The average mark for the maths paper was 29%, for physical ­science 32% and for life sciences 38% (after being adjusted up from 34.9%).” To obtain a final mark, Umalusi adjusts some of the marks either up or down based on various statistical factors. Umalusi refuses to explain how this is done, claiming it is it is a highly complex, technical and qualitative process, and presumably, they conclude, is beyond the comprehension of the public to understand. Unofficially, insider comment is that it is done because learners could lose bursaries, universities would scoff at the unadjusted grades, it could jeopardise those intending to study abroad, and it could prejudice those with good marks whose figures were not adjusted.

Overall, it is beyond reason that the acceptable pass rate for maths and science is 30%.One wonders if we can envisage how such low levels can produce candidates capable of mastering simple, daily numeracy let alone designing structures, undertaking complex medical operations and carrying out actuarial evaluations. Such pass levels, however, are clearly sufficient to qualify to become politicians. 

For it was they who disbanded the Teachers Training Colleges which had historically provided a standard of teacher required to understand the subjects they had to teach. It was they who decided after many expensive overseas trips and conferences to introduce the OBE system against the advice of many countries and academics that had experience of it, if not for the simple reason that it only works in highly cognitively advanced environments. It was they who have now got the teachers’ trade unions into such a state of self protection and poor work ethic that is pervasive at public schools. All I can say is thank goodness for private institutions and parental involvement that are producing a high grade of students, albeit very small in real numbers.

It is imperative to address this alarming state of affairs by getting to the root cause of the problem: surely teacher quality and work ethic. Fudging numbers to give the veneer of success achieves nothing and in fact hides the reality that results in our current skills, unemployment and service delivery crises.

Insofar as the feedstock to the engineering profession is concerned, I was amazed at some recent edicts that we must draw on our rural communities (many serviced by under-provided schools) for our future engineering resources, clearly motivated by a strong dose of political correctness. When will this level of thinking which should know better about the challenges facing the professions that require a high standard of maths and science get real? It is imperative to draw their feedstock now from the top schools that produce the distinctions to keep the numbers flowing to the tertiary institutions. We have to find engineering students which have the capability of maintaining an acceptable quantum of the right standards across the built environment and in sufficient numbers to reverse the net loss from the profession. The real issue is that SA is being steadily duped by a government that has evolved some sort of DNA that controls a process that achieves the lowest common denominator, not the highest common factor. Certainly this is not a formula for a competitive country.

Tags:  an engineer's view  Chris Reay  engineering education  engineering profession 

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