Direct collaborations between academic institutions and industry partners remain underdeveloped in South Africa. This is mystifying because such links are mutually beneficial and can lead to the improved competitiveness of South African companies in the global market.
We have seen this in the Eastern Cape with the establishing of the General Motors South Africa (GMSA) chair in mechatronics at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in South Africa’s own Detroit, Nelson Mandela Bay. Just a few years into the five-year, R3.6-milion collaboration between academia and industry, its high-level research and skills development has had a markedly positive impact on the region’s economy.
Structured partnerships like this are invaluable in developing effective knowledge transfers between industry and academia. They are mutually beneficial because tertiary engineering students get exposure to the latest manufacturing processes, and engineering structures in the automotive manufacturers are provided with fresh thinking and proposals for the application of modern technologies in the workplace.
Both these facets contribute to an increase and investment in overall human capital development — a vital component of a successful and globally competitive economy, especially for a developing nation. In the current global economic situation, it is necessary for companies to invest in resources that develop human capital in the most efficient and results oriented manner.
Our experience is that industry-supported engineering chairs do this most effectively by increasing the core competencies and the knowledge base and skills set of both prospective and practising members of the engineering-related workforce.
Three major global motor vehicles manufacturers — General Motors, Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz — have manufacturing and assembly operations in the Eastern Cape. There is also a large supporting structure of automotive component suppliers such as Continental, Shatterprufe and Goodyear. The university has established good relationships with each of them.
Included in these linkages is the GMSA chair. Its primary aim is the fostering of sustainable human capital development through research, innovation and co-operation with industry. The key roles of the interaction are to identify niches in high-technology industries, improve productivity in manufacturing and provide research and development services.
Beneficial for engineering education
University-industry interactions provided by engineering chairs contribute to engineering education as a whole because the relationship extends to include the continuing education of engineering and production personnel in industry too. This is achieved through several interrelated activities. For the chair, one of three automotive chairs at NMMU, these activities take two separate lines.
One focuses on industry-driven engineering projects and the other on high-level research activities related to the automotive sector.
With the former, students undertake industry-based projects at GMSA or related industries. They seek engineering solutions to particular industry-based problems based on sound theory and technical knowledge.
In the process they gain valuable workplace experience and the company is presented with engineering solutions that are unique and innovative. The latter is directed primarily at the field of robotics and related intelligence systems.
Since the establishment of the chair, many seminars with international presenters have been held, bringing world-class researchers to NMMU. Postgraduate students have undertaken high-level research and collaborations have been developed with Aachen University in Germany.
Three NMMU students, for example, have conducted research visits to Germany, some linked to adapting technologies for better applicability to the South African motor industry.
Industry-based projects by students
The other major benefit is the completion of industry-based engineering projects by students. These include the introduction of a universal paint-shop skid adaptor for GMSA and a new machine to measure the beads of tyres accurately.
Students were challenged to design an adaptor capable of handling all model variations at the Port Elizabeth motor plant effectively. It had to be cost-efficient too. Two prototypes were manufactured and delivered to GMSA, showing that university students can successful apply an innovative solution to complex and pressing industry concerns.
Similarly, a tyre-bead measuring machine was designed and developed by an NMMU student who worked closely with senior engineering staff. The final semi-automated, highly accurate machine was a completely new design, although in line with strict industry requirements.
The interaction with industry provides many benefits for the university too, among them funding opportunities. Two engineering students, for example, participated in the WorldSkills competition in Canada in 2009 thanks to industry sponsorship.
Students also receive invaluable research and work experience, greater opportunities for learning, publication, engineering knowledge, skills development and specialisation. They are exposed to the latest manufacturing technologies and processes, which in turn aids them in their studies and better prepares them as engineers for their future careers.
The installation of a mechanised car-seat aid and the design and development of a pacing system at a motor plant gave the students an opportunity to better understand the realities faced by the motor industry. They also built close working relations with experienced practising engineers.
Professor Igor Gorlach holds the chair of mechatronics at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.