The recent Siemens Future of Manufacturing conference provided a comprehensive overview of the company’s latest technology offerings, as well as some refreshing insight into the challenges currently faced by South Africa’s manufacturing sector.
One of the highlights was a working model of the Curiosity Mars Rover, specially brought to Africa for the event. The Curiosity model travels the world to show how the complex robot was designed, tested and now operates on a daily basis – largely thanks to software simulation packages from Siemens. The challenge faced by NASA was to land a 900 kilogram autonomous vehicle on the surface of Mars, a planet some 250 million kilometres away. First of all, the rover had to be designed and built to survive the extremes of acceleration, temperature and pressure that it would experience during its inter-planetary voyage. Then, all 90 000 of the craft’s component parts had to be manufactured to the most exact of engineering tolerances. The design required the use of intelligently integrated information to solve the complex creative challenges, which is why NASA relied on computer-aided engineering software from Siemens to test and simulate how the parts would behave when they were integrated together.
Next, the landing had to be considered; NASA would only get one shot at this and if something went wrong, all the painstaking work that had gone before would be for nothing. Siemens software was once again called into service and the landing sequence was simulated some 8000 times in preparation for what NASA engineers described as their ‘seven minutes of terror on Mars’.
Even now, Curiosity does not make a move on Mars without it being tested or simulated in some way. An Earth-bound twin, identical except for the nuclear power source, is used at NASA’s Mars Yard to tackle obstacles as a test for its sibling – simulation on earth to spare a failure on Mars.
This event was different though, in that it was not purely a showcase for the latest Siemens technology and innovation, as impressive as this undoubtedly is. Another highlight was the panel discussion that took place during the opening-afternoon press session. Representatives from government and business debated the challenges that face the local manufacturing sector if it is to regain its past levels of contribution to the country’s GDP. Over the last 20 years, this has shrunk alarmingly from 22 to the current 11%.
What I took out of this discussion is that technology alone, although it is a very important enabler, is not enough to raise productivity to the levels that are required. Essentially, we need closer levels of cooperation between government, labour and the industrialists, in order that all the country’s citizens may contribute and become more prosperous through their efforts.
Panel member and Siemens process industries and drives vice president, Raymond Padayachee, believes that South Africa needs to move away from its focus on low-skill job creation. This is the crux of the matter, but it is not something that can be addressed by manufacturing alone. At the very least, it requires a national strategy for education and up-skilling of engineers, technicians and artisans, an efficient supply of electricity, access to foreign direct investment and venture capital, and government incentives to encourage manufacturing for export – much as was done to boost the local automotive industry so successfully.
Apart from their products and expertise, skills development is an obvious area where the automation vendors can make a contribution to the country’s growth and development. Siemens does this through its popular annual Cyber Junkyard competition and took the opportunity to announce the winners as part of the conference’s gala dinner celebrations. First place this year went to the team from the College of Cape Town for their design of an automated coffee bean roaster. First runner up was the team from Durban University of Technology and third place went to the Central University of Technology. Well done to all the winners and also to Siemens for this most innovative and informative conference.
In closure this year, SA Instrumentation and Control extends thanks to all our readers for your support this last 12 months. Also, we would like to thank the advertisers and contributors for all the interesting and cutting-edge material that was submitted for publication, this is what makes our magazine the market leader that it is. And last but not least, thanks to the production team and technical support for their dedication and hard work – the new interactive websites are a joy to behold.
Happy holidays and travel safely everyone. To all our Christian readers we wish you a Merry Christmas.
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