A ray of hope cut through the fog of bad news that afternoon at Wits University. Motion Control editor Kim Roberts and I were on campus to interview three teams of third-year engineering students, all in the final stages of preparation of their entries for this year’s Pneudrive Challenge. We wanted a different perspective on things, but we never expected the way a few hours spent in the company of youthful enthusiasm would lift our spirits above the constant barrage of gloom that dominates global headlines these days.
Sponsored again by SEW-Eurodrive and Pneumax, this year’s challenge requires young engineers to think outside the box in their quest to design a game changing solution for the food and beverage industry. What is unique about this contest is the way participants are forced to think as marketers as well as design engineers. The winning idea not only has to be blueprinted according to good engineering practice, but it must also be backed by a solid business plan which shows the judges exactly how it could be used to add value as a solution to an industry problem.
The depth of understanding captured my attention, as did the excitement these young engineers brought to their subject. What we wanted was to understand the problems such a competition poses from the student perspective, and how they respond to the challenges. What we found was an abundance of talent and variety in the team approaches, but all with a notable level of organisational cohesion and maturity. In some cases natural leaders had emerged, while in others, the group structure remained flat with division of labour defined purely by the individual strengths of the different team members.
The common benefit is perceived as the chance to apply classroom theory to a real-world engineering problem. This is exactly in line with the sponsors’ objective of introducing student engineers to the practicalities of the latest mechatronic technology as a solution to a modern manufacturing conundrum. What I don’t think anyone anticipated though is just exactly how much enthusiasm this would generate in the process.
Of course you would expect a bit of it when there is a 10-day all expenses paid trip to Europe up for grabs, but this went beyond the excitement usually associated with winning first prize in a competition of this nature. We got a sense of how it must have felt in the garage that day in California when Jobs and Wozniak founded Apple Inc. What is unique and exciting about the Pneudrive Challenge is the way it encourages young engineering students to think like entrepreneurs – a commodity that Africa (and the world) needs by the bucketful right now.
Getting an engineer to think like an entrepreneur is only half the battle though, because to succeed, said entrepreneur also needs access to capital and business acumen. This is pure speculation on my part, but wouldn’t it be exciting if there was a way to get the business schools and the venture capitalists interested? Or maybe it’s the powers that be in government who should look more closely at the impact a 'Students to start-ups' approach could have on job creation.
Maybe that last bit is a touch too fanciful, but the abundance of talent at our universities is real and believable – in a positive way for once. And what the Pneudrive Challenge shows is that if you have the vision to combine young academic excellence with practical exposure to the latest in technology innovation, you create a potent melting-pot for new ideas. If you’d like a closer look behind the scenes, check out our article 'Hope for the future'.
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