South African engineers are sought after around the world and globally respected for their ‘can do’ attitude. Why then is international assistance on South African projects so frequently sought? This is a question that fascinates Proconics chief executive officer, Melvin Jones. “How can local engineers advance their careers without going into management?” he asked, during the opening address of the first Proconics Forum for Engineering Professionals, held on 30 January at the Lakeside Conference Centre in Benoni.
The Forum challenges the current status quo by giving engineers an opportunity to improve their self-image through peer-group interaction and exposure to experts from other disciplines that can broaden their perspectives.
The opening presentation set the example. Dr Geoffrey Heald, a senior lecturer in negotiation at the Wits Business School, addressed delegates on the methods of ‘Ideal Design and Interactive Planning.’ The critical point he made is that, in South Africa, collective bargaining is failing because 1 IR (First Industrial Revolution) methods are being applied to try and solve 4 IR problems. He stressed the importance of involving engineers in the process, since engineering answers are often required as part of the final solution. Heald left delegates armed, in bullet point form, with a toolkit to guide them through the thorny processes of deal making and conflict resolution.
During the second of the morning presentations, Proconics’ own Louis Hall talked about a number of electrical engineering projects undertaken by the company beyond the borders of South Africa. Hall outlined a basic structure common to all power stations, and then focused on sharing some general principles for successful project implementation in remote areas. As practical examples, he used a few renewable energy projects that Proconics recently completed in Ghana and Zimbabwe. He stressed the importance of logistics and how these can make or break a large project, outlining a few tips and tricks that delegates could try when attempting to keep costs down on their own projects.
After the lunch break, a lively technology display featuring drones captured the conference’s attention. Proconics’ Gert Niewoudt, Robert Theron and PC Annandale informed the session about the power of this newly emerging technology, and the multitude of regulatory compliances involved before a company can offer it as a service.
Other sessions involved economics professor Roula Inglesi-Lotz, who stressed the importance of diversity within a team as essential to formulating the right questions to ask. “We can’t work alone anymore,” she stressed. “What’s needed to solve the problems of the 2020s are multi-disciplinary, all-inclusive project teams.” The Economist’s Herman Warren rounded this out with commentary on the latest Economist cover stories, which contextualised the power struggles on the go in various regions of the world in an ‘Economics 101’ course for engineers. The message resonated well with the session in which Louis Hall discussed the Proconics engineering projects in Ghana and Zimbabwe. What Warren showed is that if one is prepared to keep an open mind, business opportunities are everywhere to be found, no matter how dire the headlines.
During the final session of the day Elizma van der Walt introduced a practical methodology for managing uncertainty in the execution of complex projects in existing industrial production facilities. She showed how creating a common purpose within engineering teams could be used to create unprecedented alignment between engineering disciplines created agility and served as a powerful response mechanism in dealing with the ‘unknowable’ within these factories. These concepts were then brought home through two case studies presented by Gerhard de Clercq and Paul Botha. These highlighted how Proconics had dealt with complex life-extension projects for South African petrochemical operators.
The day was a resounding success. The Proconics CEO closed the day with an undertaking that this would become a standing feature in the South African engineering calendar – an opportunity for engineers to gather and share stories that shine a spotlight on local engineers, solving local problems in a uniquely South African way. The projects presented throughout the day clearly highlighted how South African engineers are uniquely positioned to help solve South African problems. To do that Melvin made the plea that engineers need to lead the way, be positive, lean in and help us build a better tomorrow #imstaying.
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