THE CUTTING EDGE OF ENGINEERING

The engineering space has never been more dynamic with the advent of advanced technologies, the Internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and changing mindsets towards collaboration with communities making it an attractive space for top young achievers to explore

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One of the global powerhouses in the pursuit of excellence in mining has been the German multi-national, thyssenkrupp, which has had an office in South Africa since 1959 and continues to push the boundaries of what is possible.

The conglomerate has around 158 000 employees in nearly 79 countries who work with passion and technological expertise to develop high-quality products and intelligent industrial processes and services for sustainable progress.

One of thyssenkrupp’s five business areas, namely Industrial Solutions is a world leader for planning, construction and service in the field of industrial plants and systems. Together with their customers, they develop solutions at the highest technological level and deliver efficiency, reliability and sustainability throughout the entire lifecycle of each project anywhere in the world.

With a long history in South Africa, it is little wonder they have a South African regional CEO for Sub-Sahara Africa in the form of Thabo Molekoa, who brings 17 years of engineering experience and a Master’s degree in business to the table.

It is also refreshing to see more black CEOs taking key positions in mining, as the old guard is slowly being replaced by a dynamic group of upwardly mobile individuals from a variety of cultural backgrounds and skill sets.

While at the 2018 Mining Indaba in Cape Town, the likeable Molekoa began by outlining his impressions of Africa’s largest mining conference, which has enjoyed a more upbeat sentiment on the back of some positive news in the industry.

“It’s very good, we’re seeing a much more improved optimism from last year, certainly we know that that’s a precursor to a good investment cycle, and we’re also seeing that a lot more investors are upbeat, they’re starting to relook at some of the projects, so overall, a good successful Mining Indaba,” he says.

Tech boom

Much of the talk at the Indaba revolved around the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which has already been taking place in the mining sector for some time, with Australia boosting near fully autonomous mines and with driverless trucks and underground robots making mining in deeper areas more reliable, safe and profitable in the long run. Machines can go where humans fear to tread, due to the tremendous heat and rock fall dangers of deep mining.

Molekoa is excited about the changes and looking forward to the many possibilities that advanced technology might bring.

“It’s actually an interesting, exciting development and there are two different discussions at the moment. One is the movement around two trends, industrialisation and urbanisation, but within that, there’s always a bottom pillar, which is that of digitalisation and technology. And at thyssenkrupp, we have embraced the entire movement of Industry 4.0, where we’re starting to see a connection between the different equipments—they speak to each other.

“From the mining perspective it’s firstly the safety element that gets improved, and obviously the achievement of greater efficiencies and from a predictive maintenance perspective you get a lot more reliability, a lot more availability to improve throughput.

“The way we see it at the moment, in the next, I would say 10 years or so, we will see a lot more growth within the digital space. That’s what propels some of the innovations we do, for instance, seeing and knowing that the elevator is going to have a problem before it does? So if equipment fails, it’s going to fail in the next 48 hours, then you can plan resources accordingly,” he enthuses.

Elevator of the future

thyssenkrupp has been at the forefront of elevator technology for many years and has recently developed a ropeless elevator that can go not only up and down but also sideways and utilises less space. So, instead of having one long elevator shaft, it is split up in the small individual shafts allowing for more options and manoeuvrability, and the ability to build horizontal shafts.

“It has always been unthinkable to have an elevator move horizontally but we discovered how—it’s one of our exciting innovations. Actually our elevator “Multi” has been recognised by Time magazine as one of the top 25 inventions of 2017. Then, in the automotive space, we’re already testing around the self-driving cars, ‘How cars using data from cameras and radar devices in place of drivers can be made safe?’, ‘What are the technologies that are required to support that: from the steering components to how your software is supposed to respond when there is no driver behind the wheel?’

I am also passionate about energy. “We’re advancing the discussion on how do we store energy. The share of renewables in energy production is increasing, while costs are falling. The irregular nature of the supply of renewable energies means efficient storage technologies are needed because electricity consumers depend upon a consistent supply. South Africa had a successful run of renewable projects, especially on wind and solar, but we know that they are facing some challenges, especially during peak hours of consumption and also around grid stability. . Our solution for the stable supply of energy is the use of Smart Energy Storage Systems which can close the supply gaps. Our Redox flow batteries, currently being piloted, are scalable in terms of storage and output and can therefore be adapted to the relevant needs. In this way several hundred megawatt hours of energy can be efficiently stored and immediately provided when required,” he says.

The Achilles heel of the renewable energy sector

Energy storage has always been the major issue holding the renewable energy sector back, and thyssenkrupp has the answer in the form of electro-chemical energy storage. Interestingly, it takes up less amount of space as traditional batteries for the same capacity and lasts much longer. A traditional battery will often be useless in under five years, while the electro-chemical battery’s tank only needs to be cleaned every 10-15 years, and can still carry on thereafter, making it a more environmentally friendly option according to the company.

“Yes, it’s really simple—around taking electrical energy and converting it to electro-chemical energy and storing it. When you want to increase capacity, you merely increase the number of your storage tanks, as to how much you can store, , whereas with the batteries, we know that there’s a limitation in terms of size and that batteries will need replacing after some time,” Molekoa says.

Going off-grid

With electricity supply being unreliable in rural areas where some of the richest deposits can be found, many mining companies are taking out the guesswork and bringing a full suite of energy options onsite to avoid outages.

Molekoa says, “Mining companies are talking to us about it—this is why we are having a session here, because it really becomes important when you find a remote village in a mining community that you also provide power to them and for your own operation, at a competitive pricing and flexibility.

“So, we see some of our solutions as fit-for-purpose and we’re receiving a lot of positive responses from mining attendees here , they have even stretched our view of the applicability of the Redox flow batteries to look a bit further than what we are talking about and using it in those remote places, to also store energy that they can supply to the rest of the community, which is excellent and really fits into the whole agenda around industrialisation in rural areas, which also helps in terms of their societal responsibilities when they get to those parts of the region. This tends to come with are jobs, obviously, but at the same time, it allows them a greater reliability on clean power,” he explains.

Collaboration is key

Collaboration was another defining talking point at the Mining Indaba, with a greater dialogue between the community and big businesses being fostered of late. In years gone by, companies would go into an area and help themselves to the natural resources and not pay enough attention to the social and environmental problems that are left behind. In 2018, finally, companies are seeing that the holistic chain between the company and community is vital for sustainability to have fertile grounds to flourish.

“We’re starting to get to a point where we are forced to collaborate, there are a lot of dynamics that are pushing those things through. And if you’re not a responsible business, that could backfire if the community doesn’t support you. We are seeing a lot more collaboration, we’re still at the starting stage, because we don’t quite have the essence of what it is that we’re going to collaborate on but at least everybody is willing to sit around the table and say, ‘Actually, there must be a better way of doing business’, so I’m saying we do see some examples coming through in different parts of the world,” Molekoa says.

Skills development

Skills development is critical for any business operating in the cutting-edge engineer space, where change is always in the air and design technology continues to morph.

Molekoa puts a high price on developing his staff to achieve their full potential.

“Absolutely, recently we were talking to the panel about African industrialisation and the core of what it is—it’s not whether we can, it’s a question of how do we do it? We need to talk about a sustainable industrialisation because South Africa is going through de-industrialisation and one of the main reasons is primarily because of the skills factor. We were focused on getting industrialised but we haven’t been building enough relevant skills capacity for us to sustain those improvements, so the breakthroughs that we talk about technologically at the moment, we’ve got very few skills that can play in that space, or that can programme or code or operate these machines.

“We have to start talking about what are the necessary skills needed while we are actually driving the whole industrialisation process. As thyssenkrupp, we have taken the view that we will build relevant skills based initially on the equipment and technology we have. We’re also planning the establishment of technical training centres across Sub-Saharan Africa, mainly in Ghana, Zambia and South Africa. These will be based on successful and game-changing dual education system used by the Germans i.e. a combination of theory and practical at the workplace. ” he explains.

Research and development

Innovation is vital to any business’ ability to stay ahead in a highly competitive global market, and they spend a substantial amount of euros to stay on the cutting edge.

“Globally, thyssenkrupp spent around €800 million on research and development, that’s anything from improving your current technologies to develop new solutions on, energy storage or green steel, for example,” he explains.

Green steel, you may ask? Molekoa elaborates.

“This is our Carbon2Chem project. The objective of this project is to convert steel mill gases into base chemicals – including C02 contained in them. This means that greenhouse gas is no longer emitted into the atmosphere. And the energy required for conversion comes from the renewable sources. The process gases from a steel mill become raw materials for the chemical industry” he says.

Meanwhile, thyssenkrupp has a growing footprint in Africa and is looking to take advantage of the flourishing mining economies of the region.

“We see a lot more of a commodity-driven type of growth. Obviously, we’re trying to back that up with a few industries that will support that. We see West Africa as a very important region for us, to such an extent we opened last year a new office in Accra, Ghana. We are also confident about the region. Centrally, there is Zambia and the next one will obviously be in the East of Africa. So, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya are quite good countries to be looking at, but we always look at how to best tackle a specific region and better serve our customers because then you can leverage from the size of that region to make the economics work.

Is transformation on track?

As one of the few but growing number of black CEOs in South Africa, Molekoa gives his take on the pace of transformation, which has been sluggish in some sectors.

“It’s slow, but different sectors and different companies are trying different approaches. I also see a growing interest engage on the topic, maybe not translating into knowing what exactly to do but certainly, you start to see a bit of a push, especially at the senior levels, to say we need a much more representative leadership team.

“We need a much more diverse leadership because thinking the same does not actually get us anywhere—we need to actually balance it. The intent is there, my personal feeling is the intent is probably much stronger than before, with a few symbolic areas coming through, but we’ve got a long way to go, given that it is over 20 years since the new democracy,” he says.

Mine of the future, today

In the Pilbara sites, Australia, they’ve got mines that are close to being fully autonomous with driverless cars and so forth. Molekoa is confident that South Africa is not that far behind the Aussies in terms of innovation, and we might be seeing the mine of the future in South Africa sooner, rather than later.

“I don’t think we’re that far behind, South Africa has always been a leading country in terms of mining, we used to share a lot with Australia and I know, given the depths of some of the gold mines, I see it as the next focus that needs to happen if we are to sustain our mining efforts and also reduce the fatalities.

“When you are sending people more than three kilometres down, it comes with a lot of heavy costs and risks in terms of potential fatalities, but at the same time it gets expensive, so you have to find a much better way to extract the minerals and stay competitive. The drivers are there already, it’s a question of finding the right solutions and having a better debate around how do we actually get these technologies in. You can go to much greater depths, and get efficiencies you didn’t have before and hopefully, we could get more minerals out and revive the economy,” Molekoa explains.

Role models

The CEO concludes by highlighting some of the standouts from the mining industry and beyond who have been positive influences in his life and helped to shape the way he approaches leadership.

“I tend to focus on specific traits that people has in order to enhance my leadership model and style. If you look at it from a mining perspective, you have somebody like Sipho Nkosi the former CEO of Exxaro and how we build that company to what it is today. Then, from other segments, I find our Group CEO, Dr Heinrich Hiesinger in terms of the visionary view around turning a 200 year old German thyssenkrupp company into a global diversified industrial technology company and being able to sway and motivate everyone to follow that vision—that’s something I admire. And then also locally, you find the likes of Bonang Mohale and Thuli Madonsela on ethical leadership and balancing of politics in their roles. he concludes. 

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