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South Africa: Drive to Grow Local Engineering Skills for Defence Industry
Source: www.csir.co.za
Source Date: Friday, April 12, 2013
Focus: Knowledge Management in Government
Country: South Africa
Created: Apr 12, 2013

According to human resources manager, Monique Woodborne, who oversees the programme, the pipeline will be expanded in the coming year to include a further hundred aspirant engineers. “Since inception of the pipeline process, we have significantly grown our engineering base in defence. We plan to further grow our science, engineering and technology base by 10% every year over the next five years.”
A further aim of the pipeline initiative is to support national human resource development by growing a new generation of engineers to drive the development of a South African high-tech sector. “It is a systematic and holistic approach. We don’t focus only on improving the skills depth and scope – but also on ensuring the representivity of young people coming through the process,” she says.
The pipeline process has gained attention, both nationally and internally, as best practice within the defence industry: “We are often called on to assist clients or partners in industry to replicate it – as far afield as the Middle East,” she concludes.
Dr Nick Rubin, a principal systems engineer, and Joseph Botha, appointed as an engineering mentor at the CSIR, were responsible for overseeing the group of budding engineers. Rubin explains the history of the programme: “We first presented the vacation programme in July 2012 as a means to introduce CSIR defence bursars to actual engineering practices, processes and procedures. This time around, the programme was opened up to bursars and non-bursars alike, drawing an eclectic group of students from universities across the country, ranging from first-year to fourth-year students, and across six study disciplines spanning the engineering, science and mathematics fields.”
According to Rubin, the course is unique and ground-breaking in that it covers many workplace skills and practices generally not handled at academic institutions. He explains: “It is novel in that it introduces system engineering concepts to young undergraduates by means of formal instruction as well as hands-on group activities and a design, build and test project. Traditionally such systems-oriented, product development life cycle concepts are not introduced at anything below postgraduate level. In fact, the unit also recently initiated a postgraduate course on practice-based systems engineering, hosted at a local university,” he concludes.
The vacation programme consists of several instruction modules and a strong practical component. Formal instruction includes the core systems engineering lifecycle processes (covering requirements, analysis, architecting) as well as speciality topics (modelling and simulation, critical thinking strategies, design paradigms), support processes (quality, configuration control and version control) and supporting skills (management, presentations, formal writing). Many of these presentations were reinforced with group activities in the hands-on project and the Rube Goldberg team building activity.
Hard knocks from hands-on experience
The hands-on project was performed in teams and posed as an incomplete client requirement for an electronic system. Open ended questions were posed to the groups as to how to pitch a business case to develop the product, requiring innovative application of management methods. The students realised first-hand the need to balance the technical risk associated with innovative, experimental designs; the severe timescale constraints of the course and the limitations of budget and supplier delivery slip, or complete non-delivery. Each team was required to implement a different combination of designs, and their management skills were exercised with the need to self-organise their teams into a project structure with a work breakdown, agreed interfaces and resource sharing.
All teams could, in the end, produce a product that demonstrated some degree of capability, despite intense time and resource limitations, and they could test and evaluate their results. “Crunch time came with their presentations on the final day. The other hard reality in the school of hard knocks, namely project overtime, was learned first-hand,” Rubin says. The course was concluded with a reminder of the "lessons learnt" of how projects fail, with demonstrations of how easily these mistakes are made in practice.
At the end of the two-week stay, students were shown around the CSIR campus to visit infrastructure such as the robotics laboratory, solar energy prototypes and some of the wind tunnels used in experimental aeronautics.
Sinazo Manyakanyaka, who leads the Human Capital Development programme for the defence unit explains future plans. “We plan to expand the scope of this course for the 2013/2014 summer vacation, with three alternative hands-on activities for electrical, mechanical and computer science fields once all students have undergone the same formal orientation into our engineering practices. We also need to find commonality between academia and the Engineering Council of SA (ECSA) to accommodate practical requirements for degree purposes and for ECSA registration,” she says.
Aside from bursaries and vacation opportunities, the CSIR also offers studentships and internships, as well as mentorship positions for seasoned engineers. In addition to these system engineering initiatives, Master’s degree programmes in radar and electronic warfare at two South African universities are also supported.
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