University offers new IT degree

By Leon Engelbrecht, ITWeb senior writer
Johannesburg, 28 Aug 2007

The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), in Port Elizabeth, is today opening a multimillion-rand centre for training specialists in "mechatronics".

Mechatronics is a new field internationally, integrating mechanical and electrical engineering skills with IT and informatics. The NMMU says it is the first comprehensive university in the country to offer the degree.

The NMMU's Advanced Mechatronic Technology Centre is financed through a partnership spearheaded by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS). This forms part of the fulfilment of its national industrial participation offset obligations arising from the Navy's acquisition of four frigates.

Besides the contribution by the shipbuilders, further financial support comes from General Motors SA (GMSA), Festo Didactic, suppliers of the hi-tech laboratory, and the university's Trust.

"The university will use the new hi-tech laboratory to intensify and upgrade our practical and academic offering, ranging from industry-specific short courses via diplomas, to four-year bachelor of engineering degrees," says NMMU Trust executive director Kotie Grov'e.

"Without the support of TKMS, GMSA and Festo Didactic, it would have taken us 20 years to finance a mechatronics centre of this complexity and world class."

Advanced manufacturing

Manufacturing is becoming increasingly reliant on the ability to operate and support complex systems that combine electronic, mechanical and other components. As a result, the skills and competence profile of engineering employees is changing.

"This partnership offers trainee technicians and engineers an opportunity to specialise in this new field from the outset of their university studies, rather than as a late add-on to mechanical or electrical engineering," says Festo Didactic project leader Tom Webster.

The increasing emphasis on automation as part of value-added manufacturing means South African industry's need for mechatronics specialists is growing rapidly. The province's automotive industry will be a prime beneficiary of NMMU's enhanced capacity to train to all skills levels.

Grov'e says the centre's fully-integrated working mock-ups of factory production lines and variable automated processes will allow students to become familiar with advanced manufacturing technologies. These range from three-dimensional assembly to integrated pneumatics, hydraulics and sensors, and from software programming, systems analysis, colour, temperature and measurement sensors, to robots and industrial computers known as programme logic controllers.

The new centre includes a fully functional mini assembly line, similar to one in a car factory or other manufacturing environment. Students learn to design and programme manufacturing processes using real equipment, including specially developed software tools capable of testing their problem-seeking and -solving abilities.

Wider reach

GMSA VP for vehicle assembly operations Mike Pearton says the automotive industry is crying out for people who have the required engineering and technical skills to support their operations.

"Together, local manufacturers will need to find at least 240 more qualified people each year until 2010 at least. The only way to address this is to form partnerships with educational institutions like NMMU."

Other tertiary institutions that stand to benefit from the programme are the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and the Durban Institute of Technology. Negotiations are at an advanced stage for Tshwane University of Technology to join the skills consortium, a TKMS spokesman says.

The partnership will help train over 400 specialists per year for the steel, oil refining, sugar, paper, and other value-adding industries, besides the automotive industry. This will help to expand local manufacturing's technical capacity and replace foreign specialists currently employed across the country in this sought-after skills area.

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