University of Pretoria opens Engineering 4.0 campus

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The University of Pretoria (UP) yesterday officially unveiled its Engineering 4.0 facility, which will focus on South African research initiatives conducted on smart transport, smart cities and smart infrastructure.

Billed by the university as a first for Africa, Engineering 4.0 is an initiative between UP, the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and integrated forestry company York Timbers, focused on research and training for smart transport systems.

Situated on the Innovation Africa@UP campus in Hillcrest, Pretoria, Engineering 4.0 has its home in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT).

“Through its focus on the development of integrated transportation and infrastructure systems, Engineering 4.0’s research is concentrating on the reduction of energy consumption levels in transportation, maximisingproductivity in industry and creating a higher quality of life for people,” explains professor Wynand Steyn, head of the Department of Civil Engineering.

“The research focuses on road construction, road use, traffic flow and smart transport systems, now and into the future. We are researching road construction materials, vehicle-pavement interaction issues, infrastructure materials and management, exhaust-related emissions, semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles.”

Smart transport, cities and environments are part of an integrated system that encompasses digitised transportation systems, parking management, reduced traffic congestion and addressing environmental problems, notes Steyn.

Among the projects that will come out of the Engineering 4.0 campus are smart roads and infrastructure which talks to smart vehicles in efforts to reduce traffic congestion and ensure the safety of passengers and cargo in SA.

“This can help in areas such as agriculture and logistics, where transporting food can be improved to reduce wastage or damage to fresh produce. The new facility will also address the shortage of civil engineers in SA,” adds Steyn.

The collaboration will further develop the skills required to design, construct, maintain and rehabilitate the extensive roads network in the country that is vital for accessibility and mobility of its communities, and in support of economic opportunities.

“This facility is a place where novel ideas, scientific research, global expertise, students, academics, entrepreneurs and industry partners can meet to generate new thought leadership, innovation and training opportunities through collaborative partnerships,” says professor Sunil Maharaj, dean of EBIT.

“A flagship project is an active 2km-long test lane on Pretoria’s N4 highway, where we collect real-time data and use big data analytics and the Internet of things to do tests and an analysis on how different road surfaces perform, how traffic moves on the highway, the density and type of traffic, emissions testing, and air quality monitoring.”

The data will be monitored from a data house next to the N4 and the data collected can be used to model many aspects of transportation systems – improved and optimised pavement design supports longer-lasting pavements that serve the economy and social well-being of society, he points out.

Other features of Engineering 4.0 include:

  • A national roads reference laboratory: Is the only site in South Africa for the independent testing of materials for the road construction industry. Standard testing will largely be conducted on road materials originating from Sanral (for national roads projects), the provinces and neighbouring countries.
  • The York Wood Engineering Laboratory: Aims to expand the footprint of mass timber construction, using advanced engineered wood products on the continent, in collaboration with civil and chemical engineering, architecture, materials science, data science, genetics and other related bio-economy disciplines.
  • A training laboratory: Will train and certify road materials technicians employed by various testing laboratories. Once their skills are certified, laboratories can provide accurate test data to engineers. The aim is to ensure materials testing in the field is up to standard. Engineering students will be trained and certified in this facility, which has virtual reality options for learning about testing techniques.
  • A concrete laboratory: This consists of preparation areas, curing and humidity rooms, and a test floor where various concrete and structural testing can be conducted for use in areas that include road construction and infrastructure.
  • Accelerated Pavement Testing (APT) Track: The 100 x 6m APT track allows for the construction of different pavement structures and their accelerated evaluation, using a mobile APT device. This enables engineers to monitor the expected behaviour of a pavement over a fraction of its life.

For the smart cities research, UP says it will work with a team of academics, including social and environmental scientists, economists, urban planners, architects and lawyers, with the aim to redesign and integrate living spaces to promote social cohesion.

UP vice-chancellor and principal professor Tawana Kupe says Engineering 4.0 will share its vast resources in technology and data sciences with all faculties via the institution’s Future Africa institute and campus, a platform for developing inter- and trans-disciplinary research networks within the university and the global research community.

“We thank our partners and value their contribution to this landmark collaboration. Working together means we can achieve much more in solving Africa’s grand challenges,” explains Kupe.

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