Engineering design competition introduces students to mechatronics

September 3rd, 2014, Published in Articles: Vector


Launched in 2008, the PneuDrive Challenge aims to uplift the South African engineering industry and to enhance the standard of graduate engineers.

René Rose (left) and Adrian Buddingh.

René Rose (left) and Adrian Buddingh.

In South Africa, engineering students traditionally spend four years at university preparing for their future role in industry. With the constant and increasing changes in the various fields of engineering, coupled with rapid technological advances, however, this has become insufficient and the university curricula cannot include an integrated approach to teaching different subjects in such a short tuition period. The result is that many graduates enter the market armed only with basic engineering theory and little knowledge of business.

It was against this backdrop and in answer to government’s calls for the business sector to become involved in the training of engineers that drive engineering company SEW Eurodrive and Pneumax, which specialises in pneumatic and automation technology, present the PneuDrive Challenge.

This design competition is aimed at uplifting the engineering industry and at enhancing the standard of graduate engineers entering the workplace, working in close collaboration with tertiary institutions such as the University of Johannesburg; Tshwane University of Technology; the University of the Witwatersrand; North-West University; the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Cape Town.

The CSIR’s 2012 State of Logistics in South Africa survey identified an urgent need to enhance skills in warehouse management and quantitative logistics analysis to improve performance in the country’s supply chains. Employers in the logistics and warehousing industry also indicated a dire need for employees with at least five years’ experience in these fields to operate successfully and strategically.

Pneumax MD Adrian Buddingh describes this as a conundrum not only for young engineers wishing to enter and improve the warehousing and logistics sector, but also for the national economy which constantly calls for skills development and for the nurturing of young talent.

He says university curricula do not include an integrated approach to teaching different subjects due to time constraints, the very reason why this year’s challenge has the theme, “Green warehousing logistics”.

“System integration is often not realised at university level and progressive learning opportunities for young professionals are essential if South Africa is to offer the world competitive and sustainable logistics services.” The PneuDrive Challenge 2014, he says, aims to teach third and fourth-year engineering students about a number of subjects and how they fit together to form a cohesive whole.

This year’s challenge aims to highlight innovation in mechatronic design and calls on third and fourth-year students of mechanical, electronic and mechatronic engineering to test their knowledge, design skills and creativity.

SEW Eurodrive general manager: communications René Rose says these students are challenged to step beyond the focus on academic theory and to design solutions which could potentially drive change in the warehousing and logistics industry.

She says this year’s focus on mechatronics will expose students to a learning experience which not only demonstrates theoretical ability, but also their understanding of warehousing, logistics and efficient automation of the industry.

Rose says successful participants will have to show that they are not only competent in engineering and design theory, but that they also understand how the latest drives and pneumatic technologies can influence how warehouses are built and how their management systems can be improved.

“This year’s theme highlights the need to analyse and identify specific operational problems in one of the six fields of warehousing, namely retrieval, conveying, placement, packaging, palletising and loading.”

To Buddingh, students are not familiar with this diversity of subjects because some university faculties remain “mainstream” and focus on either mechanical, light or heavy current or electrical engineering.

He says students who compete in the challenge will learn how automated warehousing results in faster, more accurate and efficient goods retrieval and dispatch. The “green” component of this year’s theme is intended to make students consider the element of energy efficiency.

“When students design automated systems, they must understand the importance of adding value to benefit the client in the long run. In other words, not only the cost of capital expenditure should be considered, but total cost of ownership. Potential hidden costs such as energy inefficiency are often overlooked.”

According to Rose, students’ limited knowledge is evident each year when the PneuDrive Challenge is launched by means of road shows to the various university campuses: “We find that students have very limited knowledge of the latest drive and pneumatics technologies, as well as of business. This highlights the constraints which universities face in terms of access to technology, as well as the importance of strategic partnerships with the business sector. It is obvious that business must step forward with initiatives which can provide industry with young engineers who will contribute to improved systems and processes.”

She says the design competition presents a strong model for providing a bridge between theory and the business requirements of industry by creating a learning experience which allows for the analysis of and experimentation with intelligent automation systems.

In this year’s competition, students will have to develop true awareness of the business objectives of warehousing and logistics.

Rose concedes that bringing together the academic, design and business elements will be challenging for students who have had little interaction with industry. This, however, “is one of the main objectives of the design competition – providing students with at least one new tool, idea or experience which will change their perceptions and understanding of how they can use drive and pneumatics engineering principles to influence the warehousing and logistics industry”.

Although the competition invites paper-based, theoretical entries, students are required to present simulations and test results to show that they have mastered the equipment and technologies used in their submissions.

Depending on the lecturers at participating universities, students are either free to participate in the design challenge or to complete the projects set as part of the universities’ curricula. In some instances, the PneuDrive Challenge is adopted into the curriculum and all students must participate. At Wits University, for example, a class of some 120 students will submit projects to the lecturer, who then analyses, reviews and submits the top three projects to participate in the design challenge this year. SEW Eurodrive and Pneumax will then select the top three projects for adjudication.

Rose says that, while the sponsor companies prescribed the use of their latest technologies in previous years, students will be free to use products and technologies of their choice in the 2014 challenge.

“Our clients sometimes find new technology incomprehensible but students generally enjoy figuring it out and using it in applications. We often use these applications to illustrate to our clients how these technologies work in practice.” She says SEW Eurodrive has employed a number of participating graduates in the past.

Some 375 students have expressed interest in participating in this year’s challenge. Their lecturers will mark their submissions and, in the end, about 60 projects will be submitted. The deadline for submissions is 13 October 2014.

The winners, who will be selected in cooperation with the universities, will receive a ten-day, all expenses paid trip to Germany and Italy where they will present their designs at the sponsor companies’ head offices. The winning university will receive SEW Eurodrive and Pneumax products to the value of R100 000 while each participating university will receive R40 000 worth of products for completing the challenge.

For more information of the PneuDrive Challenge 2014, visit

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