While development of design is essential to promote growth among manufacturers, it will only flourish when schools foster a love of technology among South Africa’s learners.
According to Adrienne Viljoen, manager of the South African Bureau of Standards Design Institute, the maturity of a country's design capability is directly reflected in the economic wellbeing of its manufacturing sector. "And right now South Africa's manufacturers are suffering because of a lack of indigenous designs," says Viljoen.
She points out that export driven companies profited enormously last year from exaggerated exchange rates triggered by the strength of the dollar. "Now the situation is reversed, and with the stronger rand these same companies, which form the backbone of the manufacturing sector, are finding their margins squeezed." Viljoen says many companies would enjoy increased profitability if they were using local designs and did not have to pay large royalties to manufacture foreign designs under licence.
Visionary development programmes, implemented by the South African Institution of Mechanical Engineering, are helping to foster interest in technology among school level learners. These include the organisation's Technology Olympiad, which is now in its tenth year. Olympiad co-ordinator, Elsabé Möller, says the event challenges learners and educators from all communities to use technological skills and engineering principles to provide a safe, practical, and workable solution to a problem.
Learners from Mlokothwa High School in northern KwaZulu-Natal busy at a technology workshop organised as part of the Technology Olympiad
This year, learners are required to construct a device that is able to project a table tennis ball. The power source must be mechanical and entries will be judged on accuracy and distance achieved by the device. Previous challenges included designing and building a model of a manually operated device that could transport people in both directions across a swollen river where the riverbanks are at different levels. Last year's winning team was from PW Botha College in George in the Western Cape.
Möller says she has been encouraged by the number of development schools participating in the programme. More than 70% of the learners who attend the technology workshops offered by the Olympiad, are from development schools. She admits, however, that in 2002 only 10% of entries received were from development schools. "I hope the increased focus on technology by educators and the popularisation of science and technology by icons like Mark Shuttleworth will boost the number of entries we receive from historically disadvantaged schools this year," says Möller. "We have also tried to formulate the challenge in such a way that the playing field is levelled for all participants."
Errol Ashwell, managing director of Autodesk Africa, which recently made a R10 000 grant to the Olympiad's funds, says advanced computer technology has a fundamental role to play in the ongoing development of design in South Africa. "South Africans are not short of inventive ideas - the country has one of the highest patent registration rates in the world.
"Where we seem to fall short is in translating those ideas into reality." In Ashwell's opinion the first step in concretising design ideas is effective documentation.
"Bringing ideas to life is all about communication - imparting details to the patent registration office, conveying the ingenuity of an idea of an engineering manager, communicating the commercial viability of an invention to a potential investor, accurately conveying the detailed structure of a design to a fabricator, marketing a new product to its target audience.
"In the past this involved the creation and re-creation of the same basic information to communicate with different audiences. Advanced computer technology has an integral part to play in turning South African ideas into commercially viable indigenous designs," concludes Ashwell.
For more information contact Autodesk, 012 664 8115.
Access to technology is not restricted only to the affluent corporates. Government and private sector SMMe support initiatives offer business development, technical, and manufacturing advice to smaller businesses.
These initiatives include:
* Free State Technikon Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing, 051 507 3580, www.tofs.ac.za
* Pretoria Technikon Technology Station in Electronics, 012 318 5038, www.techpta.ac.za