The instrumentation and control industry is a survivor of the stagnation that has affected many industries worldwide as a result of the economic crisis, says the Society for Automation, Instrumentation, Measurement and Control (SAIMC).
“It has been a difficult year for many industries, but companies specialising in temperature, pressure and process control are able to hold their heads up high as survivors. However, the industry is still facing challenges,” says SAIMC general-secretary Vivian MacFadyen.
He notes that the skills shortage is the most critical challenge affecting the industry and, if not attended to, will soon spill over, with disastrous consequences.
“Petrochemicals and chemicals processing plants and nuclear power producers, for example, require precise measurement and control. The consequences of inaccurate temperature measurement in a nuclear reactor could result in an unstable plant, endangering thousands of people. This is an unlikely scenario, provided that staff have the necessary skills to specify, install and maintain the plant correctly. But training is not happening as frequently as it should,” MacFadyen says.
He notes that the skills gap exists because most of South Africa’s highly skilled engineers and technologists have either left the country or have retired, with few skilled individuals to replace them.
“Where we most require skills at any plant is in the handling, operating and maintenance of basic measuring equipment, which requires exact calibration and maintenance that cannot be learned at a university or from a book.
“In the past, the apprentice system inculcated these skills in learners before they were allowed to work on a critical plant and, perhaps, this system should be reinstated,” MacFadyen says.
He states that the SAIMC is assisting the Engineering Council of South Africa in trying to correct the skills gap by encouraging the youth to get involved in the engineering industry. The industry bodies are also supporting companies that are willing to train new graduates.
“This partnership has grown over the last three years and is currently regarded as a work in progress,” says MacFadyen, who notes that research and development (R&D) is another challenge for the instrumentation and control industry.
“Much of South Africa’s R&D takes place overseas and, if we want to flourish in this area of activity, we have to encourage local industry members to undertake this. We have a great opportunity now that South Africa is part of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics) emerging group of nations. However, the necessary financial backing is lacking.
“This funding could be provided by universities, large user organisations or government and it may become feasible, as South Africa’s association with Brics offers the country a wider market for locally developed products,” MacFadyen says.
He says, over the past year, there have not been any significant advancements in measurement technology.
“The major advances have been in the area of process-measurement transmission methods or in the ways of transmitting information from a remote device in a factory back to a central controller. The bus method is foremost, as it electrically transmits process variables over a single pair of wires through many different protocols, (referring mainly to the method used to code this information).
“Ideally, all suppliers should standardise their protocols, but financial gain seems to be industry’s foremost concern,” he explains.
Another development of note, which MacFadyen describes as ‘heartening’, is the availability of instruments that can simultaneously measure several different variables.
“These instruments can measure flow, pressure, temperature and even density and viscosity from one compact unit, saving a client on installation costs and space,” he says.
Transmitters that can multiplex several measurements, such as temperature, and send this information to the central control system using a bus transmission path, are another note- worthy advancement, says MacFadyen.
However, he points out that because new developments are kept secret until released, it is difficult to foresee what is in the pipeline for the industry in 2013 and 2014.
“We can only hope that the financial experts are correct in saying the world is not in danger of another financial crisis and that it will move on from this stagnant situation, thus encourag- ing infrastructure development in the processing industry.
“The SAIMC is confident that it can continue to maintain interest in the development of the industry and welcomes any information on how the society can assist in this endeavour,” MacFadyen notes.
He adds that the SAIMC will be present at the biannual Process Expo at the Nasrec Expo Centre, in Johannesburg, from May 21 to 23, which is set to be the largest and most comprehensive automation and information technology event in Africa.
“We hope to meet like-minded individuals at the event who will assist us in developing the industry,” MacFadyen concludes.