Home Fleetwatch 2020 SA gets state-of-the-art research facility

SA gets state-of-the-art research facility

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Professor Wynand Steyn, Head of the Department of Civil Engineering (left) and Prof Sunil Maharaj, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT). “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.”

The world is in a bad place with Covid-19 and other upheavals – read America – and it is sometimes understandably difficult to find bright lights that give hope rather than despair. FleetWatch is constantly on the lookout for such lights and although many might have missed it, South Africa can now boast its very own state-of-the-art Engineering 4.0 facility which focuses on research on smart transport, cities and infrastructure.

This facility, opened at the end of last year, is part of the University of Pretoria (UP) and is situated on the Innovation Africa@UP campus in Hillcrest with its home in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT).

A first for Africa, it is a collaboration with the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – an entity of the Department of Science and Innovation – and York Timbers.

“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, maximising productivity 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.”

He explains that Engineering 4.0 entails smart roads and infrastructure talking to smart vehicles so as to reduce traffic congestion and ensure the safety of passengers and cargo. “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 South Africa.

“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 Prof Sunil Maharaj, Dean of EBIT.

The new facility will enable cutting-edge roads research, materials testing, skills development, real-time road performance monitoring and the application of research outcomes and innovation in industry.”

“A flagship feature is an active two kilometre-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 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. Sensors next to, above and below the lane collect data,” says Maharaj. The data will be monitored from a data house next to the N4.

“This facility allows one to optimise pavement design and construction. 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.” Other features of Engineering 4.0 include:


A national roads reference laboratory

This 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

This 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

This is to 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 that 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 our smart cities research, we will be working with a team of academics including social and environmental scientists, economists, urban planners, architects and lawyers,” says Steyn. “We need to redesign and integrate living spaces to promote social cohesion. We need to restructure urban planning so that people can live closer to work, reduce travel expenses, take the pressure off roads and lead more affordable, environmentally conscious lives.”

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,” he says. 

Equally pleased with the new facility is SANRAL CEO, Skhumbuzo Macozoma, who sees it as a true testament of the success that can be achieved through partnerships. “This facility will enable cutting-edge roads research, materials testing, skills development, real-time road performance monitoring and the application of research outcomes and innovation in industry.”

Dr Thulani Dlamini, CEO of the CSIR, says the CSIR recognises that roads and transport infrastructure is at the heart of the economic recovery of South Africa. “It is for this reason that we have created a dedicated focus on smart mobility in our new strategy.”  Dr Dlamini stresses that this facility will play a critical role in setting South Africa up for success and advancing the country’s ambitions to lead in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The exterior of the Engineering 4.0 facility is pleasing to the eye. It has to be if it’s promoting sustainability. Yeah!

Commenting on York Timbers’ involvement, which is sponsoring a transdisciplinary research chair, CEO Pieter van Zyl that with this initiative, together with the University of Pretoria, York is investing in the sustainability of the environment by establishing the use and application of engineered wood in construction solutions in Africa.

“The pressure on our natural resources and climatic environment is increasing and we should act responsibly in how we apply our demands and needs on these natural resources. York sees this transdisciplinary chair as a key enabler to create an alternative and sustainable solution for the building and construction sector.”

The final word goes to the Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula who says that South Africa’s National Development Plan places infrastructural investment at the centre of economic growth.”

“Engineering 4.0’s focus on the reduction of energy consumption levels in transportation is a great achievement for South Africa. It will ensure that government’s future investments and infrastructural developments are based on sound research and are environmentally friendly.”

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