The University of Pretoria (UP) on Monday officially opened its most advanced Engineering 4.0 facility to focus on research on smart transport, cities and infrastructure.
Engineering 4.0 is housed in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT) and it is situated on the Innovation Africa@UP campus in Hillcrest.
A first for Africa, the initiative is a partnership involving key industry players, namely, 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.
Professor Wynand Steyn, head of the department of civil engineering said: “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.”
He said 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,” added Professor Steyn.
He said in the main Engineering 4.0 entails smart roads and infrastructure talking to smart vehicles, to reduce traffic congestion and to 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,” he added.
Dean of EBIT, Prof Sunil Maharaj said: “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.”
A distinctive feature of the project is an active two kilometre-long test lane on Pretoria’s N4 highway. According to Professor Maharaj they will use to 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.
“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,” he added.
Maharaj and Steyn said for the smart cities research to succeed they will be working with a team of academics including social and environmental scientists, economists, urban planners, architects and lawyers. “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,” they said
UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe thanked the partners, saying UP values their contribution. He said 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.
Said SANRAL’s chief executive officer, Skhumbuzo Macozoma: “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.”
For his part, CSIR’s chief executive officer, Dr. Thulani Dlamini said: “The CSIR recognises that roads and transport infrastructure is at the heart of the economic recovery of South Africa.” He said they have created a dedicated focus on smart mobility in their new strategy, adding that the CSIR views this collaboration as an ideal mechanism to build on transportation systems and transport infrastructure geared to improve societal quality of life.
“With this initiative, together with the University of Pretoria, York invests in the sustainability of our environment by establishing the use and application of engineered wood in construction solutions in Africa,” said Pieter van Zyl, CEO of York Timbers, which is sponsoring a trans-disciplinary research chair.
“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,” said van Zyl.
Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula said the country’s National Development Plan prioritises infrastructural investment as key driver of economic growth. “Engineering 4.0’s focus on 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. The beneficiaries of these will be cities, towns and rural communities that rely on public transport and on our roads network for economic participation,” said Mbalula.
Some of the 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 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.