Dr Kelvin Kemm
Dr Kelvin Kemm

More to technology that meets the eye: Devil can be in the detail

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 28, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - The word "technology" tends to immediately conjure up an image of complex machines, or intricate electronics device.

At social functions people will say: "Oh, I am not a technical person so let us just keep off that subject.” Technology is any system or process that achieves something, so it does not have to be inherently complex.

For example, a women baking a cake is a technological process. She has to get the amounts of ingredients correct. They have to be mixed in the correct sequence and put in the oven at the correct temperature for the correct time. Cake baking is just the home version of a factory producing canned peaches.

A process is also a technology. Imagine that a woman has twin daughters and she wants to make dresses for them. She can cut out one dress from the fabric and then cut the second.

The point is that technology is around all of us all of the time. Profitability in any company rests solidly on its technological base. This includes not only engineering companies, but banks, stockbrokers and auditors.

It is also interesting to look at hi-tech and low-tech, since so often the low-tech is overlooked.

I recall a case where a factory was loading product into customer trucks which formed a long queue outside the loading area. Business was good and at any time there were as many as a dozen very large trucks in the queue. The queue delay worried the company and so they budgeted millions to improve loading.

They asked me for ideas, so I went and watched. They would load until late at night and then close, but the unserved trucks and drivers would have to wait all night.

One day, before I started on the project, a bakkie arrived and just drove past all the queued trucks. As the bakkie got near the front a truck driver jumped out, pulled out a gun, cocked it, and held it to the head of the bakkie driver, threatening to shoot him if he tried to jump the queue.

The company's security team raced over but the irate truck driver refused to surrender his gun. The bakkie driver argued that he only needed a small quantity, so he would be quick. The gun-wielding driver argued that he needed a huge quantity and so he was far more important and should be served first. Both had a point. That is why supermarkets have an express checkout for less than a dozen items.

So the optimum solution for the loading bay was not to just make it bigger but also how to make it work smarter. That required analysis.

There are also the concepts known as "tribal knowledge" and "craft skill". These are where technology is picked up or learnt at any level and start to operate, often without the managers even realising it is happening.

Another case was at a plant which crushed mined ore and extracted a valuable mineral. They used a chemical principle in which fine crushed ore, the size of dust, will stick to bubbles rising in a tank of liquid. The finely crushed ore was poured into a tank and then bubbles were blown in from the bottom. Only the valuable dust attached to the bubbles and the residue dust stayed at the bottom.

A foam layer built up at the top containing the valuable mineral. The tanks were as big as a home swimming pool. The foam built up like head on a freshly poured beer. An operator sat and watched this and then when the foam was at maximum, he pressed a button which activated an arm to swing over and scoop all the foam into the next processing stage.

After some years the company decided to replace the human button-pushers with a new electronic system which would measure the foam thickness and then sweep. The new system was introduced and the result was that production dropped dramatically.

They called the human operators back and asked them how they did it. After much interrogation they found out that the operators listened to the sound of the bubbles popping, and when they detected a certain sound, which meant the bubbles were "right". It turned out it was the wall thickness of the bubble which counted, not just the height of the foam.

So there we had operators who possessed a critical acoustic skill, but in the company HR records they were merely rated as button-pushers.

It is a mistake to think of technology and technology management as only the highly complex engineering. That type of simplification can later be very expensive.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company. [email protected]


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