Screen media gets R&D focus

Ian Chapman, Engineering Manager, TSC, Multotec Manufacturing, shares how Multotec Manufacturing is embracing innovation.

As a young child, my paternal grandmother and her family vacated their farm in the Natal midlands by ox-wagon during the second Anglo-Boer war, fleeing approaching Boer forces. They could see horsemen with rifles watching them from the skyline above as they left. She lived to see the moon landings and space shuttle launches. She lived through a time of incredible technological change, including 2 world wars and the technological advancements these brought about; the advent of telecommunications and the wide use of radio and radar; the nuclear age; and mass production of the internal combustion engine, to name a few. Yet, as Granny bumped along the rough farm track sitting in the family ox-wagon, I doubt she had any idea of the era she was about to live through. 

Compared to the time she lived in, change now happens more rapidly. We are more connected and life is more unpredictable (as I write this, we sit in an adjusted level 3 lockdown in South Africa and witness the responses of other governments to the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the countries our colleagues work in). This environment is now sometimes referred to by the acronym ‘VUCA’ –Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex and Ambiguous.  Apparently, one of the first organisations to use the acronym was the United States Military War College, following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, as they tried to understand the changed, unfamiliar international security environment. 

This begs the question: “How do we prepare ourselves for the future and more particularly, how do we gear our organisations to adapt, so they can meet technological changes as they happen?” Change is rapid and unpredictable, the present is unclear, and the future is uncertain. There are a variety of interconnected factors at play and there is a lack of clarity. Just think of the current burning issues (pun intended): climate change, decarbonisation, development of the hydrogen economy, electric vehicles and widespread adoption of renewable energy. As these new technologies are adopted, they are going to have an impact on the demand for products that our organisations currently manufacture. We have to learn to be agile and to innovate. 

The pointy-heads who develop models for rates of innovation suggest that one of the criteria for improving adoption is through a process of learning from simple to complex. To demonstrate this, they use the example of Lego blocks. Kate and Dan are both given building sets of Lego, each with the same number of blocks and they both want to build as many different models as possible. Kate’s blocks, though, are themed on Star Wars so her models are all moderately complex, while Dan’s set has a castle theme, and a range of models from simple to complex. Dan is therefore able to build the simple models, learning through the process and therefore adapt to building more complicated models. Kate must learn and fail (while becoming  discouraged) until she can develop enough understanding to build her complicated models. By the end of the day, Dan will have built a range of models and become proficient while Kate has only built a few and is still learning.

This ties in with Eric Ries’ s Lean Start-up approach, where he suggests the focus should not be on finding the next big idea that might make a start-up successful, but rather on the hypothesising, experimentation and rapid learning about customer needs. It’s also important to know when it is necessary to pivot because your last great idea wasn’t so great after all. This is explained aptly, in the video The Lean Startup Summary (by Eric Ries).
It’s clear to see that to successfully innovate, an organisation must build both human capacity as well as equipment available to conduct the learning experiments. I believe we have made considerable progress in this regard over the last 5 years within our Development Department at Multotec Manufacturing:

  • We recently purchased a Modix Big 60 3D printer to assist in rapid prototyping (60 x 60 x 60 cm print volume). This replaced an older filament printer that had reached the end of its life. But the experience gained in using the smaller and cheaper unit proved valuable towards specifying the new machine. As the metal additive manufacturing technology evolves, we will have a good idea in future of how to adapt this knowledge, especially for printing complex inserts for our injection moulding factories. 
  • Of course, most of our test activity remains around our workhorse 2’ x 8’ vibrating screen as well as the sieve bend and static drain screens. We have conducted numerous tests this year, ranging from de-watering, pegging, deblending and screening efficiency tests for both in-house knowledge as well as for prospective customers. Currently only the wet circuit is working – we hope to upgrade the dry circuit bulk handling equipment soon.
  • We have also continued to run experiments with a network of established mineral processing specialists like Pesco and Bond Equipment. 
  • Kemix made their pump cell pilot plant available for installation at our test facility. This has assisted our understanding of flux rates in pump cell cylinders, allowing us to test different ideas. We are currently conducting 2 field trials on modular concepts: 1 on a gold mine in the Westonaria district and a second in the DRC.
  •  To cement our position as a leading trommel screen supplier, we are currently conducting extensive drainage work using a customised pilot facility that was built in 2020. The intention is to use this test work to validate our process designs. 
  • We recently took delivery of a second hand 160-ton plastic injection moulding machine and are in the process of commissioning it. We intend on using the equipment for product prototyping (instead of waiting for space on a production machine); to experiment with new tooling concepts (such as allowing more rapid tool change outs) and testing materials (for example, exploring what the result would be if combined polyurethane – with its inherent toughness and abrasion resistance – with polyethylene, which is cheaper and has a higher slip coefficient).


None of this will be possible without our human capital – the skills, capability and knowledge we have created:

  • We currently have 5 staff focusing on process and product development, and intend growing that with 2 further appointments next year.
  • On the test rig work, we currently have 2 process engineers, a test rig supervisor and 2 work integrated learners. This set-up allows for peer review of the work conducted, by the engineers, while the supervisor ensures the schedule of test work is maintained. 

We are well positioned with our test and development facility to “VUCA” into the future.

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