Physics & Engineering

How we know the cables won’t snap

riaan berghWhen Riaan Bergh spots a car with a tow bar, he’s on all fours before he can help himself, checking how the thing is designed and connected, and if it would pass a strength test.

Safety first

This habit began during the formative years of Bergh’s career, when he was responsible for testing a great number of tow bars. Now, Bergh is quite literally in the business of breaking: he is the business manager of three mechanical testing labs at the CSIR’s Consulting and Analytical Services unit.

These labs provide strength and safety testing services that allow mining, manufacturing, transport and construction companies, and heavy industry, to comply with safety requirements. In the rope testing lab for example, steel ropes used in mines are subjected to destructive tensile testing. “We pull the rope until it breaks so that we can determine the force it can handle and how much it stretches before it snaps,” says Bergh.

In the self-contained self-rescuer lab, Bergh and his engineering team test devices of the same name. “If a miner finds himself in a situation where there is too little air to breathe, he can use this device to produce oxygen by means of a chemical reaction,” explains Bergh. Samples of the devices are regularly drawn for testing in order to minimise the number of defective units in circulation.

The third lab is the mechanical testing lab, which ensures the safety of equipment involved in lifting, like crane hooks and slings, and those used as support structures in mines.

Engineering is science applied

Bergh says the field of engineering is all about applying the principles of science to make people’s lives better, and in his case, safer. After a brief stint of wanting to be a fireman, Bergh committed to a career in engineering at the tender age of 7.

After school Riaan studied mechanical engineering (B.Eng Hons) at the University of Pretoria. He then went on to complete a postgraduate qualification in Engineering Management while working part-time as a testing engineer for a consulting firm. “Working while studying allows you to get a foot in the door and to build your CV,” says Bergh. He advises young people to apply for postgraduate bursaries and sponsorships with work obligations, or to first work for a few years before pursuing postgraduate studies.

“A good engineer understands how things apply in the real world and how to bring theory to practice,” says Bergh. “Strong academic performance is as important – if you can show technical superiority you will advance more quickly.”  He adds that people skills, good communication skills and a keen eye for detail are also crucial.

A leader

“As a young engineer, it was important for me to gain experience working in the technical arena before moving into a management position,” he says. “Machines are easy to maintain, but to motivate and lead people is a big challenge.”

Bergh puts a lot of emphasis on being able to interface well with those who report to him, and with customers and suppliers. He is also passionate about sharing his knowledge with younger engineers to help them succeed in their careers. “One person can only do so much, but a team of talented people can do great things.”

Adapted from the original publication in the CSIR’s Science Scope, March 2014.




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