Professor Danie Hattingh: driving ‘innovation through engineering’ at eNtsa

BY TAI CHISHAKWE - JUNE 25, 2016

Amid the commotion of academic business at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), groups of students stop to gawk as engineers disembark from an ebike, drive around in a zero emission Nissan Leaf or the Segway that looks like a film prop from Star Wars, just some of several innovative projects at the institution.

Including various other ground-breaking, locally-produced innovations such as the autonomous guided vehicle (AGV) for navigating in warehouses and the welding and repair technique, known as WeldCore®, which successfully saved the local power generation industry millions, these are the projects happening at eNtsa, a prominent research, design and technology support unit based at NMMU.

Championing the realisation of these disruptive technologies is Professor Danie Hattingh, engineer, academic and Director of eNtsa – and his world today is far from where he started.

Born in Mthatha, Prof Hattingh spent most of his childhood on a Forest Station in the mountain areas before moving to rural Tsolo and finally settling in Mthatha where he attended Hoërskool Transkei.

“After completing Grade 7, we moved to Isidenge, a Forest Station just outside Stutterheim and commuted every day by bus from Isidenge to Stutterheim High School where I completed my Matric,” he recalled.

It was after his Military Service in Oudsthoorn, that he decided to “follow the shortest route to a professional career and enrolled for a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering at the then Port Elizabeth Technikon”.

He added; “You have to realise that we grew-up in an era when career guidance was almost non-existent… I decided to do mechanical engineering as this was a field I had the most exposure to in my upbringing”.

“My father was and still is a very practical person. He could fix most electrical and mechanical problems on cars, domestic appliances, etc. and also a very competent woodworker – this made our home a ‘hot spot’ for out-of-the-box solutions for other people’s problems.”

“Inevitably, I would get involved with the peripheral stuff; I guess the problem-solving part is what got me interested in engineering. It’s really sad for me to see how wasteful we have become – broken now means chuck-away and replace with a new one, the culture of fixing stuff has disappeared.”

While still studying, he was recruited by a local industrial fan manufacturing company and worked in their product development section - developing new ventilation systems for the mining industry. On completing his Higher National Diploma, he was appointed a Lecturer at the now NMMU.

“I later completed my Master’s Degree before being accepted to complete my PhD at the University of Plymouth in 1998,” Prof Hattingh said.

In 2000, he was involved with Solid State Welding and joined an international experiment at the European Synchrotron Research Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, doing residual stress mapping on friction stir welded aluminium samples welded by TWI, the inventors of the Friction Stir Welding (FSW) process.

The following year, he initiated FSW research in South Africa with the aim of creating a world-class facility that would generate local knowledge and expertise to develop friction processing for the broader manufacturing industry. Consequently, the first Friction Stir Weld in South Africa was made in 2004 using a platform developed by researchers at NMMU.

eNtsa was started as the Automotive Components Technology Station (ACTS) in 2002 with three staff members and project funding of R300 000. Today, it has grown to a staff compliment of 49 and a turnover of just over R50 million.

“The eNtsa roots lie in a combination of consulting work, the research undertaken and the Technology Station Program in support of Supplier Development for the automotive and manufacturing sector,” he said.

“As a young academic, I was always active in establishing new programs, doing industry-related consultancy to supplement income and started focussed research projects.”

Currently, eNtsa has programs and projects supported by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) via the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), the National Research Foundation (NRF) and contract research projects with Eskom and Sasol. The main areas of support include the supplier development initiative, eMobility technologies, which include electric vehicle systems and battery technologies, composite structures, advanced design and modelling, welding and materials engineering, automation and control, and solid state welding.

Prof Hattingh was involved in the development and registration of a unique welding process between NMMU and Eskom, trademarked as WeldCore®, which won the first place prize of the National Innovation Competition (NIC) in 2010, received the National Science and Technology Forum’s (NSTF) award for Research leading to an Innovation by a team category in 2011 and has two international patents. The following year Prof Hattingh was awarded a Distinguished Professorship by NMMU, in the same year eNtsa in corporation/cooperation with Eskom engineers were awarded the Eskom’s Chairman Award for Innovation after success application of the WeldCore® technology at the Hendriena power station.

During 2012 he was also awarded the Southern African Institute of Welding’s Gold Medal in recognition of vision and leadership for his contribution towards establishing solid state welding as an alternative joining technology in SA. .

Hattingh is a modest man that takes pride in the team that he works with and gracefully amends his team for eNtsa’s achievements.

He also participated in competitive peer-reviewed EU beam time applications at the world-class ILL and ESRF facilities, with an experimental value of around £675 256 over past 15 years. He serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of the International Journal of Fatigue, reviewed a large number of papers for respected international journals and served on the council of SAIMechE from 2005 to 2010.

From 2012 to 2015, he was part of an international research team consisting of the Universities of Sheffield, Farrara, Plymouth and NMMU that developed a friction stir welding process for joining small diameter 6082 aluminium alloy tubes for the international automotive sector. 

About the business lessons he has learnt running eNtsa, he said; “Never be unfair to your suppliers; if they cannot make a living from the work they do for you, they will not be able to deliver what they have undertaken to do.”

“In an engineering and knowledge-driven environment, competent and committed people are your most valuable asset and never take them for granted. Work with your clients and not against them; stay involved with your project on a daily basis even if they are a paid service provider – they must believe in what you are doing and you must believe that they can deliver. Communicate well and be fair.”

The Professor said of eNtsa; “Ultimately, we want to contribute to building a culture of innovation, not only within universities, but within the broader engineering community.”  He said some of the challenges facing the engineering and technology sectors in our region stem from very little local in-house research being done by industry. “We have become an importer of innovation and high level solutions. We do not always trust local suppliers.”

Prof Hattingh hopes to leave eNtsa as a “financially sound and sustainable international organisation that drives ‘innovation through engineering’ to the next level in an honest and hardworking way while at the same time getting enjoyment from it” and wants it to continue creating new business opportunities and ventures for young bright minds.

Away from the office, he enjoys escaping into the bush with his wife, Marinda, the family dog and his old 4x4 or doing woodwork in his garage and gardening. His daughter, Marelise, is also an engineer doing her MEng at Stellenbosch while his son, Chris, is doing a BRek also at Stellenbosch. Hattingh is a passionate & compassionate man loved not only by his family but admired by his team and respected by his peers.