Gerard Verhoef

A recent visit to the Medupi Power Station at Lephalale, organised by SAIMechE and Eskom, reminded me of how long it takes to take your invention to the marketplace.

In 1995, the late Prof Detlev Kröger filed one of his last patents on Air-cooled Heat Exchangers and Cooling Towers during his academic career at Stellenbosch University. He retired in 1999 and in 2004 published a book on the topic which, today, remains the sought-after reference work worldwide. Many of his patents and publications preceded this invention.

The visit to Medupi was led by Eskom’s team of well-informed professional engineers who were able to field all questions by the fortunate group of mechanical engineers who were able to join the excursion.

Twenty years

As I currently practice as a technology transfer specialist at the University of Johannesburg, and as an undergraduate student of Prof Kröger in the nineties, I took the opportunity to analyse this case study to show how difficult it is to take innovative ideas to the market place. For example, patents last 20 years. Therefore, most of Prof Kröger’s work reverted to the public domain when Medupi was supposed to be commissioned in 2013, with only two years left of the patents applicable to Kröger’s inventions. 

After many delays Medupi is now operational, but not without its challenges. Other power stations followed, such as Kendal, Matimba, Medupi and Kusile, without the late inventor having the privilege of reaping the fruits of his stellar career.

Today, mechanical engineers are acutely aware of our field’s inter-dependence of electronic control systems, IT, AI and other data-driven technologies that could arguably have changed the time-to-market of Kröger’s mechanical and thermodynamic inventions. Ironically, many modern mechanical engineers are not exposed to the challenges posed by capital intensive inventions, notably in the field of mechanical, civil and process engineering and in many fields, such as mining, agriculture and other heavy-engineering fields. 

Friends, fools and family

In some respects, it is relatively easy to commercialise technology if one only needs an algorithm, a coder, the proverbial garage and some petty cash from friends, fools and family. As mechanical engineers we will always need one additional resource, namely the ability to scale – and for this there are no friends, fools and family. We also need the ability to scale within budget. The ability to scale without interference.

In the case of Prof Kröger, there was interference. As a mechanical engineer at heart, I work with this challenge on a daily basis. I came to the conclusion that as mechanical engineers we need to re-invent our profession. We need to embrace electronic control systems, IT, AI and other data-driven technologies, which incidentally happens at higher education institutions, with kudos to ECSA. 

We also need to embrace financial instruments. With this I refer to the ability to scale and to talk the language of financers and end-users before we want to put the perfect Mark-I of our prototype into the market. If not, we will always have to wait for others to fund a project, or see others interfering with our inventions.

Prof Kröger invented Medupi. Have you ever wondered who invented the city? Yes, the city. It was a mechanical engineer, but this is for next time.

Gerard Verhoef is a mechanical engineer who will submit his LLD by the end of 2022. The LLD relates to the interface between inventions and Indigenous Knowledge Systems in South Africa. He currently works for UJ where he takes innovative ideas to the market place.

3 Responses

  1. Perhaps have a look at Van Eck PS, Namibia, started in 1972, unit 4 complete in 1972, I was on that project with Babcock, the forced draft dry cooling condensers were supplied by GEA from a design from Germany. Kendal uses Balke Durr technology natural draught dry cooling, radiators manufactured by DB Thermal at Nigel, cooling tower aero-shape and sizing designed by German woman Engineer. Matimba from !988 used forced draught condensers same as Medupi.(but orientation at Medupi ref prevailing wind direction is wrong.
    Not sure where Kroger fits in.
    Regards Tony Smith

  2. Nice insight here. Thank you for this! What I take from this is that some things are revolutionary while most other things are evolutionary. May we find revolutionary patents and ideas to move along the evolution to a workable solution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *