New Chair to prioritise people-centred approach

Seasoned academic and engineer Prof Johan van der Spuy has been appointed as the new Chair of the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic (M&M) Engineering as of 1 July 2021.

The M&M Department has been part of the Faculty of Engineering since 1948. Mechanical engineering is characterised by the field’s involvement in structures, motion and transfer of energy. Mechatronic engineering is a synergistic combination of precision mechanical engineering, electronics and computer systems.

Prof van der Spuy has been part of the M&M Department since 2006. He started out as a senior lecturer and then held the positions of associate professor from January 2016 and professor from June 2020.

As the new Chair, he is extremely optimistic about the future of the Department.

“I inherited a very well-balanced and well-run Department from (former Chair) Prof Kristiaan Schreve. We have a large group of vibrant, young lecturers that keep on re-inventing themselves. For us the challenge is therefore to find a balance between using our existing assets productively, while simultaneously bringing in new opportunities.

“My top priority for the immediate future is to keep the ship steady and on-course following a turbulent past three weeks of exams, then no exams and now on-line exams. Once the ship is set on course, my next priority would be to oversee the return of our staff and students to campus as the COVID pandemic recedes. We have a brand spanking new building at M&M and it needs filling.”

Prof van der Spuy says his experience as both an academic and engineer taught him to appreciate and invest in the value of people. He hopes to incorporate that same people-centred approach at M&M.

“My first job was as a junior engineer at former South African mining company Gencor made me realise that our country is literally built on the sweat of people that work in mines, factories and power plants. The biggest investment we as a university can make is in well-trained people – both our students and staff.

“However, as seen in the past few years, the mines and factories cannot operate if we do not have infrastructure. So besides investing in staff and students, we need to invest in the research needed to create a framework within which our students and staff can work.”

The former SU student, who obtained a BEng (Mechanical) cum laude in 1994 and a MEng (Mechanical) cum laude in 1997, says Prof Theo von Backström (who sadly passed away earlier this year) had been his engineering mentor for 27 years.

“I did my final-year project with him in 1994 on axial flow fans. He convinced me that a fan is just a rotating aeroplane wing. I really liked aeroplanes. I took a bit too long to finish my master’s degree. By then I just could not imagine myself studying anymore. However, after about three years up country on Prof von Backström’s advice, I came back to Stellenbosch to work for Andrew Taylor at CAE until the end of 2005. When Prof von Backström retired (for the first time) I got an opportunity to be his protégé.”

Prof van der Spuy considers the PhD he obtained in 2011 as the highlight of his academic career.

“There were a number of us in the Department that were busy with our PhDs at that stage and we had a floating trophy, called the “Skilpad-trofee” for the person taking the longest to complete his doctorate. The trophy spent about two years in my office.”

As an engineer while at the university, he considers the day they started the so-called “B-fan” on the Matimba Power Plant at Lephalale in Limpopo as another highlight.

“We installed the 10 metre diameter fan at a height of 50 metre above ground level ourselves. The installation crew between them had four PhDs, four master’s degrees, one bachelor’s degree and Ferdi Zietsman (head technical officer at M&M), who was the most valuable of all of us,” says Prof van der Spuy.

The Kroonstad born Free Stater, who admits to a fondness for crayfish diving that started when “I was 10 years old’ and a total dislike for social media, has published several journal articles and been at the forefront of various research projects over the years.

Photograph: Prof Johan van der Spuy