Mechanical Technology Archive

Peter Middleton remembers a competitive failure from his past and argues for renewed efforts to promote cooperation between individuals and companies so as to hasten the return of a healthy and successful economy and society.

Peter Middleton Comment Mechanical TechnologyWhen I was a younger employee, I remember being taken on an Outward Bound team-building course with my colleagues. Following painful amounts of hiking, interspersed with challenges to body and spirit, we arrived at a dam for the afternoon and were split into two teams. Each was given barrels, rope and planks and told to build a raft, set it afloat and make a cup of tea onboard.

After several hours of battling, it was made apparent to us that one team had too many barrels and too little rope, while the other had too few barrels and too much rope. It was also put to us that this wasn’t a contest. Enthusiasm on both sides immediately evaporated but resources were pooled, one raft was made and opposing team members drank two cups of tea.

Competition is the cornerstone of free-market economics. Anti-competitive business practices are seen as a betrayal of the consumer and the natural forces of supply and demand are sacrosanct.

Competition is also used to measure our success as individuals. In sport and at school; in our friendships and when dating; when looking for employment or when trying to secure a place for further education, we and our children are forever striving to ‘get ahead’.

The argument goes that, without competition, motivation to succeed is lost, causing complacency. If one is unable to compete, one becomes ‘a loser’. Businesses, too, often see themselves as competing entities, striving to be the ‘World Number 1’ in the construction/mining/car manufacturing industry. Does that make the World Number 2 a loser?

Featured in this issue is sassda’s AGM. At the start of the chairman’s report Charles Cammell pointed out that sassda is a “pro-competitive association” that does not “discuss issues which expose us to any form of anti-competitive behaviour.” Later in the proceedings, changes to the Memorandum of Incorporation were discussed, to put the association “on a more secure footing with respect to the Competitions Act.”

Yet, as an association representing the broader expansion goals of the stainless steel industry, sassda is highly cooperative in nature. Its current director, John Tarboton is a champion of the ‘seven features of remarkable associations’, one of them being alliance building – this to: “collectively find innovative ways to advance all of our industries”.

Innovative Engineering this month features a trial design for base station transmission towers being implemented by MTN in conjunction with Clean Energy Investments. In the light of unreliable grid-based power, this system aims to improve uptime, while reducing the system’s attractiveness to thieves.

Base station sharing, between competing cellular service providers, is being mooted as a core justification for the additional expense. Each network will have its own transceiver equipment in a common cabinet, housed, powered, backed up and cooled by common infrastructure on the same site. Investment and running costs are shared, duplication is eliminated and the physical footprint significantly reduced – potentially three or four-fold. It is hard not to see this as a win-win scenario for customers, the cooperating companies and the environment.

Dividing the steel industry though, import duties are being imposed in an attempt to promote local steel production by making it more expensive to import products that can be locally produced. Some see this as unfair to those converters who rely on the cheaper steel imports to remain competitive. They cite government protection of the steel producers as disadvantaging manufacturers, because their input costs have risen. The supply and demand principle has been violated because government is manipulating the ‘natural’ price of steel.

In the light of far-from-free market practices by eastern exporters, how can the steel industry be returned to success unless both producers and converters are protected? How can the ‘laissez-faire’ economic principle – the complete absence of non-market pressures on prices and wages – ever lead to the economic well-being of the country as whole?

I am not a believer in absolutes. Competition has its role. Primarily, it enables benchmarks to be set against which personal and/or company performance can be measured. Competitive manufacturers of good quality products should be emulated – and they are.

But the success of such companies is almost always a collective effort of people cooperating to achieve a common goal, a goal that is far more often based on ‘being the best we can’ than ‘producing at the cheapest price we can’.

Cooperation comes less naturally to us than competition though, as I discovered when trying to make a better raft than a team of randomly selected colleagues. For the future economic success of our nation and that of the individual citizens within it, we need to work hard to find ways of cooperating that protect all struggling businesses and citizens, while disadvantaging no one.

Peter Middleton



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