South Africa needs to wake up quickly to the dire socio-economic impacts of simply importing new engines rather than remanufacturing existing components locally.
According to Andrew Yorke, operations director at Germiston-based Metric Automotive Engineering, large diesel engines are gradually becoming uneconomical to repair.
“We have already seen this trend in light commercial vehicles, where complete engines are now imported as opposed to remanufacturing individual components,” says Yorke. “The remanufacture of components was a viable industry twenty years ago, but that market has long disappeared.”
The business focuses on the remanufacture of components for large diesel engines that drive the rail, mining, power generation and marine sectors, and Yorke says he is seeing the same disturbing trend in these segments. He notes that 30 years ago, some 80% of the cost of an engine overhaul would be for engineering and 20% would be for the parts. Today, that percentage split is exactly the opposite.
“This is because the OEMs are pricing their parts to the aftermarket in a way that makes remanufacturing less and less viable,” he says. This is not because the engine is designed to be thrown away. On the contrary, its major components – cylinder head, engine block, conrods, crankshaft and camshaft – are all designed to be remanufactured more than once. It is the other wear parts like seals, bearings, liners, pistons and gaskets that need regular replacement.
Yorke warns that if South Africa no longer remanufactures engine components, the country will no longer have a use for its automotive engineering capacity and expertise. But these skills have applications well beyond this sector.
“The knock-on effects of losing our remanufacturing sector will be severe,” he says. “Just as the capital invested in equipment becomes wasted, so the skills and expertise will be lost to the industry.”
He notes that there is constant skills development required to operate the modern engineering technology in Metric Automotive Engineering’s facility. If the country is no longer remanufacturing components to rebuild engine components, then those jobs in assembling engines also become superfluous.
“As the skills for engine assembly disappear, so do the skills related to the testing of engines,” he says. “Engine testing is a complex set of skills capable of problem-solving and fault-finding, and these experts often become field service and maintenance technicians.”
He warns that should it become common practice to only import new engines rather than remanufacture engines and engine components, the skills required to maintain these engines will also end up needing to be imported.
“As a country, we need to be more strategic about our economic choices, so that we support sectors that are strong, and where skills and jobs can be developed,” says Yorke. “Automotive engineering focused on engine component remanufacture is one such sector.”
“Instead, we should be protecting industries that make it possible to remanufacture engine components,” he says. “This means remanufacturing the worn component to ‘as-new’ specification, assembling the components in a competent manner, and testing them to ensure optimal performance.”