Status and Direction of ATS Research

1. PREAMBLE

This document attempts to paint the existing research status in the Station as well as its future direction (2015 – 2018). This is done in order to ensure complete understanding of the nature of the Station, its research priorities versus TIA targets and existing and planned projects on the horizon.

2. WHAT IS RESEARCH IN AN ATS CONTEXT?

It is critical that the term “research” in the context of Technology Stations generally, and ATS in particular, be explained. In a pure academic sense and environment, research is generally associated with scholarly reading, proposal writing with academic rigor attached to methods and processes finally resulting in peer reviewed publication in an accredited journal or protected property in the form of patents or trade secrets.

Another less rigorous definition would be to further include experimentation, trialling and numerous analytical techniques and processes attached to the remit of ATS in the broader food sectors. This does not exclude the definition given above but rather adds to and expand upon it.

ATS rather attaches itself to the second definition for completeness and also in order for it to be able to meet the mandate and targets of its funding agency as well as that of the CPUT research community. However, this does in itself pose certain challenges which are addressed further in this document.

3.  EXPECTATIONS FROM TIA

CPUT signs a rolling 3-year Grant Agreement with TIA. The existing Grant Agreement, which ends on 31st March 2015. As much as the Grant Agreement is fairly broadly worded, the expectations of TIA in terms of reporting (quarterly and annually) puts much flesh to the bone on which the Stations gnaw. Furthermore, TIAs own mandate also puts further flesh to this bone. The two key areas of delivery are innovation support and technology transfer. Under these two key areas are sub-areas which again are neatly summarized in the statistical reporting table alluded to earlier.

4.  ATS TARGETS AND REPORTAGE TO TIA

It is worthwhile noting the spread of activities required in terms of the activities of Station staff, both in terms of conducting activities and meeting targets, as well as ensuring day to day running of the Station against set standards and also institutional constraints. The one key area monitored is Product & Process Development.

The set targets are partly dictated by TIA based on the Technology Station collective commitment to overall targets for TIA i.e. some Stations “cross-subsidize” other Stations in terms of targets due to poor performance. Hidden in all of this is a network of pressures which impact on Stations, many times by taking away capacity from core activities i.e. delivery of innovation support and technology transfer to clients. Some of this pressure is related to maintaining data w.r.t. clients and projects. This is required as evidence when reporting to TIA and has fast become an administrative challenge for most Stations.

The extended agenda and minutes of the last two to three Board and Advisory Committee meetings have also referred to the increasing non-technical workload added to the Stations plate. Furthermore, suggestions and plans to alleviate this have also been tabled, including conducting a Strategic Planning workshop on 30th June 2014 facilitated by NMMU Innoventon (Downstream Chemicals Technology Station). This plan is still in draft form but has been presented to the Board and Advisory Committee. It intended that this be finalized by the end of 2014.

5. ATS RESEARCH STRATEGY

Considering the nuanced definitions of “research” previously and also the need to be seen to be conducting a bigger chunk of the more “formal” version of such research, ATS had previously taken a decision to push its own research envelope using the following tools:

5.1 The TIA mandate includes the need to use expert individuals from external consulting community and experts in other institutions. This is in place with ATS cherry picking projects which it can conduct internally while calling in external experts to assist where it cannot.

5.2 The TIA call also is for internal experts i.e. academics in the teaching area, to be used to assist with research projects and routine. This was the original concept of operation of the Stations as imported from Germany (Steinbeis concept). This also was why the Stations were placed at tertiary institutions i.e. easy to tap into the existing expertise available. This however has not translated well in that, for a variety of reasons, academics have not bought into the concept as easily as was planned. Part of it is related to their workload and part to difficulties associated with remunerating them within the relevant CPUT policy.

To facilitate the uptake of “formal” research, ATS adopted two models which work in tandem. The first is the based on the understanding that most clients, especially SMMEs, do not always want protracted, statistically sound, publishable research conducted but quick answers to meet their own deadlines. They often want this with the known risks attached to such research. At the same time, we may see a longer term project that is suited to qualifications-based and/or publishable research (even in some cases at the B.Tech. level). In this instance we negotiate with such clients to run a two-phase model.

The second model is the development of joint research niche areas with Food Technology by which ATS sources and/or directs appropriate projects to research groups in Food Technology (and by implication any other research group or specialist at CPUT). The client again is written into a contract governing such research and its potential intellectual property in consultation with the TTO. This has allowed a seamless research interface between the two units and ATS is selling this concept to industry presently to attract appropriate research projects. This does not mean that areas outside of these niches will not be addressed.

Further development of this model is being done by defining research group members for specific (but not all) joint niche areas, examples of which are also given overleaf. This is a work in progress presently. It must be noted here that a decision by both units is being considered whereby Food Technology adopts the ATS draft strategic plan, a move which is helping the development of the seamless approach mentioned.

At this point, having sketched the demands, challenges, constraints and reporting requirements facing ATS as well as its present model for procuring and conducting research (“formal” and otherwise), it is appropriate to sketch the present status of research in the group.

6. ATS RESEARCH STATUS

ATS is conducting research presently in the following ways:

6.1 Accepting project on its own and conducting the research internally.
6.2 Accepting client projects and adopting a Supervisor and post-graduate from Food Technology.
6.3 ATS staff conducting research toward a post-graduate qualification(s).
6.4 Employing completing M. Tech. students as Technical Assistants emanating from 5.2.
6.5 Generating internal projects for future joint work with potential clients.

All the above (except 6.5) involve clients that have approached ATS or Food Technology. The following is a brief description of work being conducted specifically related to research, whether “formal” or not and with outcomes and timelines. This does not include other jobs being conducted by ATS or the collective, some of which includes more routine analytical work and product & process development.

A. An Intern of the Station is conducting a Masters study on improving vinegar production. A recent trip to Bejing Forestry University  where vinegar-related work is also being done has a potential student exchange relationship built into it. Pending the outcomes and the final contract, at least some of the results may be embargoed in terms of publication in a journal, but these aspects will be patented. The construct of the study is such that at least part of the results, if published, will not infringe on the confidentiality  agreement with the client.

B. A fish drying project is presently being conducted by ATS with a client. It had been derived from a Service Learning project with Food Technology. ATS has taken over the experimental design and activities. The project essentially aims to validate an existing artisanal practice, the end of product of which would be appropriate training manuals and a Service Learning roll-out to coastal communities by the client.

C. Over the last 3 years ATS has been hosting the Blue Karoo Trust, an Eastern Cape social development entity which required assistance with fish processing trials, this including      mincing, canning, retorting and analysis.

D. Further work on fish is planned and in progress. It is envisaged that the data produced would be sought after by the fishing industry since no such work has been done in South Africa on some of the local fish species.

E. ATS had recently completed a date sugar extraction and crystallization project for a client where the brief was to determine the maximum extractable and crystallizable sugar from a date varietal.

F. ATS had undertaken to participate (and co-supervise) a project dealing with the use of milk from cross-bred cows for the production of appropriate dairy products to monitor the retention of conjugated linoleic acid during the processing phase.

G. ATS is also involved in its own internal method development in order to supply services in terms of histamine, MCPD, alginate and inulin analysis. This is in keeping with its theme of      niche analytical services for industry.

H. ATS has generated a few B.Tech. project investigations. One such is marula fruit waste press cake produced after oil expression. ATS will further look to team up with NWU in terms of them having expertise with supercritical fluid extraction of oil from marula.

I. ATS staff also participates in providing routine services as well as casual training to a number of registered Masters students from Analytical Chemistry, Food Technology, BTB Lab and      Chemical Engineering. This is done pro bono and is based on the expertise residing in ATS analytical staff as well as the fact that the relevant equipment is well-maintained and reliable. There is no scientific recognition for this but it is assumed (but not insisted upon) that ATS is recognized in whatever thesis or publication is produced, hence linking these services formally to research outputs.

J. A further strong research niche area is that of Maillard Reaction Product/Lipid Oxidation where both ATS and Food Technology staff are active. Funding for a collaborative study between CPUT and the University of Beunos Aires was received recently.

7. CONCLUDING REMARKS

All of the contents of this document is based on our experiences to date and is documented in staff meeting minutes, reports to clients, student reports, quarterly and annual reports to TIA, minutes of Board meetings and of Advisory Committee meetings. This document then merely contextualizes existing and planned research collaborations by ATS and also summarizes those projects considered pertinent to this debate. Other activities of the Station are not touched on in the document.

L. Dolley
13th October 2014