Afrimat’s Johan du Plessis unlocks the synergies between engineering and IT

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The Afrimat tech GM’s interest in IT was sparked after designing a downtime model using Excel.

Johan du Plessis, general manager of technology systems at Afrimat, says as a technician, he has always wanted to combine the capabilities of engineering and information technology – and now he’s living the dream.

Johan grew up in Ellisras (now Lephalale), a farming town in Limpopo. His father was a farmer and Johan learnt how to work with his hands. So, in 1981, he joined Iscor, the parastatal steel company now known as ArcelorMittal South Africa, as an apprentice millwright in Pretoria Works. He later qualified as a millwright, while concurrently completing a national diploma.

Soon after qualifying, Johan was appointed as a technician in Pretoria Works; a few years later he became head technician at Grootegeluk coal mine in Ellisras.

Excel changes everything
At Grootegeluk, Johan became interested in data and information technology in the technician and process control environment, particularly through automating coal-processing plants. But there was a missing link for him, as there was a gap between process control and the business. The information from field devices (like temperatures and scales, which were all based on manual input) just wasn’t ‘talking’ to the company’s operations.

“I wanted to see these two disciplines of engineering and IT talk to each other seamlessly,” says Johan. “So, in my last two years as a technician in process control and automation, I designed a downtime model using Excel. It was the mid-1990s – can you believe it?”

Johan linked the Excel document in real-time to the process control system, which meant that when any equipment stopped working a record was added into Excel, and the machine operator had to give a code for the stoppage.

“That opened up a new way of thinking in Iscor, and they used that real-time data model to design a new and improved downtime model in IT,” adds Johan. “This helped optimise the plant’s maintenance and operational efficiencies, and it was my first entrance into the integration of information technology and process control.”

This experience also inspired Johan to sign up for a BCom at Unisa. He majored in information technology, and he graduated while working as an IT manager at Ceres Fruit Company in 2006.

Managing technology is easy; managing people is not
Johan has been the general manager of technology systems at Afrimat for nearly seven years. An open-pit mining company, Afrimat has divisions that include aggregates, industrial minerals, bulk commodities (like iron ore), and contracting services. And for Johan, one of his focus areas is cybersecurity.

“Sometimes I don’t sleep at night,” he admits. “We've invested many resources into cybersecurity, and, touch wood, we haven't been part of the cyber-attack statistics. For now, we’re as prepared as we can be, but we’re also aware that there’s no such thing as being 100 percent secure.”

Along with cybersecurity, another challenge is managing people. According to Johan, managing technology is the easy part of his job – managing emotions is a different story. “As an IT leader, you need to understand and manage people – it’s crucial. Plus, you need to drive excellence and make sure the company reaches its outputs and optimises profits,” he adds.

When it comes to people management, Johan gains inspiration from Simon Sinek, a leadership author and self-proclaimed optimist.

“He’s a practical guy who understands the human side of things,” says Johan. “He often talks about how to motivate a team, and how to work as a team. At Afrimat, one of our values is teamwork, and his videos on how to make an impact on the people reporting to you have helped me a lot.”

Work-life balance and a dream come true
But Johan’s biggest challenge is maintaining a work-life balance. “I know it's an issue and I'm working very hard to balance it out more,” he says. “It's been hard for me to switch off, but I have a coach helping me, and I am spending more time on my hobbies.”

Johan’s hobbies include knife-making, target shooting, and spending time on his farm near his hometown, Ellisras. He is also passionate about sustainable hunting. Says Johan: “My father taught me that whatever you shoot, you eat, and that's stuck with me. I don’t hunt for hunting's sake.”

Photography is another passion. He’s a Canon man, and he enjoys travelling to Botswana and the Kruger National Park to take photos of animals and landscapes.

“I love photography because I can capture a rare moment in time, and I can carry it with me.”

Johan sums up his career like this: the first 17 years involved purely process control and the automation of plants; the next 17 years was in IT as an IT manager; now, the last part of his career, is with Afrimat. For Johan, this is an opportunity to combine the 17 years of process control and the 17 years of IT management into one.

“It’s a dream come true,” he says. “It is possible to unlock the synergies between engineering and information technology and combine them. To drive a single, unified objective that uses data to increase an organisation’s efficiency – that’s the end goal. And, so far, I think we’ve been successful in doing that at Afrimat. Although, there will always be something we can do to make improvements – at work and in life.”

 

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