NATASHA ODENDAAL | CREAMER MEDIA SENIOR DEPUTY EDITOR
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) offers South African industries significant opportunities, but realising them will require clear thinking and quick action in an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. 4IR has the potential to turn already-indecline industries around; however, the window of opportunity is “not that wide”, says 4Sight BluESP MD Wilhelm Swart. In all industries, the big opportunity is to reduce costs and improve quality.
“Those industries that are in decline have the chance to buy themselves time to regain market share by seizing that opportunity – the size of the window is dependent on the dynamics of the industry itself, but one could generalise and say that the global marketplace is very fast moving, so speed is important,” he tells Engineering News & Mining Weekly.
The national Covid-19 lockdown and its damaging aftermath will also prompt greater investment in 4IR. “Pain is a great motivator, and people and companies always move fast to get away from it. The current Covid-19 crisis will accelerate digital transformation and adoption of 4IR as companies look for innovations that will reduce their pain,” he comments.
This comes as the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown force industrial operations to function with minimal staff on site, with many companies seeking ways to improve their monitoring and automation capabilities.
“The need to reduce close contact will remain for quite some time, it seems, and this will result in new regulations and ways of working. Industry will generally implement restrictions on travel and site visits, and hygiene practices will become the norm,” he explains. Remote working will gain momentum.
“All of this, plus better access to Big Data analytics, will accelerate the adoption of 4IR in industry,” says Swart. However, despite South Africa boasting innovative 4IR projects and industry leaders already realising the value of digital transformation, the country’s adoption and deployment rates of 4IR are lower than in the developed, richer economies.
“South Africa remains the continent’s most industrialised economy, but we should recognise the extent to which our industrial base has been hollowed out,” he says, noting that, between 1974 and 2019, South Africa’s industrial production averaged 0.92%, with a high of 18.5% in May 1995 and a record low of -23.20% in April 2009. Many of the headwinds our industries face come from within the country – poorly thought-out policy, energy instability and a hostile labour regime – but he says this includes increasing competition, particularly from Asia, an unpredictable trade and economic environment and growing pressure to protect the environment.
However, the companies that invested in innovation and digital transformation during the 2008 to 2010 recession expanded and were much more profitable. The same will be true of the current crisis. The recent mining crisis prompted companies to adopt 4IR technologies to enable better maintenance, asset optimisation and cost cutting. “In the mining sector, 4IR has a number of use cases, but the one receiving the most attention at present is predictive asset maintenance. Of course, mines have been monitoring their equipment for ages, but it is estimated that they have been using only 4% of that data,” Swart points out.
4IR can only work if the company’s business processes are digitalised so that they can be integrated into the whole ecosystem, contributing data and, in return, being optimised by the insights generated by the data.
Further, 4IR is a step change in the way industry works and will require a highly focused and disciplined approach. All 4IR projects need to be assessed with criteria that include the need to solve a business problem, the delivery of speedy returns within six months, the readiness of people and the identification of suitable partners.
“Large-scale, ambitious and open-ended projects are almost certain to fail: my best advice is to start small, stay focused and build on what you learn in each project,” he suggests. “As one might expect, the first wave will be focused on the low-hanging fruit, such as continued improvement in asset optimisation and automation at all levels,” Swart says, adding that those who procrastinate will be left behind.
This article is done by Creamer Media’s Engineering News & Mining Weekly.