South Africa remains the continent’s most industrialised economy, but we should recognise the extent to which our industrial base has been hollowed out. Between 1974 and 2019, our 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, a hostile labour regime – but others are external. They include increasing competition, largely from Asia, an unpredictable trade and economic environment, and growing pressure to protect the environment.
The US military aptly describes environments like this as VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. To prosper in such circumstances, perhaps we should take our watchword to be “vuka”, the Zulu word for “wake up”. We need to have our wits about us to harness the power of the 4IR to revitalise our major industries and compete successfully on the world stage.
The 4IR is essentially built on data, largely derived from sensors in a growing number of machines and equipment. When the sensors are connected to the Internet, the resulting torrents of data can be processed by analytics software to generate valuable insights to support rapid, accurate and profitable decision-making.
The 4IR is possible because the cloud makes it possible for companies to access the powerful artificial-intelligence and machine-learning software, as well as the sheer processing power, needed to turn raw data into something valuable. Robotics have a big role to play in the 4IR because the data-driven insights can be used to make them more intelligent and thus more useful as adjuncts to humans.
Critically, the 4IR can only work if the company’s business processes themselves 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.
Take, for example, a manufacturing plant with various processes taking place at disparate locations. Typical manual processes make it hard to track the yields of each process, the quality and the downtime. However, if all that information can be fed into the HR and financial systems, planning can be dramatically improved and the whole facility can be managed as a single unit.
In some processes, for example, the right data can be used to predict the quality outcome of a process, allowing managers to scrap the process early on, thus saving costs, or, even better, adjust parameters to “save” the process.
At the same time, robots can be introduced, for example to undertake particularly dangerous work such as handling molten metals. Aside from safety, 4IR processes can be used to support process optimisation within the context of environmental parameters.
In the mining sector, 4IR has a number of use cases but the one receiving most attention at present is predictive asset maintenance. Of course, mines have been monitoring their equipment for ages, but it’s estimated that they have been using only 4% of that data. Using all the data will help in reducing failures and maximising uptime, with the potential to improve margins quite significantly.
Recipe for success
This kind of approach has huge potential, limited only by one’s imaginative capacity. But there’s a real danger: the tendency to see 4IR purely through the lens of technology. Technology clearly has a critical role to play, but it’s primarily an enabling one. All 4IR projects need to be assessed in light of the following criteria:
The 4IR is a step change in the way industry works. As such, it needs a highly focused and disciplined approach. 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.
One final point, and it’s one that we in South Africa must take to heart. The 4IR is a journey rather than an event, and those who procrastinate will be left behind. Because the changes are so significant, playing catch-up will harder than ever, perhaps impossible. Our industries are already in decline – 4IR has the potential to turn them around, but the window of opportunity is not that wide.