From the Editor's desk: South Africa lags in the great data race, but there’s hope
August 2017, News
“Organisations which fail to embrace the initiative of Industrie 4.0 risk obsolescence,” warned speakers at the recent Connected Industries Conference at The Dome in Randburg.
Keynote presenter Michael Ziesemer, chairperson of the German Electrical & Electronic Association (ZVEI), predicted that companies which did not adopt the ideas of the fourth industrial revolution would soon be overtaken by them. As a stark reminder of the speed at which this can happen he asked delegates to consider how, in the hospitality sector, most hotel chains have dropped off the first page of Google search in favour of the numerous Internet-based booking services. In less than a decade, digitisation has robbed the hotel chains of their direct relationship with customers and placed it squarely in the hands of a new owner – the ‘Where-should-I-stay-tonight’ app.
Fellow keynoter and ZVEI board member, Dr Gunther Kegel, reinforced the urgency as he explained how survival in the modern era depends on smarter business and production processes, smarter supply chain collaboration and smarter products – Industrie 4.0 in a nutshell.
While there is now little doubt that these ideas offer significant opportunities for manufacturing efficiency in the fully developed economies of western Europe, the key question raised by the Connected Industries Conference is: “How effectively can they be applied in the emerging economies of Africa?”
SAIMC president Oratile Sematle put the conundrum nicely into context. The paradox is that most African societies have yet to experience the benefits of the second industrial revolution, but they are unlikely to remain sustainable unless they now find a way to embrace the fourth one.
The good news is that Industrie 4.0 can provide ways to leapfrog ahead.
But it will not happen without collaboration
What hit home in every conference session which I attended, is that the success of any digital leapfrogging endeavour in South Arica is heavily dependent on the future levels of cooperation between industry, labour, government and education.
So how should the stakeholders interact?
The DTI’s Nigel Gwynne-Evans explained during a panel discussion that while government is supportive, it is only just beginning to get to grips with the implications of Industrie 4.0. What was encouraging to hear is that a new unit has been formed to investigate how incentives might be used to speed things along, much as they did so successfully in the automotive sector some years ago.
This is a step in the right direction. What South Africa’s economy desperately needs is growth in the SME sector. Big business will adapt to whatever regulatory or economic environment it is faced with – big business is very, very good at doing this. What big business cannot do alone though, nor should it be expected to, is provide a solution to an unemployment problem the size of the one currently faced by South Africa. However, with the right incentives in place and the technologies of Industrie 4.0 to connect a suitably approved SME network into the big business supply chain, plus a little judicious foreign direct investment, who knows what might be possible.
Gwynne-Evans touched on the subject again at the conference’s highly successful gala dinner. He stressed the importance of public/private sector partnerships as a key driver for local industrial growth, using the technologies of Industrie 4.0. Acting German ambassador Klaus Streicher explained to delegates and VIP dinner guests how Germany will present a recommendation for ‘shaping a new digital world’ at an upcoming G20 meeting. His message was clear: there should be unprecedented collaboration on digitisation in order that its benefits are as widely shared as possible.
The Connected Industries Conference did exactly what it was designed to do – it started a dialogue. It showed that while South Africa currently lags behind the developed manufacturing world in the sophistication of its digitisation efforts, it has the necessary infrastructure and skills to catch up. What works in Germany though is not necessarily guaranteed to work in South Africa due to the vastly different population demographics and more commodity-based economy. South Africa has a unique set of problems for which it must find a unique set of solutions. But, if we are prepared to work together and listen, then we just might ‘Get by with a little help from our friends’.
Editor: SA Instrumentation & Control