How is the manufacturing sector in South Africa embracing tech?
Adam Oxford 30 September 2019
Manufacturing is, by its very nature, at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Nationally, there is much excitement about the potential for new technologies to increase manufacturing output.
Behind the hype, the sector is struggling and innovation doesn’t seem to be high on business leaders’ list of priorities. In June, the South African Reserve Bank warned that contraction in the sector had wiped out 1.1% from GDP growth. South African Market Insights, an economics website, estimates that there’s around 19% excess capacity.
Beyond the POC
What’s the real story on the ground? How do manufacturers view how IT and related technologies will impact their businesses? Brainstorm convened a special roundtable of experts to find out.
Our participants suggested that local manufacturers are definitely aware of the kinds of technology available to them through Internet of Things (IoT) solutions and the digitalisation of manufacturing processes. But they’re taking a cautious approach toward adoption.
“It’s a very heated subject,” says Lerato Mathabatha, manufacturing and industry resources lead for Microsoft. “But what I see is a lot of testing systems, and not many in production yet. There’s a lot of thinking through particular use cases for technology, but not many deployments.”
“That’s a frustration,” says Johan Alberts, vertical executive for mining at IoT.nxt. “We call it ‘the 4IR’, but many of these technologies have been around for 10 years. Sometimes adoption is slow for good reason – businesses need to see proof of value and ROI before they invest. But they’re still running proof of concepts when these concepts are already proven.”
There are still challenges with understanding where the value of high-tech investments lies, and despite the talk of 4IR, it’s not where government incentives lie.
“There’s a will to change,” says Clive Govender, MD at Rolfes Chemicals. “But with manufacturing figures down and what’s happening in the overall environment, capex is being spent on other areas. The big government drive is to create jobs, not efficiencies. There’s a reluctance on behalf of the big manufacturers to invest when they don’t fully understand the technologies. Everyone is watching their pockets.”
“Not everyone understands ‘Industry 4.0’,” agrees Kevin Subramani, senior project manager, Royal HaskoningDHV. “It’s not about the ‘what’- the technology that’s available- it’s the ‘why’. What is it that creates the need to shift? Most manufacturers around the world are still in the 3IR. People are looking to 4IR for efficiencies, but it’s about more than that. It’s about sustainability, flexibility and speed, coupled with efficiency. Balancing those four things is key, and most of my clients have difficulty finding that balance, so they focus on the technology.”
One challenge, points out Alberts, is that manufacturers rarely have the same approach to strategy that, say, banks have.
“There are islands of digitalisation,” he says. “In logistics, for example, or security, but every department has its own vision. There’s not much planning from a whole enterprise architecture point of view.”
The pressing problems
One thing holding back adoption of technologies such as IoT, Alberts continues, is the lack of industry-wide standards and interoperability. It’s a problem that is widespread in the world of operational technology (OT) when it comes to trying to digitalise factory floors.
“Everyone is still locked in by OEMs and suppliers,” he says. “Each supplier has its own tech and subsystems, and if you have five different vendors, there’s nothing that can bring all the data together.”
Read more: Brainstorm Magazine
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