Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us: Is South Africa ready?

Can you imagine a world where cyber-infrastructure integrates with the physical space, where robots can perform medical procedures, or assist with caring for the elderly? It may sound like the makings of a sci-fi movie, but in some industrial nations the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in daily life is already a reality.

You might think this reality is far removed from you, but if you are using applications such as Google Maps or Apple’s Siri you are already part of this ever-changing new world order.

The world has to date experienced three industrial revolutions: mechanisation through water and steam power; mass production, particularly with the introduction of electricity; and the recent revolution with advances in computers and automation.

We are now arguably in the midst the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR), also called industry 4.0, which involves a fusion of technologies such as AI, automation, biotechnology and nanotechnology, and the lines are blurring between the physical, digital and biological spheres.

With the intense pace of technology and particularly digital technological development, the FIR is broader and faster than anything before it. The revolution will influence most, if not all economic sectors, but it will also extend, due to the integrative nature of the revolution to business systems, technology developments and society in general. From a technology point of view we will see the integration of physical, digital and biological technologies.

Business systems will change to more decentralised and globalised manufacturing and distribution accompanied by entirely new business models. We will need to consider how this impacts communication, personal privacy and the methods of personal interaction with the world around us. The associated skills base will also need to change and this in turn may lead to more or less equality. We also see that changes will not be incremental but rather broadly disruptive, with changes to entire systems and across sectors.

Drivers of the FIR include advanced robotics, additive manufacturing, augmented reality, simulation, the internet of things, big data and cybersecurity.

As a multidisciplinary scientific and industrial research organisation, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is already actively involved in technological development in many of these drivers. If we look at what the future of manufacturing will be, we will see increasing data generation, interpretation and reaction on real-time basis across the manufacturing environment and outside of it.

We will need to have the ability to accurately collect, interpret and act on data in near real time, potentially without the need for human interaction, with the introduction of AI and machine learning.

The CSIR is looking at aspects of interoperability, information transparency and accessibility, big data analytics and decentralised decision making. One national support facility in the digital space is the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC). The CHPC is one of three primary pillars of the national cyberinfrastructure intervention supported by the department of science and technology. High-performance computing (HPC) combined with machine learning and AI presents opportunities to non-traditional industries.

The next big component of the FIR is advanced manufacturing. A number of these technologies, for example, 3D printing, laser welding and advanced joining, are already well established in this space, but it is predicted that they will become increasingly more pervasive in manufacturing and also more integrated in products of the future.

The CSIR has just started a nano-micro manufacturing initiative that researches the integration of multiple technologies and defines whether new product types can be manufactured with them. South Africa is currently the leader on the continent in terms of national readiness to adopt and implement these technologies and these could, in turn, have a significant impact on national competitiveness, export potential, job creation and economic transformation.

One example of our additive manufacturing platform is the development of Aeroswift, an example of industrial-scale additive manufacturing using metal 3D printing and laser welding. The machine is currently the largest of its kind globally and is designed to be scalable. Development has mostly been with titanium alloys to enable additive manufacturing for lightweight aerospace components.

Cybersecurity becomes an ever-increasing necessity for future manufacturing platforms and business systems. One only needs to think of the personal information breach to realise the importance of protecting data. The CSIR has developed a cybersecurity roadmap that examines several parallel research and innovation streams, ranging from securing information and communications technology, systems, blockchain technology — which facilitates secure online transactions feasibility in the South African context — to identity management. The high-tech focus in this strategy will promote local solution development and implementation. This means local solutions for local problems and less reliance on international suppliers for national security.

Autonomous and mechanised mining can have a significant impact in extending the useful life of many of our gold and platinum mines, as well as the productivity of these mines, which in turn will have a significant impact on Gross Domestic Product. The immediate criticism is that mechanisation will lead to job losses, but the counterargument is that doing nothing will affect 200 000 jobs in the not-too-distant future.

The immediate focus is extending the useful life of mines through improved and safer extraction methodologies. Again, development in this area represents a significant technology and services export opportunity into the continent and internationally as well as job creation and industrial development locally.

The CSIR’s mandate seeks to ensure that these developments have a positive impact on the lives of South Africans. This is done through a full value chain and product life cycle approach to supporting South African industry to become and remain competitive, and contribute to national growth.

Whether you prescribe to the notion of the FIR or not, there is no doubt that the nature of industry is changing rapidly. For the country to respond, the national system of innovation must pull together to ensure that our industrial sectors remain competitive. This will require a host of partnerships within and between research bodies, industry and government. This will create a competitive ecosystem for the adoption of new and competitive technologies, and ultimately, the development of the industrial sector as a whole.

Dr Daniel Visser is the research and development strategy manager at the CSIR

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