South Africa’s transport sector to dive into digital to deliver value

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The Huawei Connect 2021: Transportation Summit took place on 12 October at Huawei’s Sandton offices. The theme was Dive into Digital, specifically aimed at the digital transformation of South Africa’s rail, port, aviation and road sectors.     

South Africa’s various transportation organisations are not often thought of as synonymous with innovation and technology, yet if the country’s supply chain industry is not to grind to a halt that is exactly what they must become. They will one day be the tech powerhouses that are key to the digital transformation of the supply chain industry. The Cloud-based internet protocol technologies already exist and have been implemented in many countries, enabling their transportation systems to not only survive but thrive.

The digitisation of South Africa’s transport sector is the solution to meeting the rising demand for freight and passenger transport in the face of rapid population growth and increased urbanisation. The transport sector needs to heed this call for digitisation within the next five years in order to ensure that transport is a catalyst for economic growth through smart infrastructure, integration and technology.

Rail has to lie at the heart of any digital transformation of supply chains, relieving pressure on our already overburdened road network, Huawei Senior Account Representative Thomas Snyman told the Summit. He listed a number of challenges and problems existing in the existing railway communication network in South Africa that can be addressed through smart technologies.

First, obsolete signal systems have become the bottleneck of railway systems. High-speed passenger transport and cargo reloading place higher requirements on the reliability of railway wireless networks and signal stability in high-speed operations. 

Secondly, the signal system depends on excessive trackside devices, with a commensurate increase in investment and maintenance costs. Existing trackside devices are old, so certain features are no longer available. In reality, currently only low-rate services and voice services are supported, which greatly affects the efficiency of line maintenance.

Gautrain Management Agency (GMA) COO Tshepo Kgobe

Through partnerships between the private sector and government, smart mobility will facilitate an easier and quicker commute, thereby enabling the sector to extract the most out of the freight economy. However, no transportation system can function in isolation — smart mobility requires an integrated transport system connected across all transport modes, not only for commuters but also for freight.

A fully connected rail, road, air, and port system can be achieved through unified data sharing using smart technologies such as Cloud computing, big data and the Internet of Things (IoT). This could improve on efficiencies, ensure greater safety and security, and provide a better customer experience at a lower cost. The focus of railway external services has to be on improving reliability, on passenger convenience and on information gathering, thereby improving the overall passenger travel experience.

A 5G network will be a core component in enabling an integrated transport system. Its greater speeds, lower latency and scalability will permit better communication across all transport modes. These are being implemented worldwide, for instance, Huawei recently signed a co-operation agreement with Vodafone and Hungary’s East-West Intermodal Logistics Services to build Europe’s first smart railway hub, using a 5G private network for internal communication and technical equipment networking management.

With this foundation in place, legacy transportation companies can deliver advanced tools and technologies for which there are so many possibilities regarding where we can go next. One possibility the Summit was briefed on is Artificial Intelligence, whereby sensors are embedded into end devices which “talk” to each other, rather than concentrating it in a Cloud-based solution. Potential applications for railways include more intelligence in locomotives to increase safety, automatically restocking inventory to increase efficiency, detecting wear and tear, and auto-scheduling repairs to reduce downtime costs.

A secondary benefit of the digitisation of rail will be to relieve the pressure on roads. A GMA study conducted in 2019 found that by 2025 Gauteng’s roads will be so congested that traffic on the freeway will slow down to 10km/h, Gautrain Management Agency (GMA) COO Tshepo Kgobe explained. This means that it would take four hours for a freight truck to travel from Pretoria to the city centre in Johannesburg.

Some of the deficiencies of our current road infrastructure were listed: traffic management cannot monitor road conditions; drivers are unaware of road conditions ahead to take evasive action; and traffic lights cannot flexibly adjust to traffic volumes. Furthermore, current technologies to identify traffic violations can often be thwarted by fog, strong lights or low-resolution cameras paired with high-speed drivers. Yet by introducing advanced technologies connected over fast networks managed by smart algorithms we can reduce congestion, identify areas that need maintenance, and improve road safety in real time.

If our ports falter, so does our economy. It’s that important, and it underscores the importance of integration. Almost any resilience in the South African economy over the past year has been attributable to the commodities boom and the money made from metals we were able to ship abroad. Yet our ports have been forced to declare force majeure twice in the past three months, which also impacts rail performance.

A presentation at the Huawei Connect 2021: Transportation Summit

Huawei ICT Senior Specialist Rose Moyo listed three components of a digitisation strategy for ports:

  • Operational automation, which leverages off ICT technologies such as autonomous driverless cranes  
  • Service visualisation with real time asset status, container universal tracking and visual optimisation
  • Workplace mobility, the need for which has been accelerated by the current pandemic, requiring internet access everywhere

When dealing with a port, there is a tsunami of data from things and people across many different locations. The issue is how to consolidate all this data into something useful as an app. Automation requires an end-to-end solution — it creates a bottleneck if just one process needs to be manual. Delays equate to inefficiency and money wasted.

This approach requires viewing a port not as a geographic entity but as a broader logistics hub, with movement of smart digital information at its centre. For instance, retailers need to know exactly where their goods are at any point in time in order to plan their marketing and save time and money. This can be achieved only when all aspects of logistics are linked — port, rail, road and occasionally aviation.

Given South Africa’s strategic position — with a long coastline, many ports and a conduit to neighbouring landlocked countries — investment in the digitisation of our transportation sector will have an outsized impact on the GDP.

In a port environment, opting for fibre connections is challenging and the requirement therefore is for WiFi. Increasing efficiency is the core of a digitisation strategy in a port environment, and that is achieved by breaking down the vertical silo approach in favour of a single platform with shared aggregated data, best achieved with a Cloud-based platform.

Each of the speakers at the Summit emphasised the primacy of four key pillars to a digital transformation strategy: people, processes, technology and security. Tech leaders in the transportation sector need to adopt tech-forward thinking for execution and delivery. We must move quickly to create an agile culture in which we deliver with speed and in an iterative manner, while maintaining a laser focus on the customer and ensuring employees remain engaged and productive.

The technology component of the transformation should focus on building a strong data foundation to generate valuable business insights. Platforms should be agile and able to connect seamlessly to ecosystems, including supply chain partners and customers. The infrastructure should be modernised while leveraging Cloud apps as much as possible to increase speed to market.

Last but not least, everything must be built and deployed with a secure mindset to address the increasing threat of cyberattacks and enable the adoption of Cloud technologies.

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