For its fifth annual indaba in September, the Southern African Metals and Engineering Indaba (M&E Indaba) will focus on Industry 4.0, as it affects the metals and engineering (M&E) sector.
The Industry 4.0 session will be an assessment of South Africa’s readiness and the proposed solutions for government and business to ensure that the country progresses in this regard.
Organised by the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa (Seifsa), the M&E Indaba was born out of concern regarding the poor performance of the M&E and associated sectors – particularly the manufacturing sector.
The session will be directed by Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Dr Blade Nzimande, while additional speakers include Council for Scientific and Industrial Research CEO Dr Thulani Dlamini, University of Johannesburg vice chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala and automation company ABB digital lead Stuart Michie.
Leaders from business, labour, government and other interested parties will deliberate on ways of stimulating manufacturing through automotive production.
Subsequently, the automotive production session will critically assess the likely impact of the new automotive production and development programme on the M&E sector.
The session will be directed by Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel. Other speakers include automotive industry association National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa director Mike Mabasa, automotive industry organisation National Association of Automotive Component and Allied Manufacturers executive director Renai Moothilal and Seifsa chief economist Dr Michael Ade.
Seifsa CEO Kaizer Nyatsumba says the federation has been in conversation regarding the need for companies in the M&E sector to embrace Industry 4.0 for quite some time now.
“There is a need for them to be technologically advanced. For example, it is very easy for steel and other products manufactured in Asia, especially China, to land here cheaply because of this.”
He notes that, with China not being as labour intensive as South Africa, it is easier for its M&E sector to employ the latest available technologies. This, unfortunately, results in much higher production costs in South Africa, as there is limited embracing of technology in the local M&E sector – which still heavily relies on human capital.
Nyatsumba adds that a radical improvement of the degree to which Industry 4.0 and all its benefits are embraced will ensure that South Africa witnesses improved productivity levels and much-needed global competitiveness.
“Human beings do fantastic work, but they cannot compete with machines. Regrettably, embracing mechanisation – which is absolutely crucial – will have a negative impact on employment. But if we are going to compete internationally as the M&E and the South African manufacturing sector, we need to embrace Industry 4.0.”
This would also require that government ensures that people, including companies, are trained for the new opportunities in Industry 4.0.
Nyatsumba also warns that South Africa should avoid relying on imported steel. “We need to produce steel domestically and cost efficiently. This is really in the best interests of economic growth from an infrastructure perspective.”
Although this limits what has been the norm throughout the years in terms of the labour intensiveness of the M&E sector, it does present other opportunities for the employees of Seifsa members, says Seifsa industrial relations and legal services executive Sibusiso Mthenjana.
“If our members move towards automation, it would be effective in increasing production so that there is a constant supply of their products. “Our intention is to present a compelling workshop to assist them in upskilling their employees to take the new opportunities. Industry 4.0 moves them away from the shop floor to other avenues,” he explains.
If employees are being upskilled into being service providers for those automated production processes, in terms of servicing the machinery used in production processes, they will also be able to move into the next phase of the industry. Employees will also be able to create their own subsectors, which will then serve the M&E sector, Mthenjana explains.
He reveals that, for the remainder of the year, the federation has created an elaborate schedule with a number of training courses for its members, which are geared towards addressing the challenges that they may face regarding Industry 4.0.
Moreover, in as much as the M&E sector embraces Industry 4.0, Mthenjana emphasises that it should also vigorously embrace transformation so that it is driven by the sector itself as opposed to being an imposition.
“That has been the gospel that we have been preaching to our members – saying that we should be the driver of transformation.”
Mthenjana concludes that, in driving the transformation of the M&E sector, the sector will define the skills that it needs moving forward. “Seifsa will work on identifying the appropriate people within the sector to provide leadership and assistance in whatever transformation agenda it will drive.”