In tackling the lack of awareness of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the skills gap that prevents South Africa from successfully implementing these technologies, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) suggests that universities broaden their scope of work-based training and that government prioritises innovation.
France-based University of Côte d'Azur economics Professor Edward Lorenz stated during a UJ-hosted 4IR policy colloquium this week that universities should establish a curriculum that includes data engineering for machine learning applications and advanced programming for automatic manufacturing control processes.
He recommended that technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions improve the supply of intermediate-level technical skills, such as mechatronic and programming skills.
In terms of creating awareness, he said South Africa could learn from China, where the Zhejiang provincial government had launched an action plan to promote the adoption of cloud computing, aiming to assist 100 000 firms between 2018 and 2020.
Lorenz further noted that India in 2017 established four centres that were focused on promoting the adoption of advanced digital production technologies among small businesses in Bangalore, New Delhi and Pune.
School of Oriental and African Studies University of London economics lecturer and industrial development research chairperson Dr Antonio Andreoni said other countries had been thinking about 4IR issues for quite some time, as automation had transformed production.
“Machinery and equipment is the mother of all industries, it changes the way how other industries work.”
Andreoni questioned whether robots were part of an evolutionary transition or an evolutionary disruption, seeing that the first industrial robot had been developed in 1959 already. “Robots have always been around, but their involvement has become more complex – sometimes in a complementary manner, or substitutionary.”
China uses the most robots worldwide, while India and Turkey are growing their use of robots, while Japan has the biggest concentration of large companies that produce robots.
Andreoni explained that China’s policy had always been very supportive of technology adoption and implementation. China’s five-year plan from 1986 to 1990 was the first in the world to promote industrial robot research and development, while the country in the 1990s shifted to a prototype development phase, which was focused on the initial design and production of robots.
China has since established 40 robotics-focused industrial parks throughout the country, which are supported by government funding. The country also in earlier years published a robotics industry development plan for 2016 to 2020, where robot developers can obtain a subsidy of up to 30% of the cost when the robot reached assembly stage.
Meanwhile, in Thailand, the government has committed $6-billion to creating the “right ecosystem” for robotics.
IMPLICATIONS FOR SOUTH AFRICA
Andreoni said South Africa’s robotics policies must be aligned with sector policies if the country wants to expand these sectors. “Robots are expensive and government has to support companies in their adoption and retrofitting of legacy systems.
“While technology adoption is important, government should also create the conditions for future innovation in automation by creating an industrial ecosystem of local companies and joint ventures with leading international companies in 'robotisation'.”
Department of Trade, Industry and Competition 4IR policy strategy developer Ilse Karg agreed with Lorenz’s point of needing firm-level data. “As policymakers we need that information to be able to come up with options and interventions to assist our industries. Looking at South Africa, the current level of automation in factories is unknown.
“It is important to determine the level of existing automation before we can start looking at new technology such as artificial intelligence and robotics. We also need to define what is an industrial robot, because people often have misconceptions of what a robot and an industrial robot is.”
She said it was critical to create a space for manufacturers to discover technologies, mainly through a platform to collaborate with other companies, which would reduce costs and lower confusion between the vast array of technologies available in the market.
“If platforms are created for companies in South Africa to collaborate, not everybody needs to own the equipment. If you create this network of collaboration, you have equipment in the network and that could be a way to allow companies to test certain technologies to see if it will work for them,” she explained, adding that this was the model that the South African government wanted to pursue.
Research organisation Progressus director Peter Skei added that all the expertise required for digitalisation often did not reside in an individual, or even one organisation, but in a network of people and organisations. “How do we do risk sharing? For companies to test, innovate and develop on their own is a costly exercise, while the cost of failure in South Africa is even more expensive.
“Government should look at linking technological hubs with local development. There does not seem to be linkages between places where technology resides and the local community,” Skei said.
On this point, Fourth Industrial Revolution Presidential Commission commissioner Baxolile Mabinya pointed out that, in 2017, about 640 000 formal businesses were registered in South Africa, while about 1.5-million informal businesses were found to be unregistered. He said government was considering in its 4IR policy development how these businesses were participating in the digital economy and how they could be assisted further.
The commission is due to present a draft paper to President Cyril Ramaphosa in January, providing 4IR policy direction recommendations.