While structural transformation has been lacking and deindustrialisation has been occurring in South Africa, research and development (R&D) and innovation have been found increasingly inadequate, speakers said at a University of Johannesburg- (UJ-) hosted colloquium this week.
They noted that R&D and innovation could have helped the country strengthen its productive capabilities.
Through its capacity building and policy engagement in an industrial development programme called South African Research Chair in Industrial Development (Sarchi), UJ hosted a policy colloquium about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
This came at a time when the Presidential Committee on 4IR was preparing to submit a draft report with policy direction recommendations to President Cyril Ramaphosa in January. The deadline for the paper to be published for public comment is March 2020.
To determine where South Africa is currently at in terms of 4IR technology adoption, particularly automation and robotics, France-based University of Côte d'Azur economics Professor Edward Lorenz said Sarchi had been working on a project called Deep Dive, which gathered empirical literature about the effects of 4IR on industry.
Sarchi had interviewed managers, technicians and plant supervisors in 20 enterprises across the manufacturing sector, including in the automotive, mining machinery and business professional service industries.
“South Africa is not at the cusp of a technological singularity that will replace human labour over the short term. While we have some aggregate data on robots, we know very little about the adoption of 4IR technologies such as artificial intelligence, especially in developing countries.
“While aggregate data can give important information about broad levels of adoption, it cannot tell us about firm-level heterogeneity in the use of 4IR technologies – specific problems in production systems and the impact on skills and employment in different firms,” noted Lorenz.
He added that there was a need for firm-level evidence on the 4IR, because that would provide policy-relevant information on employers’ motives for adopting technologies, as well as the problems and challenges they face in integrating new technologies.
The questions that Deep Dive had asked participants included 4IR’s impact on their businesses’ skills needs, what their strategies are to meet evolving skills needs and to what extent South African schools and institutes are providing the required skills necessary.
Participants were also asked how business services were being transformed by the advent of 4IR.
Sarchi found that, in the automotive industry, only larger firms such as original-equipment manufacturers were using robots and other automation technologies.
Few companies in the mining equipment industry were using these technologies.
Additionally, data management systems were more developed in larger firms, both in the automotive and mining equipment industries.
Deep Dive also determined that there was growing interest in big data and machine learning, but little evidence to indicate that it was being used, while three-dimensional printing was mainly used for fast prototyping and not production, owing to its high cost.
The same went for virtual- and augmented reality; there was interest in these technologies for simulating real world environments, but there was little adoption across the industries analysed as part of the survey.
The adoption of 4IR was a question of degrees, with Level 0 being analog production, Level 1 rigid production, Level 2 lean production, Level 3 integrated production and Level 4 smart production.
Lorenz said South Africa’s manufacturing companies were between levels 2 and 3, where companies have functions connecting with each other within the firm and basic automation, up to companies having integrated activities and functions for the whole production process and some industrial robots.
Meanwhile, business professional service enterprises were developing innovative 4IR services in South Africa.
Lorenz explained that legacy firms were diversifying from electrical and mechanical engineering services, taking advantage of the new technological possibilities related to the Internet of Things and the use of data.
However, the firms that participated in the Deep Dive survey reported that, although they were successfully incorporating 4IR technologies in their businesses, there was a lack of demand for their products, owing to users’ lack of awareness of the benefits of 4IR technologies or the lack of skills to use them.
These firms then often had to persuade potential users to try the technology or transfer knowledge and provide training for engineers and technicians.
Lorenz suggested that the South African government had its work cut out for it to create more awareness of the benefits of these technologies, as well as to address the skills gap issues related to 4IR implementation.