A tale of two industries

The manufacturing sector is in crisis. How manufacturers respond to this scenario is largely determined by the business’ size, budget and priorities. Two industry insiders unpack the current state of play.
Joanne Carew
By Joanne Carew, ITWeb Cape-based contributor.
Johannesburg, 20 Jul 2023
Mohammed Gause, Tiger Brands
Mohammed Gause, Tiger Brands

When I ask Johan du Toit, strategic sales executive for SYSPRO Africa, if the situation across the local manufacturing sector is bad, he pauses. Trying to find the right words to describe the challenges our manufacturers face, he explains that the sector as a whole is under tremendous pressure, due to electricity and water supply issues and a sharp rise in the costs of borrowing capital. “The sector is shrinking by about 7% per year as more and more people offshore and look for alternate ways to get goods manufactured.”


Almost a decade ago, the hype around 3D printing hit an all-time high. Industry evangelists promised that every home would soon have a 3D printer and that additive manufacturing would be a major disruptor to traditional manufacturing practices. But, by 2023, this has certainly not been the case. “While 3D printing is an amazing technology, it’s unlikely to completely replace traditional manufacturing methods. But it can provide significant advantages in certain applications,” says Dr Cherise Dunn, a co-founder of South Africa Makes – a medical device manufacturing company that uses additive manufacturing to address healthcare challenges across Africa. According to Dunn, 3D printing has proven most successful as a complementary manufacturing method when products are required urgently or on-demand. For example, 3D printing allows for the creation of highly customised products and parts with complex geometries that would otherwise be very difficult or even impossible to produce using traditional manufacturing methods, she says. Furthermore, 3D printing can be more cost-effective for small production runs or prototypes.

There are, however, limitations and shortcomings, says Dunn. “In 3D printing, you have a limited number of options when it comes to the type of materials you can use, and manufacturing processes are slow, which can prove exceptionally costly for larger production runs. You also need to work with very precise product dimensions in order to produce exactly what you’re looking for,” she says.

But in the right circumstances, 3D printing can be used to address some very large problems. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were only two facilities in the world that produced the global supply of nasopharyngeal swabs for Covid testing. When both facilities closed down because of lockdown restrictions, it laid bare the need for responsive and resilient local supply chains. “We worked with partners in the US and elsewhere to create a 3D-printed nasopharyngeal swab to address this shortage and to support increased and responsive testing during the peak waves of the pandemic.”

That being said, he points out that there are two “types” of businesses in the industry. “The larger manufacturers obviously respond to market pressures quite differently to the smaller and medium-sized businesses, simply because they have more capital to play with. So when you talk about industry innovation, the top 1% or 1.5% have the means and appetite to build entirely new factories that are fully robotic, fully automated and tech-enabled, but the rest do not,” he says.

For SMEs, the risks associated with committing to a digital path are far greater, because they can’t really afford to test products, as any initiatives they undertake have to bear fruit. “Remember that a lot of manufacturers already have a pretty well-oiled machine and are hesitant to have conversations about new strategies and processes, because they don’t want to do anything that could have a negative impact on this well-oiled machine. If the current way of working is paying the bills, it’s totally understandable that manufacturers are hesitant to even entertain the idea of challenging the status quo.”


Du Toit says that the innovation happening across the industry can be broken down into two categories. There is manufacturing innovation happening on the factory floor, such as robots, augmented reality and automated machinery. This innovation can also be seen across the product range that a manufacturer produces. Here, the return on investment is very tangible and visible, says Du Toit. And then there is innovation around the management of the business, which entails streamlining the business processes happening behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the manufacturing sector has traditionally been slower to adopt new tech to enhance the latter.

Even though they may have been willing to use digital tools and solutions to streamline their manufacturing processes and to improve the products they produce, the manufacturing sector isn’t at the forefront of adopting new technology to advance how they manage their business, he says. “In my opinion, this is because it’s very easy to witness the value of buying a new piece of manufacturing equipment, like a new milling machine, for example, because I can immediately see how my purchase improves processes around the product being manufactured. But the spending to improve other business processes is less visible and the ROI isn’t immediately tangible so it’s harder to justify this spend.”

Source-to-product journey

According to Forrester Research, modern manufacturers must become quicker, smarter and greener to survive in a fastchanging world. Manufacturers across South Africa have a growing appreciation for modern technologies, but are only in the early stages of understanding, testing and implementing these tools, says Tiger Brands CIO Mohammed Gause. “We have so much more to learn on our journey,” he adds.


According to Forrester Research, the future of manufacturing will be defined by three innovation horizons – things that will happen in the next year or two, things that will happen in the next five to 10 years and things that will happen in over a decade’s time. Looking to the distant future, Forrester highlights the following as innovations that will transform the sector in the mid- to late-2030s:

• Robots will only become more capable, while we place a premium on human craft Hardware and software automation will continue to improve and machines will take on the creative and adaptive tasks once reserved for humans. Predominantly “lights-out” factories will become common. Some will be almost fully autonomous with a small human workforce; others will rely on remote humans for tele-operation. Handmade products will become even more desirable, attracting premium prices for those able to pay.

• Manufacturers and customers will tiptoe into the age of mass customisation Easy access to data about supply and demand and an increasing ability to retool and repurpose lines for relatively small batch sizes will lead us to fully embrace the age of mass customisation. Were he running his company in the 2030s, Henry Ford might promise customers: “Any colour you want. Period.”

• Dirty manufacturers will start moving off-planet: Moving polluting industries off the planet is not a new concept. By moving heavy industry into orbit and perhaps securing raw material from asteroids, we may be able to address many of our pollution and resource problems, but this does raise fresh challenges for which we don’t yet have answers – from how we control the emissions generated by reusable rockets to how we prevent accidents on the way up or down.

As one of the largest FMCGs in the country, Tiger Brands’ main focus is on connectivity, data and computational power. “This translates into exploring cloud computing as a means to assist with the distilling of enormous amounts of information, facilitating the connection between IT and operational technology (OT) and unlocking an environment of innovation. We’re also focussed on leveraging analytics and intelligence to identify revenue opportunities and efficiencies using the information and resources we have available to us today,” Gause says.

One way they hope to do so is by improving its source-to-product journey. Tiger Brands has earmarked manufacturing plants as being a critical step in its journey to refine its supply chain. “Establishing a foundation of IT/OT convergence and leveraging data insights to inform both plant operations and IT (demand and resource planning) will give us the operational efficiencies and product innovation we strive for,” says Gause.

Consumer data

FMCG manufacturers must stay up-to-date with the latest technological advancements, he adds. AI is one such advancement. By implementing AI-powered solutions, manufacturers can optimise their supply chain management, improve production efficiency and enhance customer experience.

“AI can also help manufacturers analyse consumer data so that they can identify trends and patterns, allowing them to make informed decisions about product development and marketing strategies,” he says. All of this increases profitability and gives manufacturers a competitive edge in the market. “We expect AI to highlight efficiency gaps in source dependencies (availability of ingredients, for example) and to guide us around resource planning and prioritisation within our supply chain,” Gause says.

But none of this can add value without the right people. As such, scouting for, building and upskilling talent is important for any modern FMCG business as more and more specialised technologies make their way into the back office and onto the factory floor. Gause believes building solid relationships with the right vendors is critical. What is clear from conversations with Gause and Du Toit is that the industry needs to think strategically, spend wisely and make decisions where they can see the best return on their investments. “We mustn’t forget that some of the greatest innovations come about during tough times. We’ve all heard that saying, ‘don’t let a good crisis go to waste’, and I firmly believe that we will do what we always do – embrace a ‘boer maak ‘n plan’ approach to innovation and come up with creative and unique ways to minimise the impact of the challenges we face,” says Du Toit.


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