Is SA lagging in 4IR?

Johannesburg, 01 Mar 2021
Read time 7min 20sec
Lee Jenkins, CTO, ETS Group.
Lee Jenkins, CTO, ETS Group.

Every sector in every vertical is having to digitise. It touches everything that we do, from paying our bills to interacting with government to doing our jobs. But where is SA on this journey towards 4IR, and how are we handling it?

In early 2019, a Presidential Commission on the 4IR was appointed and its findings were released late last year. The report identified key focus areas for government, one of which was investment in human capital.

Lee Jenkins, CTO of ETS Group, says of primary concern is access to the skills that the 4IR is going to demand, and this is a big challenge for SA going forward. “What the matric pass rate doesn’t reflect is the number of learners that have dropped off along the way. If you take them into account, the pass rate is much lower. The result is going to be a massive shortage of technical and soft skills required for the 4IR. Add to that the recently released unemployment rate of 32.4% and it’s clear that we’re heading for a perfect storm of unemployed and unskilled people.”

The World Economic Forum describes the 4IR as the advent of “cyber-physical systems”, involving entirely new capabilities for people and machines. A cyber-physical system is controlled or monitored by computer-based algorithms. SA’s definition is similar, but takes a more human-centric approach. “Regardless of the definition, as with the revolutions that have gone before, we can’t afford to be left behind, which means we need to start making the changes that are required in order for SA to be included in this revolution.”

In 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa said there were trillions of rands that would become available if SA could create its own version of Silicon Valley. “Cape Town already has a very successful entrepreneurial hub, but this needs to be proliferated across the country,” says Jenkins. “There’s this juxtaposition between the grandiose plans for a local hub of ICT excellence and the very real lack of ICT skills. We need to find a way to upskill blue collar workers so that they can become white collar workers in the 4IR as processes in mining, manufacturing and other sectors become increasingly automated.”

He goes on to talk about how 4IR is changing the mining sector around the world. “Mining in the US, Australia and the UK is using IOT with real-time analytics of big data to determine both immediate and future actions on the mine. AI enables the enhanced surveillance of critical assets using IOT sensors.”

Sensors are being deployed to monitor an assortment of factors, including vibration, motion, the movement of vehicles as well as their oil temperature and pressure. The data they produce is being used to carry out predictive maintenance so that, for instance, conveyer belts can be repaired before they fail and become unable to deliver coal to a power station. “If we can detect an issue ahead of time, we can fix it and prevent an outage or make an alternative arrangement while the repair is being implemented.”

This capability to do real-time analysis of operations leads to two key things in mining. The first is the more efficient use of equipment: autonomous trucks can be run 24 hours a day; vehicles no longer need to be serviced at intervals, they can be serviced when sensors detect an issue; improved haulage because equipment can be fixed on the fly; and decreased downtime.

The second key benefit is fewer accidents on the mine. “Accidents are often caused by people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. AI can determine dangerous areas and shut down equipment should a human enter that area. As we dig deeper and deeper, mines are prone to collapsing – sensors that detect temperature and vibration can warn of imminent failure. Driverless trucks and drills can be used for hazardous activities.”

Sensors can also give the mine operator an idea of the quality of product coming out of the ground, enabling them to plan how it’ll be processed and what markets it will be suitable for.

Deploying IOT in a mining environment is not without its challenges, says Jenkins. “For example, limited or unreliable connectivity could affect sensors’ ability to send data back and forth, particularly as mines become increasingly deeper. Cyber security is key as you don’t want people to hack into the devices. And finally, the cost of data can be a barrier.

He cites the example of Rio Tinto's Kookaideri project in Australia, which will build the world's first "intelligent mine" where all assets are networked together and capable of making decisions in microseconds. Six hundred skilled workers will fly in each day to the mine. Under normal conditions, such a mine would need thousands of workers; this one requires fewer workers but they need to be more skilled.

In South Africa, the mining sector employs nearly half a million people. The 4IR will require these workers to be reskilled and redeployed if the mining sector is to remain economically viable. “A lot of mining jobs won’t be part of the final 4IR as so many activities will be computerised. Mine workers will be required to form a skilled workforce that potentially won’t be underground or even on the mine itself. Naturally, this will take time to implement and deploy.”

This brings us to the next challenge to deploying 4IR in South Africa: the severe lack of skilled resources in the form of a workforce that has stagnating skills and will be overtaken by the technologies being deployed, as, in the future, there won’t be any underground or open face mineworkers.

This comes back to the recommendations contained in the commission’s report. “Several of those recommendations will take a generation to implement. For instance, one proposal is to 'introduce foundation skills (digital literacy, literacy and numeracy) and competency skills (creativity, critical thinking, complex problem solving) in ECD and primary education'. The upshot is that current workers will have to gain these skills while they wait for the workers of the future to be educated.”

During 2020, while 4IR adoption might have been delayed by the pandemic, companies were forced to speed up their digitisation, enabling them to adopt technologies that would enable them to automate tasks to reduce human interaction as per the lockdown regulations. An example of such an initiative – over and above work from home – is the use of virtual reality goggles and online learning to train people. Banks approve loans online, doctors can do remote consultations; the way in which we interact with devices is changing.

If you consider the progress that we’ve made during the pandemic, is it still fair to say that South Africa is lagging behind the 4IR curve? Absolutely, says Jenkins. “We still need to skill the current workforce to embrace digitisation and the changing landscape. There are so many disappearing skills as manual jobs become automated. The high unemployment figures speak to how many people are currently struggling to find work. The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition is looking to SMEs to employ people. As the workforce is changing, we need to reskill and redeploy.”

He says that CIOs and IT leaders must become digital strategy agents for their own organisations. “The government is the largest purchaser of IT in the country, it’s up to private enterprise to create its own digital strategies and slowly, by osmosis, enter government arenas. Government itself is under pressure to reduce the public sector wage bill. It’s going to have to be a change agent and start automating a lot of processes.”

In closing, Jenkins says the time to act is now. “The longer CIOs, IT leaders and owners of companies leave it, the harder it will be to change and it will mean that faster change will be required down the line, which will come with its own pressures and challenges.”