BY DR SHAWN CUNNINGHAM
16 AUGUST 2023
In the last few months, I have noticed a shift in the topics of my conversations with businesspeople about technological changes. I am no longer asked about what I think about the “fourth industrial revolution”, “digitalisation” or “industry 4.0 strategies”. Instead, I am asked about solar installations for companies, whether I know companies that have installed solar-backed power solutions, or whether I know where entrepreneurs could go to see a manufacturer that has gone “off-grid”. The only exception to this rule is when I bring up the topic of ChatGPT/Generative Artificial Intelligence or Large Language Models (LLMs). Then people would say, “Yes, we tried that”, and the conversation would quickly go back to the effects of loadshedding on working hours, the manufacturing process, supply chain logistics and operating costs.
I cannot help but wonder how much funds meant for capital expansion and investments have been diverted to secure energy or keep a business operating. Of course, there are real benefits for society when companies switch to solar energy. It reduces the load on the power grid and means that companies must replace inefficient (and often older) technology with more efficient solutions. I am just afraid that many companies took the knee-jerk to opt for diesel generators to keep their operations going. Even worse, that many companies could not afford to make any alternative arrangements and therefore lose money when the electricity is off.
I decided to look at how search terms on Google (South Africa) have changed. I entered the following four search terms into Google Trends[i]:
“Fourth Industrial Revolution”, “4IR”, “Solar”, “Generator”
ABOUT THE TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE PROJECT
The Technological Change and Innovation System Observatory project aims to track and create awareness of disruptive innovation and discontinuous technological change by organisations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.
COMPANY PROFILE 2
Foundries are traditionally depicted as being dirty, dark and dangerous but the current General Manager of Hi-Alloy Castings, Dalmari Mc Queen, is focused on transforming the company into a “foundry of the future” which is digital, intelligent, clean and green. Mc Queen is an industrial engineer who has a long history of working and consulting in the foundry sector..
COMPANY PROFILE 1
At first glance on entering the Prestige Clothing TFG factory in Epping, Cape Town you get a sense of a traditional clothing manufacturing company. However, beyond the rows of machinists you get a glimpse of a different world emerging – a world of automated cutting machines, automated stitching machines, and increased digitalisation. It is these technological advances that have contributed to the success of this operation.
TECHNOLOGY PROFILE 5
A robot is a programmable machine that can complete a task typically performed by a human. Robots have different levels of autonomy, ranging from human-controlled to autonomous bots that perform tasks without external influence. The field of study focused on developing robots and automation is called robotics.
Industrial robots are typically seen as a replacement for labour, while collaborative robots, or cobots, possess the innate ability to work in tandem with humans.
TECHNOLOGY PROFILE 4
Augmented reality (AR) technology allows digital content to be overlayed or superimposed onto the real world. AR is only partially immersive as digital content is integrated as a layer onto the real world, whereas virtual reality is closed and fully immersive. The costs of applying augmented reality are much lower than the costs of virtual reality because AR typically combines a visual feed with a data layer; it does not involve the creation of a complete virtual world.
A major benefit of AR is that it reduces users’ cognitive load and provides technical staff access to relevant (and digitally updated) records, data and information.
These research papers and policy briefs focus on preparing South African industry for the fourth industrial revolution.
Adoption of frontier technologies in six manufacturing subsectors
This policy brief highlights the adoption of frontier technologies in six manufacturing subsectors: metal and engineering; retail motor and aftercare; plastics; manufacturing; automotive components; automotive manufacturing; and new tyre manufacturing. This is important because, while there is an understanding of the importance of frontier technologies for the manufacturing sector, there has not been a comprehensive investigation of the level of adoption across the different subsectors. Previous research has either zoned in on one sector, such as metal, or looked at the level of adoption at the continental level. To address the gap, a survey was conducted on behalf of merSETA (the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Sector Education and Training Authority) to collate baseline information on key trends around technological change. This policy brief highlights the aggregated results from the survey. The survey analysis is supplemented by interview data with key stakeholders in the industry.
Technological change and the DTIC: innovation in the industry
The rapid pace of technological change is taking place in the context of South Africa slipping in its readiness for these changes. At the same time policies to support structural economic change in the economy, such as moving from a dependence on mining and commodities, are being implemented. Technological change and innovation are important elements of this structural change. This Policy Brief aims to give context to these technological changes and the industrial policy interface.
The report outlines the state of STI in South Africa in the context of deepening global economic, ecological and social crises. Commissioned by the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI), the report examines investments in research, development and innovation, STI human resources, innovation in manufacturing, digital competitiveness, and the distribution of research and development (R&D) in provinces, among other indicators. The report compares South Africa’s performance with various countries, identifying the relative strengths and weaknesses of the national system of innovation. It also indicates progress in creating conditions conducive to the translation of innovative R&D into useful technologies with a positive impact on the economy, society and the environment.
REPORT BY THE SOUTH AFRICAN NATIONAL SURVEY OF RESEARCH AND EXPERIMENTAL DEVELOPMENT
Every year the South African R&D Survey collects data on financial and human resource inputs into the R&D activities of South African firms, universities, science councils, public research institutes, government departments, and NPOs. The survey reports provide users with a unique ability to benchmark by sector, nationally and globally. This assists policymakers to engage in responsive policy development and organisational planning, and promotes competitive advantage. Survey reports are also used to develop research policy to set priorities, determine government research funding investment, enhance science education, and develop incentive schemes for R&D and innovation in the private sector. The Survey is administered by the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII) for the Department of Science and Innovation, with quality assurance by Statistics South Africa. CeSTII is a specialised research unit of the Human Sciences Research Council, and has conducted science, technology and innovation surveys in South Africa for years.
REPORT BY NATIONAL ADVISORY COUNCIL ON INNOVATION
This report outlines the state of science, technology and innovation (STI) in South Africa in the context of deepening global economic, ecological and social crises. Commissioned by the National Advisory Council on Innovation, the report looks at investments in Research, Development and Innovation, STI human resources, innovation in manufacturing, digital competitiveness, and the distribution of Research and Development (R&D) in provinces, among other indicators. The report compares South Africa’s performance with various countries, identifying the relative strengths and weaknesses of the national system of innovation. It also indicates progress in creating conditions conducive to the translation of innovative R&D into useful technologies with a positive impact on the economy, society and the environment.
REPORT BY THE WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM
The latest iteration of the WEF Emerging Technologies of 2021 report covers technologies like breath sensors that can diagnose disease and the wireless charging of low-powered devices. This is the 10th-anniversary edition of the report that is available from the WEF website. The WEF and the Scientific American Journal select these technologies against several criteria. For instance, the technologies are selected because they promise major benefits to societies and economies, they must be disruptive, attractive to researchers and investors, and they must be expected to achieve considerable scale within five years.
PUBLISHED BY THE NATIONAL ADVISORY COUNCIL ON INNOVATION
This annual report provides the latest available data on science, technology and innovation in the South African economy. The conceptual framework for the report utilises the revised South African Innovation Scorecard framework that is adapted from the European Scoreboard. This makes it easier to compare how South Africa is performing in relation to the European Innovation System. The report shows that South Africa is slipping in performance in many key areas, despite considerable investments in human capital and science and technology infrastructure.