By: Anna Majavu
New research has found a major “disconnect” between South African manufacturing SMEs and Industry 4.0 (I4.0) technologies such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning in manufacturing facilities. This disconnect was blocking the potential for SMEs in manufacturing to improve their businesses and compete in the global market, said Prof. Charles Mbohwa, Professor of Sustainable Engineering and Energy Systems at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Onu Peter, a sustainable engineering researcher at UJ and Anup Pradhan, Associate Professor in the Department of Quality and Operations Management at UJ.
The three researchers found that despite being “the backbone of emerging economies”, SMEs were adopting I4.0 so slowly, or not at all and that they were being left far behind. This was the case for SMEs across sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers found. It particularly affected those SMEs who made very niche products that they were trying to sell in a number of different markets globally. The SMEs interviewed by the researchers said some of their reluctance to adopt I4.0 was that it might cause major production delays, they were not ready “to adapt to current techniques of thinking”, and that they would need to “invest substantial funds” to set up the I4.0 systems.
The researchers found that SMEs were very interested in I4.0 technologies that could allow them to communicate better with employees, clients, and suppliers. Robots that could work autonomously and “constantly transmit information regarding issues, failures, defects, and variations in multiple orders or requests” would also be a boost to local SMEs. However, the respondents also said they were worried that I4.0 technology might not be reliable and that eliminating too many jobs through automation could cause problems in society. Shortages of electricity would also be a real problem for factories that had switched their production processes to I4.0.
The researchers suggested that a pan-African commission on I4.0 be set up to guide SMEs. “Microcredit, government subsidies, and licensing processes for manufacturing SMEs should be reconsidered to enable them to access industry 4.0 technologies,” they said, adding that I4.0 pilot labs would also need to be set up so that SMEs could see in practice how the new tech would work in their businesses. All employees in manufacturing SMEs should be trained in new I4.0 technologies. Because there was a global shortage of skilled I4.0 experts, a network should be set up for global experts to guide SMEs in how they could access finance to pay for their new I4.0 technology, the researchers found.