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Automation and digitisation will benefit Africa, create jobs

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The panelists (from left): Bazmi Husain (chief technology officer, ABB), Claudio Facchin (president of power grids division, ABB), Dr. Chun-Yuan Gu (president for AMEA, ABB), Silas Zimu (special adviser on energy for the Presidency), Sami Atiya (president of robotics and motion division, ABB), Leon Viljoen (MD, ABB Southern Africa) and Stuart Michie (ABB Ability manager, ABB South Africa).

The view that automation will create jobs, and that this and digitisation will benefit Africa was the overriding opinion from panelists taking part in various panel and the collaboration deck discussions held during the two-day ABB Customer World Africa 2018 held in Sandton, Johanneburg.

ABB chief technology officer, Bazmi Husain, said that automation and digitisation will do for Africa what mobile had done for the continent. He was adamant that automation will create jobs – albeit it will be different jobs, some of which may not yet exist today.

The world is being transformed by two revolutions, one in energy and one in industry. The former is driven by renewable energy, and the latter by automation and digitalisation in industry. The fourth industrial revolution is happening faster and changing the manufacturing landscape more fundamentally than the three previous periods of development. The panelists posited that Africa is likely to benefit more as the continent can leapfrog older technologies.

The problem with automation is that it will make many people redundant in the immediate term and not many companies are geared to keep the redundant employees in a job or immediately place them in a reskilling programme.

It is true that automation will increase productivity and reduce the cost of manufacturing – all speakers agreed on this point – but automation requires major investment and will only generate profits in the long-term. In the short- to medium-term this does not solve the problems of people who lose their jobs. While other panelists cautiously agreed with Husain’s views, they said that this can only happen with solid public-private partnerships. Governments need to become more involved and contribute to the reskilling process so that people  can remain employed during this period.

One delegate commented that he was very optimistic about how automation will stimulate industrial growth. He said speakers at the conference had given him new insight. He commented that the problem of reskilling should be looked differently. South Africa has a huge shortage of artisans, like plumbers and electricians, and as the people who will most likely be retrenched by automation will mainly be artisans and operators, they could be reskilled to become plumbers and electricians and carve out a new, more profitable career for themselves.

In a discussion about whether African leaders are ready to embrace automation, Prof. Ian Jandrell of the University of the Witwatersrand said that adapting to new technologies requires a mind-set shift and a major change in how tertiary education institutions teach students.  The concept of entering university for an engineering degree and after five or six years graduate with a degree and enter industry has proven unsuccessful. He said students should enter a university near to where they reside and take preparatory courses for one or two years, then enter industry for a year of experiential learning and return to university to take up their studies for a degree in a chosen vocation. This will far better prepare engineers to be more versatile and prepare them for future career changes as industry develops, and finally embrace Industry 4.0 and what is likely to follow.

Husain said that the availability of knowledge is making a huge impact. In the past it would ten years before a new product manufactured in one part of the world would reach production status in another part. Today new products are launched almost simultaneously worldwide!

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