Can you imagine a world where cyberinfrastructure integrates with the physical space, where robots can perform medical procedures, or assist with caring for the elderly. It may sound like the makings of sci-fi movie, but in some industrial nations the use of Artificial Intelligence in daily life is already a reality.

You might think this reality is far removed from you, but if you using applications like Google maps, of Apple’s siri you are already part of this ever-changing new world order.

The world has so to date witnessed three industrial revolutions, i.e. mechanization through water and steam power, mass production, particularly with the introduction of electricity, and the revolution with the advances in computers and automation.

We are now arguably in the midst a fourth industrial revolution, also called industry 4.0, which involves fusion of technologies such as artificial intelligence, automation, biotechnology, nanotechnology, that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres. 

The intense pace of technology and particularly digital technological development, the fourth industrial revolution is broader and faster than anything before it. The revolution will influence most, if not all economic sectors. But it will also extend, due to the integrative nature of the revolution to business systems, technology developments and society in general. From a technology point of view we will see the integration of physical, digital and biological technologies.

Business systems will change to more decentralised and globalised manufacturing and distribution accompanied with entirely new business models. We will need to consider how this impacts communication, personal privacy and the methods of personal interaction with the world around us. The associated skills base will also need to change and this in turn may lead to more or less equality. We also see that changes will not be incremental but rather broadly disruptive with changes to entire systems across sectors.

Drivers of the fourth industrial revolution include Advanced Robotics, Additive Manufacturing, Augmented Reality, Simulation, Internet of Things, Big Data and Cybersecurity.

As a multidisciplinary scientific and industrial research organisation, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is already actively involved in technological development in many of these drivers. If we look at what the future of manufacturing will be, we will see increasing data generation, interpretation and reaction on real-time basis across the manufacturing environment and outside of it.

We will need to have the ability to accurately collect, interpret and act on data in near real time, potentially without the need for human interaction with the introduction of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The CSIR is looking at aspects of interoperability, information transparency and accessibility, big data analytics and decentralised decision making. One national support facility in the digital space is the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC). The CHPC is one of three primary pillars of the national cyberinfrastructure intervention supported by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).  High-performance computing (HPC) combined with machine learning and artificial intelligence present opportunities to non-traditional industries. 

The next big component of the fourth industrial revolution is advanced manufacturing. A number of these technologies, for example, 3D printing, laser welding, advanced joining, in this space are already well established, but it is predicted that they will become increasingly more pervasive in manufacturing and also more integrated in products of the future.

The CSIR has just started the nano-micro manufacturing initiative that looks at the integration of multiple technologies and defining the manufacturability of these new product types. South Africa is currently the leader on the continent in terms of national readiness to adopt and implement these technologies and they could in turn, have significant impact on national competitiveness, export potential, job creation and economic transformation.

One example of our additive manufacturing platform is the development of Aeroswift.

This is an example of industrial scale additive manufacturing using metal 3D printing through laser welding. The machine is currently the largest of its kind globally and designed to be scalable. Primarily development has been with titanium alloys to enable additive manufacturing for light weight aerospace components.

Cybersecurity becomes an ever increasing necessity for future manufacturing platforms and business systems. One only needs to think of the personal information breach to realise the importance of protecting data. The CSIR has developed a cybersecurity roadmap that looks at several parallel research and innovation streams, ranging from securing information and communications technology, systems, Blockchain technology - which facilitates secure online transactions feasibility in the South African context to identity management. The high-tech focus in this strategy will promote local solution development and implementation. Which means local solutions for local problems and less reliance on international suppliers for national security.

Autonomous and mechanised mining can have a significant impact in extending the useful life of many of our gold and platinum mines as well as the productivity of these mines that in turn will have a significant impact on Gross Domestic Product. The immediate criticism is that mechanisation will lead to job losses but the counter argument is that doing nothing will affect 200 000 jobs in the not-too-distant future.

Our immediate focus here is extending the useful life of mines through improved and safer extraction methodologies. Again, development in this area represents a significant technology and services export opportunity into the continent and internationally as well as job creation and industrial development locally.

The CSIR’s mandate seeks to ensure that these developments have a positive impact on the lives of South Africans. This is done through a full value chain and product lifecycle approach to supporting SA industry to become or remain competitive and contribute to national growth.

Whether you prescribe to the notion of the fourth industrial revolution or not, there is no doubt that, the nature of industry is changing rapidly. For the country to respond, the national system of innovation must pull together to ensure that our industrial sectors remain competitive. This will require a host of partnerships within and between research bodies, industry and government. This will create a competitive ecosystem for adoption of new and competitive technologies and ultimately the development of the industrial sector as a whole.

Dr Daniel Visser is the Research and Development Strategy Manager at the CSIR