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Automation key to SA’s infrastructure woes

SA’s new Cabinet has its work cut out, but field service management is a solution to some of its challenges.

SA’s infrastructure woes: could one of the answers lie in automation?

With SA’s newly minted and somewhat “cosmopolitan” cabinet at the dawn of its term of office, all the country’s eyes are on its leadership to see if it will bring about the many changes sorely needed across so many areas.

Although the pause in load shedding continues – with South Africans last experiencing load shedding on 26 March, bringing with it a sense that the country has started turning the corner on its infrastructure woes, – the reality is they’re far from over. 

In early June, for example, the country’s four major ports – Cape Town, Nqura, Port Elizabeth, and Durban – fell into the bottom 20 for performance, according to the World Bank and ratings agency S&P. Worryingly, Cape Town came rock bottom out of 405 ports worldwide. Ports aren’t the only problem area either. Johannesburg is in the midst of a major water crisis thanks to decades of infrastructural neglect. And while there has been some movement on passenger rail, commuter numbers are still dramatically down from where they were at the beginning of 2010. Further to that, drive through most towns and you’ll also see how neglected many of the country’s roads have become. 

So SA’s new Cabinet may have its work cut out, facing myriad challenges over and above crumbling infrastructure – including unemployment, visa issues putting the handbrake on tourism, and the rising cost of living driving many South Africans into debt or poverty. 

Fixing all of these issues won’t come cheaply either. The cost of delivering just infrastructure to meet its development goals is expected to exceed R6-trillion by 2040, according to the government’s own National Infrastructure Plan 2050. And money alone won’t be enough. Because infrastructure repair and development touch so many parties across multiple ministerial portfolios – from public works and infrastructure to electricity and energy, water and sanitation, transport, and employment and labour – incredibly high levels of efficiency and organisation will also be required. 

Getting that combination of financial buy-in and efficiency right will be critical for the Government of National Unity (GNU)’s freshly announced cabinet – with the task (and historical burden) of uplifting existing infrastructure, and in the development and rollout of new infrastructure, doing it strategically and with the right management structures in place. 

Anand Subbaraj, CEO of software company Zuper, whose smart management product is utilised by field service teams across multiple areas including solar, facilities management, security and surveillance, and manufacturing and electrical, field service management (FSM) software could prove essential for providing the requisite levels of efficiency an organisation needs. 

“Whether it’s a new infrastructure project, such as installing an HVAC system into a new factory or manufacturing plant, repairs to existing infrastructure such as activating repairs to a plumbing system, or even critical maintenance such as to a business’s surveillance system, there are a lot of moving parts at play at any given time,” he says. “FSM technology can go a long way in ensuring that everyone working on those parts is doing so as efficiently as possible.” 

FSM can be described like this: when a worker leaves his or her home base – whether that is their own home or an office to which they report – and goes into the field to install, repair, maintain, inspect, calibrate, remove, or relocate any kind of equipment or material, that is field service. These field service activities occur in virtually every industry, from residential and commercial landscaping, HVAC and plumbing services to every type of discrete and process manufacturing, sophisticated medical and surgical devices and instruments, extremely complex aerospace and defence products, and everything in between.

According to Subbaraj, there are several ways that this kind of automation could help ease South Africa’s infrastructure woes, which should be in our infrastructure ministers’ artillery. 

“Take water treatment for example,” he says. “In a country as water scarce as South Africa is, it’s critical that all available drinking water is properly treated and that breakdowns in water treatment plants are kept to a minimum. FSM software can automatically schedule maintenance on specific parts and then alert and dispatch maintenance teams to sites at regular intervals.

“This not only helps ensure that critical infrastructure receives vital maintenance work before it turns into a repair job, it also means that more resources can be dedicated to repairs where they’re most needed.”

But that’s not the only application for FSM software in the infrastructure sector. 

“Another useful feature of good FSM software is that it can help with things like contracts, invoicing, and time management. That’s especially helpful on large projects, including municipality infrastructure and tracking and dispatching at city level where there can be multiple service providers involved. Tightly managing those service providers can help avoid overburden on costs and also ensure that they’re delivering to their capability.” 

And good FSM software also has benefits for ordinary citizens too, according to Subbaraj.    

“If FSM software is integrated into municipal fault reporting systems, for example, it can help ensure that things like burst pipes and electrical faults are dealt with faster and more efficiently than would otherwise be the case. That in turn means a happier citizenry who feel less grudging about paying their rates and tariffs.” 

The same is true for internet/WiFi connectivity, says Subbaraj. 

“South Africa, like the rest of the world, conducts a vast amount of business virtually – be it through the use of emails, virtual meetings, sales, invoicing and payment systems, or tracking and reporting systems. Unexpected downtime in connectivity can have a massive effect on business operations and, at the end of the day, the bottom line. 

“But having a system in place that provides technicians with the information they need, enables them to be able to service the equipment efficiently and hopefully fix it in a first visit, by providing the back-office data to look for trends. This allows for both preventative maintenance scheduling and break/fix scheduling.”

While Subbaraj is careful to note that FSM software isn’t a cure-all to infrastructure issues, it can be a valuable tool in addressing them, and support the development of dependable infrastructure systems that have longevity and durability. 

“Like many countries, it will take time, effort, resources, innovative, future-forward thinking by the leadership, and money, to turn South Africa’s infrastructural issues around.

“But if all of those things can be deployed as efficiently as possible, with crossover ministerial portfolios working together towards infrastructure stability and longevity, then the scale of the problem becomes that much more manageable.”

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