Even though the uptake of robots in South Africa has been slow, they are already being used to or the likes of combatting rhino poaching, showing that we are recognising their advantages, writes HANS KUIPERS, Partner & MD at BCG South Africa.
The global market for robotics—the use of computer-controlled robots to do manual tasks—is growing far faster than expected. In 2014, BCG projected that the market would reach $67 billion by 2025. In 2017, we increased that estimate to $87 billion. Much of the accelerated growth will come from the consumer market because of applications such as self-driving cars and devices for the home.
Although uptake of robotics in South Africa has been slower than in developed markets – there is no generally accepted valuation of what the market is worth in the country, for instance – there is growing recognition of the opportunities the field provides and the massive potential for growth moving forward. Already there are examples of South African-produced robotics that are assisting in combatting rhino poaching, as well as in dangerous industrial applications such as in mines or on oil rigs. This indicates that South Africa is increasingly adopting robotics as its value is recognised.
Today’s robots have voice and language recognition, access to large amounts of data, algorithms to process information independently, learning capability, greater mobility and dexterity, advanced sensors, and the ability to interact with their environment. They have gained flexibility, speed, and finesse, clearing the way for a generation of precision robots that can make a difference in diverse industries such as retail, health care, food processing, mining, transportation, and agriculture —far more quickly and accurately than human hands can.
As people become more accepting of robots in their everyday lives, this will attract more investment capital and drive further advances in robotic capabilities.
The impact of these changes will be profound. Differences in labour costs between developed countries and emerging economies will cease to be a critical factor for companies deciding where to set up operations, and new factors will come to the fore.
As falling prices, faster CPUs, improved safety, and easier programming continue to place robots within reach of virtually every sector, and their ability to work side by side with humans opens up an array of new applications, the challenge for forward-looking companies is going to be to figure out how to use robotics to gain a competitive edge.
How to gain a robotics advantage
Gaining robotics advantage involves finding innovative, unexpected ways to leverage technology to differentiate a company from the competition and gain a sustainable edge. This may mean identifying the sweet spot where a hybrid mix of human worker and machine delivers the biggest payback, or it may involve creating an entirely new business model. On the basis of BCG’s experience in a variety of industries, we’ve developed a framework to help companies move forward:
– Identify potential leverage points
Companies should look for areas of the business where robotics might be able to add value by cutting costs, enhancing productivity, improving performance, reducing risk, and addressing skill shortages or workforce variability. Cost savings are likely to be greatest in parts of the world where wages are high and robots could replace labour outright. Areas with highly repetitive or dangerous tasks, or jobs that require flexibility, speed, or precision are also natural fits for robotics. In mining, for example, automated drilling and haulage can reduce the need for workers in remote locations, increase safety, and improve asset utilisation – an area that is already being explored by companies such as Ryonic Robotics in South Africa.
Robots can also be used to take on repetitive, low-skill tasks. Collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ can do heavy lifting and perform precision activities more quickly than human workers can. By liberating workers from tedious, tiresome, or repetitive tasks, robots can improve not only the workers’ productivity but also their job satisfaction. An example of this in South Africa was the introduction of a robot to help sort and collect antiretroviral medication quickly and accurately to dispense to HIV-positive patients at the Helen Joseph hospital HIV clinic in Johannesburg.
– Integrate robotics into strategic decision making
Adding robotics to a business is a strategic decision, not just a capital investment. It requires rethinking and fundamentally altering staffing levels, product mix, manufacturing footprint, and other aspects of the business model. Management must also consider how robotics will affect the company’s brand, operations, and sales. For instance, building robot-enhanced plants closer to local markets may make sense as a way to accelerate response times and to fine-tune products to local tastes – or splitting production into two shifts—a day shift for humans and a night shift for robots—may help to reduce overtime, supervision, and energy costs.
– Think and act now
Where new technologies are concerned, timing is critical to market leadership. When robotics and automation cross certain price, performance, and adoption thresholds, a tipping point may be near. First movers capture a disproportionate share of the high margins that accrue to successful early adopters. That benefit decreases as adoption becomes more widespread. And because it can take a long time to integrate automation into operations, management needs to act now to develop a point of view, test and pilot robotic applications, and invest in infrastructure—including laying the foundation for a digital supply chain on the factory floor. All the while, the company must closely monitor the industry sector it competes in and move decisively when the time is right.
– Analyse whether to buy or to build
Proven, off-the-shelf robotics applications can be put to work quickly, but they’re available to everyone, including the competition. An alternative is to invest in a robotics solution tailored to a company’s particular operations. A customised solution could result in fundamental disruption of an industry’s dynamics and provide a long-term source of differentiation.
The decision about which direction to take may come down to sourcing options. Most companies will need to look beyond traditional equipment suppliers for their robotics needs. But even robotics suppliers may not have solutions on hand that meet the specific needs of individual companies or segments, necessitating a customized solution.
– Develop the workforce
To fully unlock the potential of robotics, countries must retrain or increase the skills of their workforce. Today’s workers generally lack training in robotics installation, programming, operations and maintenance. Few governments, universities, vocational schools, tech leaders and manufacturers around the world are adequately addressing the problem. Despite some progress in early education through STEM initiatives—courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—and in universities with specific degrees related to robotics, an ability gap remains.
Without a pool of qualified applicants to choose from, companies will need to train their own people to install, program, operate and maintain robotics applications. Retaining these people once they have acquired high-demand, high-value skills will be another challenge. As robots take over lower-value and repetitive tasks, the work that remains will be more complex and less structured—and workers will need new skills to perform these tasks successfully.
– Shape public policy
Companies that make or use robotics should work with communities, educators, local governments and policymakers on issues related to safety, liability, social impact and funding for education and training. By gaining a seat at the table, companies at the forefront of robotics can help define the rules, ensure progress and become advocates for the needs of industry and society alike.
Beyond helping to craft policy for robots that operate in public spaces, companies should participate in setting safety requirements at work, especially as cobots become more prevalent. As robots become safer, the certification process should become quicker and less onerous, encouraging further development in the field of automation.
Collectively, the guidelines outlined above can help companies approach robotics in a strategic, disciplined, and pragmatic way—and improve their odds of achieving long-term, sustainable robotics advantage.
Welcome to world of 2099
The world of 2099 will be unrecognisable from the world of today, but it can be predicted, says one visionary. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK met him in Singapore.
Futuristic structures tower over the landscape. Giant, alien-looking trees light up with dazzling colours amid the hundreds of plant species that grow up their trunks. Cosmetic stores sell their wares via public touch-screens, with products delivered instantly in drawers below the screens.
This is not a vision of the future. It is a sample of Singapore today. But it is also an inkling of the world we may all experience in the future.
Singapore was the venue, last week, of the World Cities Summit, where engineers, politicians, investors and visionaries rubbed shoulders as they talked about the strategies and policies that would enhance urban living in the future.
As part of the Summit, global payment technologies leader Mastercard hosted a small media briefing by one of Singapore’s leading thinkers about the future, Dr Damian Tan, managing director of Vickers Venture Partners. The company’s slogan “We invest in the extraordinary,” offers a small clue to Tan’s perspective.
“We look as far forward as 2099 because, as a venture capital firm, we invest in the long term,” he tells a group of journalists from Africa and the Middle East. “Companies explode in growth because there is value in the future. If there is no growth, they won’t explode.”
The big question that the Smart Cities Summit and Mastercard are trying to help answer is, what will cities look like in the year 2099? Tan can’t give an exact answer, but he offers a framework that helps one approach the question.
“If you want to look at 81 years into the future, and understand the change that will come, you need to double that amount and look into the past. That takes us to 1856. The difference between then and now is the difference you can expect between now and 2099.”
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
Use the page links below to continue reading about Tan’s visions.
Win a Poster Heater with Gadget and Takealot.com
This winter Gadget and Takealot.com are giving away three Poster Heaters, which look like posters but become heaters when you plug them in.
Three Gadget readers will each win a unit, valued at R550 each. To enter, follow @GadgetZA and @Takealot on Twitter and tell us on the @GadgetZA account how many Watts the heater consumes.
What’s the big deal about these heaters? Many of us are struggling to keep the balance between soaring electricity costs and the need to keep warm this winter.
However, the recently launched Poster Heater by EasyHeat and distributed in South Africa by Takealot.com is not only one of the most cost effective electric heaters currently on the market, it is also easy to setup and use.
As the name indicates, it is a poster similar to one you would hang on a wall. But, plug it in and it turns into a 300 Watt heater. The Poster Heater isn’t designed to heat hallways or large rooms, but rather smaller ones like a bedroom or a baby’s nursery or a dressing room.
It uses radiant heating, which means that it heats up in a couple of minutes and the heat is directed at the objects or people around it, quickly taking the chill out of the air and providing a comfortable ambient temperature.
The other advantage of radiant heating is that it doesn’t dry out the air like infrared or gas heaters. Users also don’t have to worry about their children or pets getting too close to it because, even though it gets hot, it can be touched.
To enter the competition follow the steps below:
Competition entry details:
3. The competition closes on 31 July 2018.
4. Winners will be notified via Twitter on 1 August and Takealot.com will be in touch to organise delivery.
5. The competition is only open to South African residents.