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Robots are coming: How can you use them?

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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.

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AI, IoT, and language of bees can save the world

A groundbreaking project is combining artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to learn the language of bees, and save the planet, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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It is early afternoon and hundreds of bees are returning to a hive somewhere near Reading in England. They are no different to millions of bees anywhere else in the world, bringing the nectar of flowers back to their queen.

But the hive to which they bring their tribute is no ordinary apiary.

Look closer, and one spots a network of wires leading into the structure. They connect up to a cluster of sensors, and run into a box beneath the hive carrying the logo of a company called Arnia: a name synonymous with hive monitoring systems for the past decade. The Arnia sensors monitor colony acoustics, brood temperature, humidity, hive weight, bee counts and weather conditions around the apiary.

On the back of the hive, a second box is emblazoned with the logo of BuzzBox. It is a solar-powered, Wi-Fi device that transmits audio, temperature, and humidity signals, includes a theft alarm, and acts as a mini weather station.

In combination, the cluster of instruments provides an instant picture of the health of the bee hive. But that is only the beginning.

What we are looking at is a beehive connected to the Internet of Things: connected devices and sensors that collect data from the environment and send it into the cloud, where it can be analysed and used to monitor that environment or help improve biodiversity, which in turn improves crop and food production.

The hives are integrated into the World Bee Project, a global honey bee monitoring initiative. Its mission is to “inform and implement actions to improve pollinator habitats, create more sustainable ecosystems, and improve food security, nutrition and livelihoods by establishing a globally-coordinated monitoring programme for honeybees and eventually for key pollinator groups”.

The World Bee Project is working with database software leader Oracle to transmit massive volume of data collected from its hives into the Oracle Cloud. Here it is combined with numerous other data sources, from weather patterns to pollen counts across the ecosystem in which the bees collect the nectar they turn into honey. Then, artificial intelligence software – with the assistance of human analysts – is used to interpret the behaviour of the hive, and patterns of flight, and from there assess the ecosystem.

Click here to read more about how the Internet of Things is used to interpret the language of bees.

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Download speeds ramp up in SA

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All four South African mobile network operators have improved their average download speed experience by at least 1 Mbps in the past six months.

This is one of the main findings in the latest South Africa Mobile Network Experience report by Opensignal, the mobile analytics company. It has analysed the mobile experience in the country, updating a study last conducted in February 2019. While a quick look at its South Africa awards table suggests not much has changed since the last report, it’s far from stagnating. 

Opensignal reports the following improvements across its measurements:

  • MTN remains the leader in our 4G Availability measurements, with a score of 83.6%. But the other three operators are all now within 2 percentage points of the 80% milestone — with Telkom’s users seeing the biggest increase of over 8 points.
  • All four operators improved their Download Speed Experience scores by at least 1 Mbps. But growth in our Upload Speed Experience scores has stagnated, with only winner Vodacom seeing an incremental increase.
  • MTN and Vodacom remain tied for our Video Experience award, and both have increased their scores in the past six months, putting them on the cusp of Very Good (65-75) ratings. Cell C also increased its score to tip over into a Good ranking (55-65).
  • MTN scored over 90% in 4G Availability in two of South Africa’s biggest cities and was just shy of this milestone in the others. Meanwhile, MTN and Vodacom have now passed the 20 Mbps mark in Download Speed Experience in three cities each.

A quick look at the awards table would suggest not much has changed in South Africa since the last report in February. MTN won the 4G Availability award again, Vodacom kept hold of the medals for Upload Speed and Latency Experience, while the two operators tied for Download Speed and Video Experience just as they did six months ago.

But far from stagnating, we’re seeing improvements across most of the measurements. All four of South Africa’s national operators — Cell C, MTN, Telkom and Vodacom — are now closing in on 80% 4G Availability nationally, while at the urban level, MTN has passed the 90% mark in two cities. And in Download Speed Experience, our users on all four operators’ networks saw their scores increase at least 8%.

In this report, Open Signal has analyzed the scores for all four national operators across all their metrics over the 90 days from the start of May 2019, including South Africa’s five biggest cities — Cape Town, Durban, Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, and Tshwane.

MTN has been top of Open Signal’s South African 4G Availability leaderboard for a couple of years now, and the operator remains dominant with a winning score over 4 percentage points ahead of its rivals. But it was users on Telkom’s network who saw the most impressive boost in 4G Availability, as its score jumped by well over 8 percentage points.

This leap has put Telkom into a three-way draw for second place with Cell C and Vodacom, who both saw their scores increase by at least 3 percentage points.

While MTN is the only operator to have passed 80% in national 4G Availability, the other three players are all less than 2 percentage points away from this milestone. Based on the current rate of improvement, Open Signal fully expects to see all four operators pass the 80% mark in its next report — which will provide testament to the rapid maturing of the South African mobile market.

MTN and Vodacom remain neck-and-neck in the Video Experience analysis, with both operators scoring 65 (out of 100). And the two rivals both saw their scores rise by around 3 points since our last report, meaning the two continue to share our Video Experience award. Cell C and Telkom remain in third and fourth place, but both saw larger increases — of 5 and 4 points respectively — to narrow the gap on the leaders.

The increase in MTN and Vodacom’s Video Experience scores means the two operators are on the cusp of Very Good (65-75) ratings in this metric — with the users on their networks enjoying fast loading video times and almost non-existent stalling, even at higher resolutions. By comparison, Cell C’s score earned it a Good rating (55-65), while Telkom remains in Fair (40-55) territory — meaning users watching video on Telkom’s network, in particular, will likely struggle with longer load times and frequent stuttering, even at lower resolutions.

In terms of 4G-only Video Experience, Cell C’s score has increased enough to tip it over into a Very Good rating — now featuring three operators achieving 4G network scores with a Very Good ranking. And as 4G Availability continues to increase, the overall Video Experience scores will continue to climb, making mobile video viewing more of a viable proposition across all networks. And in a country where fixed-line broadband connections are relatively rare and the large majority of South Africans only connect to the internet via cellular, this improvement has the potential to transform people’s lives.

Read more from Open Signal’s report here.

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