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The factory of the future

Will the factory floor be staffed by robots in the not too distant future, or will humans prevail?

It's a fairly safe bet that there'll be a mix of both, but in the interim, the factory as we know it is achieving previously unimagined efficiency gains driven by technological innovation.

Speaking at a SYSPRO event in Johannesburg earlier this month, tech trend expert Arthur Goldstuck says the world is at a technology watershed, poised to enter the fourth industrial revolution. What does this mean for the factory of the future?

Industry 4.0 is taking the evolution of the factory into its next iteration, says Goldstuck. This technological disruptor is forcing manufacturing companies to face the challenge of remaining relevant and sustainable in an increasingly complex environment. Specialised knowledge has become the game-changer and key to survival.

Today, the adoption of new and evolving technology is instantaneous, owing to ubiquitous connectivity and global knowledge sharing. There's virtually no gap between an innovation proving itself and it going global. "We're seeing the instant evolution of business models," says Goldstuck.

This is as true in South Africa as it is globally, with local enterprises ready and willing to adopt emerging technologies such as robotics, the Internet of things, big data and machine learning. There's already broad adoption of the cloud; it's become all pervasive and all enterprises are using it to a greater or lesser extent.

Quoting statistics from a survey by World Wide Worx, Goldstuck says software as a service is the number one budgeting priority for South African companies.

Companies want access to data 24/7 and regardless of location. They want mobile devices that enable that. However, he cautions, new technology has to have a specific use case in order for it to be adopted by business, it won't just be adopted for adoption's sake. So, IOT for example, is being used by enterprises that realise the added business value, an example of which would be fleet management and tracking.

When a technology proves itself, it gets reinforced and augmented in the organisation and usage increases.

The bottom line is, unless an enterprise can make a profit out of the technology, it won't invest in that technology. The business case is proof of profit here and now, not potential profit in the distant future.

Proof is in the ERP

One technology that is making its mark, particularly in the manufacturing sector, is enterprise resource planning, or ERP. In simple terms, an ERP provides data about what's happening across the enterprise. However, it's about more than just getting insight into the state of the business; it's about being able to make more informed decisions based on predictive insights.

Prior to the IOT, big data, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, critical business decisions were made based on the analysis of historical data. Today, ERP is providing enterprises with the ability to access huge volumes of data at the click of a button. This ability to collect data more efficiently than ever before, from both humans and machines, enables a business to evolve from real-time analytics to predictive analytics, supporting Industry 4.0.

Deirdre Fryer, Regional Product Manager for Africa at SYSPRO, says: "Useful predictive data can range from identifying customers that are likely to pay late based on previous behaviour, or spotting duplicated orders, to doing quality control of manufactured items. It's all about identifying anomalies and notifying the relevant party so that they can take the required action proactively, instead of reactively once things have gone awry."

Fryer says there are two main things to consider when choosing an ERP solution for manufacturing. "The first is whether the solution is industry-built, specifically to address the unique industry challenges that the business faces? One size does not fit all. Secondly, can the software be configured to best represent the business's specific operational needs rather than one that dictates, or governs, how the business is run?

"Not all environments are identical, even within the same sector. Consider the diversity that exists in the manufacturing sector, the vast differences between industrial machinery and equipment and food and beverage production, for example."

Often, it's the operational differences among businesses that determine their distinct competitive advantage, so it's not enough to have an industry-specific solution, you also need to be able to configure the software to best represent the business's specific operational needs. Implementing a generic ERP system generally requires a great deal of unnecessary customisation. A built-for-industry ERP is designed to help business owners benefit from best practices, especially in highly regulated industries, while minimising the cost and the time involved in ERP implementation.

With the growing trend towards acquiring everything as a service, enterprises are partnering providers to ensure they get a fit-for-purpose solution that's tailored to their very specific requirements, as described above.

What makes a good partner?

Returning to the Mobile Corporation in SA survey, enterprises were asked to list, in order of importance, factors that influenced their decision when choosing a solutions provider:

* Quality
* Lack of downtime
* Maintenance provided
* Relationship with the provider
* Convenience
* Price
* Future proof solution
* Stock availability

Fryer concludes: "The foundations for the new industrial revolution are being laid today, and South African factories are leading the charge."

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SYSPRO commissioned World Wide Worx to look into mobility and the South African enterprise. It surveyed 400 IT decision-makers at large enterprises in South Africa.

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