Recently CPUT had, as part of its strategic planning, itemised the concept of a Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) as a key part of its future plans. This implies both preparing for, and exploiting, this concept. The question then arose, as part of our own strategic planning exercise at ATS, how we and other departments should react to this. However, to be able to react, one needs to understand what the nature of this beast, called 4IR, really is.

The term is still relatively new and not that well-defined. As with all other industrial revolutions before, the concept is still shaping while science and technology makes progress and industry actors explore what makes economic sense. The basic commodity of the 4IR is data. Data is collected everywhere, on fields, on food production lines or on check-out lines in supermarkets. In the center of the collection activities stand digital sensors that have become very cheap to manufacture. The processing and exchange of the data is made possible by both very cheap computational power and the availability of internet connections even in the most remote parts of the country.

Using agriculture as an example, autonomous drones survey large plantations and collect data based on heat emission or other information patterns. This information is translated into optimal patterns of irrigation and fertilization, which is immediately modulated into commands for fully-automated systems installed on the ground. Together with meteorological data, the right time for harvesting can be easily established. Self-driving harvesters will stand ready to respond accordingly.

This continues with food processing, where different monitoring technologies are in use or still need to be installed.  An example of such monitoring technology is near-infrared spectroscopic analysis1 which can continuously provide data at different points in the food processing value chain.  Fermentation1 is another field where continuous monitoring of different parameters may be used to predict, warn or prepare in terms of such data emerging for analysis.

The data generated may be shared among the different actors on a digital platform. Hence, the word digitalization has emerged for this new form of information exchange. While in the early days of the internet only major institutions were connected, and later on individuals, now a greater multitude of devices are individually connected to the internet to send and receive data (the internet of things). Previously, collecting data was mainly a manual process (resulting in questionable data quality), but now data is collected alongside every possible step of the production process. This data is stored and used for decision support (big data).

These developments surely will have a lasting impact on agricultural production and food processing. Yes, it may cost a large number of jobs – but mainly in those geographic regions that don’t respond actively to these changes. At a second glance, especially for South Africa, these technological developments provide a welcome opportunity to make progress in the up-skilling of the labor force.

Engineering skills on different levels will be in high demand – much in contrast to unskilled labor. Also, to be economically efficient, these data flows need to be integrated into internationally operating value chains, which requires a great deal of IT-skills and managerial talent. There is little doubt that the drive towards Industry 4.0 is effectively taking shape! A literature search on the Scopus database shows how the topic is trending in the academic community. We wish to assist in bringing these developments to the many agri-processing firms, clusters and cooperatives in the Western Cape and South Africa generally.

Do you or your company want to engage in an exercise as part of your own preparation toward meeting the challenges of the Industry 4.0? Speak to us. We can assist you in applying for funding if your project proves worthwhile. We may even be able to assist you in defining a project and then applying for funding with you.

Finally, to summarize some of the effects on, and activities of, the food industry, see this as encapsulated in an article entitled “How the industry must adapt to survive”:

  • All stages of value chain of production will be affected;
  • Businesses will need to create a roadmap to plan for new technologies, data and training needs;
  • Jobs will be created, but a new skills set will be needed;
  • To survive, companies will have to re-skill and retain such staff;
  • Costs of down-time will increase exponentially as efficiencies increase, impressing the need for staff who can manage electrical faults immediately;
  • Electrical (and other) skills training costs would be negligible in terms of costs based on down-time.

Larry Dolley

 1ATS and the Department of Food Science & Technology have access to, and expertise in, near infrared analysis and inspection which may be used as a tool for quantitation as well as for comparison of samples .e.g. identifying fish species purely from a spectral fingerprint.

 In addition, the group also has a niche research area in food fermentations, including non-alcoholic and alcoholic fermentations. The brewing of beer is an example that is just developing in the unit. Parameters being constantly measured during production include pH, O2 and CO2 levels, antioxidants, humulones / isohumulones, color, etc.

 We wish to partner with small and medium companies wishing to use such, and other, technologies in their processing environments. Call us on 021 95338615 or e-mail for more information.