Is COVID-19 the best driver for automation and robotization of industries in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The adverse impacts of the coronavirus disease on economies, industries and people all over the nations of our world cannot be under-estimated. From the onset of this very year till now, the world has been bedevilled by this disastrous pandemic. This global plague has blighted the economies and industries of nations; as well as claiming over thousands of lives; and still counting. During the mid of March, 2020, it could be said that the world came to a standstill; with countries closing their borders to other countries, even their neighbouring countries. Financial companies, schools, manufacturing industries and businesses were shut down. These measures were a means of mitigating the spread of the virus; which ironically speaking and sorry to say, has no cure at the moment. Another buzzword that has emanated during these times; which signifies one of the ways to curb the spread of the COVID-19 is social distancing.

In the midst of this canker, one would ask: what then can still coordinate and integrate people, their businesses and economies; in ensuring the effective facilitation of businesses and productivity amidst these crises? The thought that comes to mind is “technology”, with its increasing possibilities and potentials for industries and businesses globally. Technology defies the rules of social distancing and connect people together as well as ensuring the smooth running of business and production. Hence, this article seeks to practically elucidate the opportunities that the technological advancements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution offers for companies and industries in Ghana; even in the times of COVID-19 pandemic.

Contemporarily, the economy of today has headed towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is characterised by the use of cyber physical systems, smart factories and service innovations. Most specifically, the technological concepts driving this revolution include: Cyber-Physical Systems, Internet of Things, Internet of Services, Cloud Computing, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Advanced Robotics. To make it simple, today, there have  been improvements in transferring digital instructions to the physical world (Cyber Physical Systems); advancement with computational power and connectivity (Internet of Things); astonishing rise in data volumes, the emergence of analytics and business-intelligence capabilities (Cloud Computing and Big Data Analytics); new forms of human-machine interaction and augmented-reality systems (Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Robotics). According to some scholars, such as Prof. Klaus Schwab, Prof. Henning Kagermann, etc.; some economies and industries of nations are still dependent on the technological waves of the third industrial revolution.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a period characterised by increasing digitisation and interconnection of products, value chains, distribution and business models. It combines embedded production system technologies with intelligent production processes to pave the way for a new technological age that will fundamentally transform industries. Furthermore, the Fourth Industrial Revolution involves the use of applications and advanced computations as a means of automating business operations and/or activities. In other words, the virtual digitisation is a means of synchronising the physical and digital world to stimulate and innovate industrial efficiency.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, nations have locked down and businesses have been forced to shut down. The day-to-day running of factories, companies and businesses have been put on a halt; to aid governments to solve these crises that their nations encounters. Other essential businesses and services (such as; financial institutions, health service providers, security service providers, food and beverage services) that have been allowed to operate; are also reducing the number of their daily working staff to ensure that they adhere to the practices of social distancing in reducing the spread of the coronavirus disease. Hence, this calls for a much advanced, low-human encounter, digitalised, safer, and effective way for businesses to stay relevant during these times. One of the key ways that businesses of today have besought to, is the use of the internet, organisation’s websites as well as their social media handles to maintain an effective communication between them and their clients. However, there is more that can be done with these advanced technologies that the Fourth Industrial Revolution brings on board.

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It is quite evident that, the economy and industries in Ghana are still lagging behind; when it comes to the adoption of these advanced technological systems of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It can be said that, we are still in the era of the Third Industrial Revolution. Even with that, our industries have not fully exhausted its potentials. As I am writing this article, our manufacturing industries, for example, cocoa production and cocoa processing companies have closed down amidst the lock down. If these companies were technology-driven and not solely dependent on human labour; by now the machines would have been at work with little human intervention, and cocoa production will still be ongoing. Hence there is the need to move into advance technological systems that will change the face of manufacturing and production; which also have the capacity to stand some global pandemics like COVID-19.  On this note, I will like to shed light on the opportunities that the technological systems in this era offer, for the manufacturing and service industries.

For manufacturing and production industries

The systems of the Fourth Industrial Revolution take the automation of manufacturing and production processes to a new level. They introduce customised and flexible mass production technologies. This means that machines will operate independently or will coordinate with humans to produce customer-oriented manufacturing that constantly works to maintain itself. Here, the machine becomes an independent entity that can collect data, analyse it, and give advice upon it. This becomes possible by introducing self-optimization, self- awareness, self-cognition, self-reconfiguration, and self-customisation into industry, and manufacturers will be able to communicate with computers rather than just operate machines.

For instance, with our manufacturing companies like: food production, rubber production, textile production, plastic production, etc., that has been totally shut down as a result of this pandemic. These companies could adopt sophisticated and advanced machines that can work on its own with less supervision. Although the government has restricted human movement and hence disallowing workers to go to work; companies with enough and effective machines and robots that can self-regulate will still be in business. The only work left to be done is the supervision of these machines by the technology operators at work. This will allow work to go on effectively; as well as reducing the number of workers that will crowd the workplaces.

In addition, this self-configuring plug-and-work system will enable different product and process configurations. Practically speaking, the physical process connected with the virtual through the internet, and with distributed embedded intelligence will ensure high flexibility and autonomy. This is because the intelligence is not centralized, but distributed in the process steps, which at the same time gives more stability and greater flexibility to the operations. This will allow the companies to respond quickly to the demands, market restrictions and disruptions.

On the other end of the spectrum, these advanced technologies will also help these manufacturing companies save on labour costs. Labour cost savings do not necessarily mean substituting employees with these technologies, but rather enhancing their operations. For instance, self-regulated machines and robots at the rubber production company can operate several hours; much more than the usual 40-hour work week of human employees. Hence, if these advanced systems can execute certain tasks as effectively as humans, then, depending on costs, there are clear financial advantages and productivity for manufacturing companies in using these technologies.

For service industries

The service industries in Ghana such as banking, telecommunications and transport; also stand to benefit from the interesting opportunities associated with the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These systems create value opportunities through new services and business models; which results in meeting individual customer requirements, optimised decision-making and improved productivity. Prof. Kagermann enlighten us that, these systems of the Fourth Industrial Revolution can address and solve some of the challenges the world faces today, such as resource and energy efficiency, urban production and demographic change. This is because these systems enable continuous resource productivity and efficiency gains to be delivered across the entire value network. The resource efficiency adaptability, integration of supply and demand processes of businesses are improved by these advanced systems.

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During this COVI9-19 pandemic, most businesses have moved their services, customer relations and communication to the internet. Companies who still depended on the traditional way of running their business are now stuck and losing a lot of money as well as customers. For instance, now the majority of the financial institutions in Ghana have been communicating with their clients to make use of their e-banking services and also to download their banking apps. The technological systems that make this possible are advanced artificial intelligence, cloud computing and Big Data. These come together to allow banks to host an online app on the internet, have access to all data related to customers as well conducting financial services online with their customers. Without these technologies, none of this would have been possible.

Also, for the telecommunications network, it seems that this pandemic has not had a huge effect on them as compared to other manufacturing industries. This is because most of their services are associated with network on mobile phones and also via the internet which are not affected by the virus. For them, they stand to benefit in these times because people still need to stay connected with family and friends over the network on their phones. Nonetheless, another interesting opportunity for these telecommunication companies fuelled by Internet of Things, cloud computing and Big Data; are the financial transactions that are done over these networks.  Popular among them is the MTN mobile money. These three systems of the Fourth Industrial Revolution have made it possible.

Penultimately, for the transportation sector, one notable opportunity that these systems can offer is the use of automated and self-driven vehicles. In some advanced economies like Tokyo, Berlin, etc., some self-driven coaches and automobiles has been introduced into some businesses. However, its integration into mainstream transport services for mass consumption are still in the conception stage; but we should watch out for more self-driving cars in the near future. It is a possibility.

Before I end, I will like to ask you my reader this simple question. Do these perilous times call for pragmatic measures to help our businesses and industries? In my opinion, I think moving forward, certain practical measures as highlighted above can be taken by industries in Ghana, to ensure that COVID-19 or any other pandemic that will evolve in the future will not have too much drastic effect on our industries; although there will be some unavoidable ones. I believe strongly that, if these opportunities that these systems of the Fourth Industrial Revolution offer are employed in our industries and businesses; it will go a long way to benefit us, regardless of what awaits us in the unforeseeable future. On this note, let us remind ourselves of the safety precautions given us by the World Health Organisation; and let us continually practise it. We should always wash our hands with soap under running water. In situations without the former, we should also ensure that our hands are often sanitised with an alcohol hand sanitizer. Lastly, we should practise social distancing and stay at home. Together, we shall overcome this COVID-19 pandemic. Just as the president of Ghana said in his second address to the nation, and I reiterate: “This too shall pass”.

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