Where is South Africa’s industrial internet of things innovation?

South Africa is home to a variety IIoT initiatives, but some enterprises have difficulty making a business case for the technology.

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A growing number of inventive startups has fed expectations that South Africa can be a hub for innovation in the industrial internet of things (IIoT). And while there has been progress and examples of the deployment of IIoT-related technology in the industrial sector in the country, there are roadblocks to more rapid growth, typically involving difficulty in making the business case for implementing new applications.

IIoT is a subset of IoT that includes connecting devices and machinery in industrial sectors to monitoring, control and data analysis systems. It involves the merger of enterprise IT with  operational technology, or OT – the instrumentation of physical devices and processes.

In South Africa, 2019 was to be the year that home-grown startups would lead innovation in the sector, according to Frost & Sullivan's 2019 ICT trends for South Africa. Whether the actual number of IIoT deployments has lived up to expectations may be debatable, but there appears to be broad interest in field. Evidence for this could be seen by the turnout at the MTN IoT awards in October, according to Jeremy Potgieter, SADC (Southern African Development Community ) regional head at Eseye, which offers highly managed global IoT cellular services.

IIoT applications target different sectors

At the awards, the Discovery Vitality Drive Sensor, a telematics solution that collects data about drivers’ behaviour for insurance and safety purposes, won best commercial IoT solution, while Exxaro’s earlyROM Mining Production System took home the honours for most disruptive IoT solution. Overall winner, Informed Decisions offers applications such as SmartDraught for the beverage industry, ConnectedRestaurant, and appliance offerings that track that products arrive at their destination undamaged.

Roger Hislop, Chair of the IoT Industry Council (IOTIC) and consulting executive at Reason IOT, who was one of the judges at the MTN IoT awards, highlighted an innovative solution from Nerospec that used IoT technologies to track weapons (location and when, where and how they were fired) and which was of particular interest to the law enforcement agencies and security companies.

IIoT in South Africa is mostly serviced by established vendors or traditional software and hardware suppliers servicing the SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) space,  said Ryno Goosen, Managing Director at Locstat, which serves IIoT needs for customers such as I&J’s fishing fleet and Peninsula Beverages.

He says that South African startups have recognised that there are opportunities to create products that focus on niche areas in the IIoT stack that other established vendors do not necessarily cover. "Building on a new tech stack means that startups can solve problems more quickly, and provide better solutions to cope with the growth of data that IIoT leads to."  Locstat's approach is based in DataStax, a database with a hybrid cloud architecture.

Legacy systems can tap IIoT

For Goosen, the benefit for businesses is that they have more options and opportunities to leverage existing implementations by adding startup products to enhance and strengthen existing solutions. He cites examples such as DataProphet, which specialises in AI for manufacturing, with a particular foothold in the automotive manufacturing industry. "In the agriculture field Aerobotics are providing innovative drone and analytical solutions for crop management where sensor-based systems would be prohibitively expensive," he says. Goosen’s own Locstat initiatives include innovating by driving AI into real-time analytics in the high-volume transaction and sensor data streaming markets.

Part of the challenge for wider IIoT uptake is convincing businesses of what IIoT can offer and helping them understand the value of using data to make better decisions, and therefore allow the plant to run more efficiently and effectively, said Michael Powell of Age Technologies, a subsidiary of 4Sight Technologies Group. "They see IIoT as a solution looking for a problem," he says.

Age Technologies’ customers are mostly in the mining and manufacturing space. Powell explains that the traditional hierarchy of a control system, which is like a pyramid, has changed, so that now the different blocks can communicate directly up into a centralised database. "You can put any intelligent device down and set it to communicate and send data and information about the status of the specific device into the cloud and then employ intelligent decision-making using algorithms to manage and run the plant more efficiently."

IIoT for just-in-time manufacturing

He says the innovations in IIoT draw on existing understanding of these plant processes, but then allow enterprise-level use of IIoT to enable, for example, just-in- time manufacturing through supplier stock control and management. Powell adds that there have been easy wins for IIoT in the metering space, with gas, water and electricity suppliers.

However, companies need help to understand firstly the possible use cases and then how best to implement IIoT solutions. Powell says that the blurring of boundaries between IT and Operational Technology (OT) has created some confusion and uncertainty, because where in the past the major players in this industrial space were companies like Siemens, Schneider and ABB, they are now being joined by the likes of Microsoft and Huawei.

Determining a business case is key

IOTIC's Hislop agreed, citing the example of an innovative IoT solution to manage rat infestations for pest control companies that did not move into deployment because the client was not able to put a compelling business case in place. He says this is a case in point of why innovation does not happen. "It’s often not the technology or the idea; it’s the difficulty of quantifying the advantage of the idea in a way that makes a compelling business case to get the budget approved," he said.

In March last year, the IOT Industry Council (IOTIC) was constituted in Cape Town to represent the interests of the technology industry in South Africa designing, building and deploying solutions based on IoT technologies. Hislop explains that for them IoT is defined as devices not requiring mains power while talking over wireless networks to the cloud.

IOTIC is lobbying government from the perspective that the high-tech manufacturing sector in SA could be accelerated by supporting IoT manufacture. "It’s a sector that doesn’t need massive expenditure to start manufacturing," Hislop explains. Design and engineering are priced in rands, as are production and assembly. There are only electronic components that are priced in dollars. "Therefore, it could be highly cost competitive against other markets," Hislop says.

While IIoT uptake has been slower than anticipated, Hislop believes that 2020 will be the year that IoT takes off. South Africa is poised for innovation in this space if the composition of the IOTIC is anything to go by. Hislop explained that the membership profile breaks down into a U shape, typical of a developing market.

Of about  36 paid members, just over 40 percent are small businesses with less than 20 people and just over 30 percent are large or very large companies, with 2,000 people or more. "It is interesting because it shows that there are lots of innovative startups that are targeting IoT, alongside large enterprises looking at IoT as an adjacent market they can move into. There is a great deal of opportunity out there for people who are innovative."

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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