By Quinton de Villiers
I remain extremely fascinated by the advanced research and development (R&D) programmes of international original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs as they are often referred to.
As a prominent transport and logistics specialist, Bridgewater Logistics is a large purchaser and user of trucks. As such, our team has to stay abreast of the latest R&D programmes of these international manufacturers to retain our competitive edge.
These companies are at the forefront of major breakthroughs, such as the latest diesel engine technologies that do not only emit fewer emissions, but also consume much less fuel. This is in line with the growing “green” consciousness that places emphasis on sustainable business practices.
Over the years, we have also witnessed significant engineering in the field of safety and driver ergonomics, both of which have had a profound positive impact on driver performance.
Meanwhile, ongoing developments in the field of telematics have hailed in an era of “intelligent” trucks that bolster pro-active maintenance strategies by alerting their owners and drivers of potential problems long before an extremely catastrophic breakdown occurs.
This has complemented companies’ own rigorous maintenance programmes to ensure seamless transport and logistical activities that rely heavily upon a well-maintained fleet of equipment. Meanwhile, these sophisticated technologies also help discerning transport and logistics specialists track and correct driver behaviour and curtail theft by always being in touch with their fleets.
These innovations have as their backbone the Internet of Things, which continues to change the way we operate for the better. The efficiencies that digital technologies have brought to industries, especially in the very complex fields of supply-chain management and logistics are already well documented.
However, it is the latest announcements from predominantly European-based OEMs that point to far-reaching disruption in the professional transport sector as economies move into the often-cited “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
Harnessing the power of digital technologies, these OEMs are ploughing vast sums of money and resources into researching and developing “autonomous” trucks, which have been touted as the future by captains of these large multinational companies.
They claim that these “smart” vehicles will improve road safety and productivity by removing the human element from operations, and they are extremely influenced by the engineering efforts of their counterparts in the automotive manufacturing industry.
A well-known Swedish OEM, which also has a revered truck marque in its stable, has already made tremendous strides in the field of autonomous motor vehicles. It often dominates international headlines with the many developments it has achieved in the field, often overshadowing others in its quest to be the first to launch a commercial autonomous vehicle.
The company has also extended this programme to its construction equipment division, which is developing a fully-autonomous loader and off-road hauler. Both are now in their prototype phases.
There are similarities between transport and construction which are both characterised by so many variables that hinder the introduction of autonomous fleets, as opposed to those industries that are more repetitive.
Mining is such an industry where massive strides have been made by leading off-road OEMs in introducing automation to the monotonous load and haul cycles.
One dominant participant in the global resources industry is already testing completely autonomous equipment on a number of global mine sites. It is also closely associated with one of South Africa’s own resources giant’s intentions to eventually automate all of its surface and underground mining operations.
These “operaterless” vehicles ascend large open pits hauling ore to primary crushers and then make their way back to the workface where completely automated equipment loads their bins. This cycle continues round-the-clock, seven days a week, controlled by a sophisticated and highly-skilled team working remotely from a control tower. Working on the side-lines, are remote-controlled dozers, graders and drill rigs.
Like their counterparts in the on-road haulage sector, these efforts are being driven by the need for safer and more productive work sites. In fact, these OEMs are merely responding to the demands of their Blue Chip mining customers, which are on quest to completely remove human error from high risk environments that are also extremely volatile.
However, as a responsible employer of many drivers, who have all undergone rigorous training to ensure the highest level of competency, and working in tandem with trusted transporters, I do believe that the roll-out of this component of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” in South Africa has to be managed very carefully.
We cannot simply automate and shed jobs in a country with such a high unemployment rate, especially among the youth.
The focus should be on growing the economy and upskilling our workforce by slowly embracing new technology, and incrementally following in the footsteps of our counterparts in the developed economies.
A drastic change will, inevitably, have negative ramifications in the short- and medium-terms, and dire negative consequences on the already-fragile socio-economic fabric of the country.
At the same time, we cannot simply choose to shun tried-and-tested technologies that will result in massive improvements in productivity in favour of labour-based methods, which are more-often-than-not perceived by the authorities as the panacea to the very volatile situation that we face. This is a short-term outlook that is hindering economic growth.
Instead, government and industry should be focusing on significantly raising the competencies of existing workforce sooner than later so that South Africa is truly ready to enter the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and improve its global competitiveness ranking.
This is exactly why Bridgewater Logistics continues to place so much emphasis on developing its people, including its drivers, who are at the coalface of our advanced transport and logistical activities.
The only constant is change, so let’s be prepared!
Quinton de Villiers is the founder and managing director of Bridgewater Logistics with a long and impressive track-record in African logistics and security. Follow Quinton at #InTheFastLane for more insights and expert commentary on African transport and logistics.