2020 MESA virtual conference – if you missed it you missed out!

January 2021 Editor's Choice IT in Manufacturing

2020 brought about a lot of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, broken economies, and a complete halt to what we have come to know as ‘life’… I wonder why? Jokes aside, COVID-19 has left devastation and destruction in its wake, normally words we use to describe natural disasters, but this virus has firmly cemented itself into that category. I’m pretty sure the organising team over at MESA Africa were scratching their heads trying to get a Yes or No to go ahead and plan this two-day virtual conference. Many of us would probably have thrown in the towel as this is a historically attend-in-person event, and going digital must have complicated matters. I mean, you have to get a platform to host several people, share video, audio and slides… live. Interact via chatbox, ensure the connection from where you are recording is on near-5G grade latency and reliability, and still get everyone hyped up to pay the fee to attend in their pyjamas – quite a feat.

The team didn’t disappoint; arguably the best lineup of guest speakers in the last three years. To top this they’d have to get Elon Musk and Kanye West to speak at next year’s event. The build-up was an adjustment for me; I had to ensure my kids were aware that I would be home, but needed to remain undisturbed for two days, for at least six hours each day. As soon as I saw the speakers, topics, and guest speakers (twenty over two days) I knew this would be one to remember. There was one narrative that remained constant throughout the two days: “Yes we are living in a pandemic, but the focus should be on South African manufacturing embracing 4IR – the country and its economy depend on it!”

Day 1 – Inspiration

Day 1 was the best for me in terms of sheer inspiration; this is the purpose of guest speakers, in my opinion – inspiration. I’ve been blessed enough to attend IT in manufacturing-related conferences for over a decade now, and the guest speakers usually leave you inspired and motivated.The standout speakers were Vusi Thembekwayo, Stafford Massie and Claire Janish. Their collective message was that South Africa needs to rise as a unit; we have skills, and where we don’t, reskill. 

Claire showed us that biomimicry has proven that alternative manufacturing processes, materials, and applications are entirely possible, and more than recommended. We need to start focusing on what we can adapt and apply in the manufacturing industry. Vusi opened our minds with smart slides, smooth talking, and shocking statistics about Africa and South Africa. His timeslot had the most active chat as he left me convinced that politicians and bureaucracy must not be the glass ceiling that we have come to accept. South Africa’s manufacturing industry can greatly assist a rise of our economy, while our steady moves toward digitalisation and 4IR need more uptake. Speaking of digitalisation, Stafford was a welcome face at the end of a long, inspiring, and informative day as he reiterated the importance of South African manufacturing. He has developed a myriad of technological products, of which some parts are manufactured here. He made it clear that barriers to market entry, and bureaucracy to manufacture within our borders, need to be rethought – and quickly.Honourable mentions go to speakers who presented intriguing work from their companies or fields that caught my attention. One of these was Johan Pretorius with the rapid industrialisation of medical equipment during the pandemic, and how internal skills and capabilities were used to reach the goals. And Lulu Krugel, for showing exactly how screwed our economy is, but always painting the picture in such a way that we are aware of our problems, yet see glimpses of hope that inspire us to do something about it.

Day 2 – Measurable benefits

Day 2, a Friday; usually we’d be in a jolly mood and not really pay attention, however, the overarching message on day 2 was actual 4IR and digitalisation implementation with measurable benefits. The standouts here were the crew from PwC – Riaan, Stanislaw, and Vinesh Maharaj – who illustrated the Connected Worker solution, a real display of visibility that leads to operational efficiencies and worker safety, two key areas of interest in digitalisation.The speaker that really made the day for me though was Dilley Naidoo when he illustrated actual use cases for 4IR that reaped major benefits for customers, but at costs that surprised many of us in attendance. I’d like to see more and more actual benefit realisation use cases being presented that include the actual money spent to achieve the benefits realised. This is ultimately what everyone in MES/OT/IoT/digitalisation must sell – the capital investment that leads to measurable ROI. 

Other speakers that stood out for me were an overachieving lady, Tebogo Mashifana, a Ph.D, MBA, Pr. Tech and senior lecturer at UJ, and enrolled for yet more courses. To quote her: “I realised I need to gain new skills in a new post-coronavirus market.” If that line, by someone as qualified as her, does not inspire you to find out what skills are required in a 4IR-centric market, then probably nothing will. Another was Jamal Sahib, an engineer who went solo to use his talents by motivating other entrepreneurs to have an end goal in mind. He also reiterated the importance of making a humanitarian impact at the end of an entrepreneurial journey.

In 2019 I made a call for this conference to be more diversified; I’d like to claim that my pleas were noted. I am happy to report that the diversity in race, age and gender was really refreshing and exciting to see, well done to the organising team. This conference, albeit a virtual one, was really one that drove home the importance of digitalisation and 4IR in South Africa, and how it can help our economy grow. How can we develop the required skills in a country that desperately needs its manufacturing capabilities to flourish more than ever? At the annual 2021 MESA conference we should have speakers telling us how they beat the pandemic in their industries, but even more so, how their efforts have helped South Africa as a whole.