Local perspective on the automation and digitalisation industry

July 3rd, 2017, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT


On 29 June 2017, EE Publishers’ Chris Yelland interviewed Ralf Leinen, head of Digital Factory, Process Industries and Drives, Siemens South Africa. They discussed automation in the South African manufacturing and mining sectors and touched on the education system required to produce talent for the automation and digitalisation industry.

Leinen comes from Germany and has worked for Siemens for 27 years. Having held various sales related positions within Siemens around the world, he enjoys the opportunities that allow him to meet customers around the world and to show them what Siemens has to offer and to help clients achieve and drive their business targets. Leinen held several positions in Germany, and spent a few years at Siemens in the USA, as well as in Asia.

How can we overcome the current recession, and in particular the significant downturn in the manufacturing sector in South Africa?

The answer lies in providing vendor companies with competitive products to offer the market. Automation and digitalisation help improve productivity gains in an organisation. Automation and digitalisation reduce engineering time, help make the right decisions at the right times to gain flexibility, and with that, to drive competitiveness for that company in their given space. Companies within the manufacturing industry in South Africa need this to become competitive in a global environment. With our software portfolio, we’re the only producer to offer the digital twin along the entire value chain – for products, for production and for entire systems. We also support new production methods with innovative solutions for handling systems, robot integration, and the establishment of an open and global digital marketplace for additive manufacturing. It’s not just about competitiveness as a company but competitiveness as a country.

Ralf Leinen, Siemens South Africa

How can digitalisation and automation be creators of jobs rather than destroyers of jobs in South Africa?

The first reflex from the words “automation” and “digitalisation” is; will it destroy jobs? The answer is no. For example, a Siemens factory in Germany had 1000 employees ten years ago and today they still have round about the same number of employees. This, after huge investments in automation and digitalisation. The plant is now fully automated and still has around 1000 employees. So the question should not be “does automation cause job losses?”, but rather, “how does automation change the kinds of job becoming available?” Employees need to develop themselves, take training opportunities provided by companies, and realise that this industry requires its employees to stay up to date with technology and to always educate and develop their skills. Automation and digitalisation can provide quality knowledge-based jobs rather menial jobs with low skill levels. It helps to grow the competitiveness of South Africa, and we can grow the economy and create new jobs in that respect. The combination of quality jobs and a growing economy overcome any destructive effects of job losses.

Robots are seen as a wave of the future in manufacturing, but is this only for advanced economies, or is this technology relevant for developing economies like South Africa where there is massive unemployment?  

Robots will ultimately support the manufacturing industry in reaching the quality level needed to become globally competitive. Siemens does not manufacture actual robots, but it does provide the equipment used to automate robots. Automation companies need to drive the industry to support customers and partners to drive the competitiveness of the South African manufacturing industry. Automation is not just for developed economies. Local manufacturers need to provide quality products which consumers would expect from a global environment. Our digital enterprise offering consists of four elements: industrial software, communication, security and services. Depending on their needs, customers can gradually get started with one of these four core elements of the digitalization process at any point in their value chains.

What has to be done to facilitate the advanced training and skills necessary for digitalisation and automation in South Africa?

It starts with education. It starts with developing your knowledge. Siemens invested €270-million in 2016 to educate its employees in innovation, trends, and technology. We work with universities and interact with young people who come up with ideas and are excited about developing new technologies. I think to start a career in automation and digitalisation, university is a good place to begin, but once the groundwork is complete, individuals have to develop throughout their careers. Working in this industry is an ongoing, life-long learning opportunity and one must keep up to date with technology. It’s a combination of general education, university education and vocational training on a continual basis.

Is traditional “bricks and mortar” university education the answer, or is there a bigger role for electronic media distance education in parallel with on the job vocational training in this sector?

Online training and using different kinds of media to transfer knowledge and expertise is useful and will enable people to learn faster. But I do believe that there is no better way to teach than by doing it face-to-face in a lecture room. I think there will be a shift to some degree, but I think universities will still play a major role in the future.

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