The History and Future of Manufacturing in South Africa

Posted On 2017-10-06

Over the next few weeks, we’re drawing our focus in on manufacturing – looking at sustainability, new trends and new materials in the industry. But, first, we want to start from the beginning – how did manufacturing start, what it looks like today and where it’s moving to.

In the beginning

When did humans start manufacturing products? Well, humans have been doing this since they started walking on two legs, which freed up two hands to make tools. Of course, this wasn’t on a large scale through machines and automation, but the production of tools, made by hand, was the origin of manufacturing. This then developed into skilled artisans producing products for the local area with hand tools or basic machines.

It was not until 18th century that manufacturing became the manufacturing that we know today: Enter the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution

Beginning in Britain, around the 1760’s a number of industries were transformed from small scale production accomplished by manual labour to huge operations completed by machinery.

The primary changes were:

  • Steam power replaced horses and water to power factories and transport, and allowed for deeper mining
  • New iron techniques and materials developed allowing for mass-production
  • New machines caused the textile industry to produce large volumes at a lower cost
  • Canals and railways were made, making it cheaper and more efficient to move products and materials
  • The use of coal increased and therefore so did coal production

Fast forward 150 years, these changes started influencing South Africa and its economy.

Manufacturing in South Africa

Up until the 1920s, the main drivers of the economy in South Africa were mining and agriculture, with the country heavily relying on imports from other countries.

As the mining industry expanded, so did the demand for processed foods and textiles. So, during the 1920s, the government started to provide cheap electricity and steel for industrial use and imposed import tariffs to help and support local manufacturers. Because of this, a huge number of state-owned businesses started to dominate the manufacturing sector.

After the second world war, consumer demands continued to rise and as a result the manufacturing sector expanded. The government still supported the manufacturing industry and state-owned corporations helped to establish the paper, textile, fertiliser, chemical, oil and armament industries.

This meant manufacturing grew but in the 1980’s, due to recurrent droughts, an economic downturn, fluctuating gold prices and long-term effects of the apartheid, manufacturing took a hit. This caused challenges with productivity, costs, skill shortages, efficiency and new technology, triggering a decline in manufacturing, which is still evident today.

Manufacturing today

Because of the government’s emphasis on South Africa manufacturing locally and placing tariffs on imported goods, South Africa has a strong manufacturing base. Modise Makhene, now a director and partner of a leading global recruitment firm Stanton Chase, argues that South Africa could become the “manufacturing hub on the continent”.

He goes on to say that now the “biggest shift that leaders in the manufacturing sector are dealing with is the move globally from traditional manufacturing practices (which were labour intensive and required low technology) to models embracing the latest technological – especially digital – advances. These new models require skill sets which are in short supply in the manufacturing sector.”

To ensure the manufacturing sector no longer declines and starts to expand, Modise Makhene says industry leaders should:

  • Facilitate collaboration
    This is between themselves and education organisations to ensure the relevant skills are being developed, with policy makers for greater alignment and with different sectors to develop expensive but advanced manufacturing equipment.
  • Embrace technology
    Technology offers so much opportunity for the manufacturing industry and embracing it is vital for expansion and success.
  • Be globally aware
    With global competition, industry leaders need to know what’s happening with new trends and best practices.

The future of manufacturing

Knowing South Africa’s history of manufacturing and taking in Modise Makhene’s comments about manufacturing today, we spoke to some of the team here at Baker Baynes to get their thoughts on where manufacturing is going.

Customisation and on demand production

Helen van der Schyff, Head of Product Design and Digital Manufacturing Technology at Baker Baynes, predicts that the demand for customisation will rise. Customers no long want a ‘one size fits all’ product, instead they want personalisation.

However, personalisation suggests a longer production cycle and this is something customers won’t be willing to compromise on. One answer to this could be additive manufacturing, which will allow not only personalised products but, with little skill needed, give customers the ability to make their own products.

Rapid product enhancements

With technology advancing at a rapid pace, products are going to get more sophisticated, and quickly.

Daneel Ballaram, Head: Product Design and Digital Manufacturing Services at Baker Baynes, predicts this will happen with connectivity. Not only between products (powered by the Internet of Things) but also with engineers’ and designers’ workflows in order to produce best in class products fast.

Come back and see us soon to get the latest innovations in the manufacturing industry. Can’t wait that long? Get in touch to see how our computer-aided design software and related technical services can help your business.

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