Industry 4.0: A Catalyst for Sri Lanka’s Economic Recovery

On a broader level, several factors need to be taken into consideration when implementing Industry 4.0.

6 mins read
Sri Lankan youth during the in-famous 'Aragalaya' [Photo: Special Arrangement]

I will start with citing a brief speech I made as an associate of FabLanka Foundation in welcoming Professor Dr Siegfried Zuern to FabLab and Sri Lanka today.

As an associate of FabLanka Foundation, I Welcome Professor Dr Siegfried Zuern to FabLab and Sri Lanka.

Professor Zuern, Director of the International Centre and the Graduate School of Esslingen University, Germany in coordination with FabLanka Foundation in Makandura, particularly with Mr Chaminda Hettiarachchi, Director and Co-founder of FabLanka Foundation, has engaged and doing excellent work in creating awareness about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. During the last two weeks, Prof Zuern has been very busy with teaching many aspects of Industry 4.0, at the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya, and also having a session at the Faculty of Engineering, one of my almae maters.

If I may digress a bit here.

In many parts of the world, manufacturing industry has engaged with Industry 4.0 or is in the process of doing so. We know that it is mainly driven by using digital technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Machine-Learning, Artificial intelligence (AI), and big data analytics in manufacturing. Such technologies enable manufacturers to improve efficiency, automate processes, and even create new innovative products and services.

As you know I am also a political and human rights activist. I firmly believe that advances in science and technology, and improvements in productivity and competitiveness need to be holistically used mainly for the benefit of the world, and not for its destruction.

Historically, during the second phase of the Industrial revolution the world went through rapid scientific discovery, standardisation, mass production and industrialisation. Sri Lanka is still to benefit from such advancements. So far, only the apparel industry in Free Trade Zones appears to have benefitted from those advancements. Sri Lanka is still in its preliminary phase of reaching out to the fourth industrial revolution. However, it is unfortunate that many professionals do not appear to comprehend the significance of Industry 4.0.

Once at a public seminar, I raised this issue with a world-recognised economist. His response was that Sri Lanka must first pass through the second Industrial revolution. This, in my view, is a complete misunderstanding of technological, scientific and social advancement. From a political perspective, this is like the argument about the theory of “combined development” during the Russian Revolution, about rescuing Russia from the “backwardness” of a largely precapitalist economy paving the way for a post-capitalist economy, thus telescoping the two distinct stages of social development.

Even to build an export-oriented economy in Sri Lanka, we need to be competitive by adopting the best practices engendered by Industry 4.0. I welcome and congratulate Professor Zuern for the marvellous work he does in explaining the opportunities and challenges developing countries such as Sri Lanka encounter in adopting Industry 4.0, in managing it and how Germany can be of help in the process. This I know through my experiences gained during several online interactions with Prof Zuern at FabLanka and other forums held in relation to Industry 4.0.

Welcome, Prof Zuern!

Now I digress even further.

Sri Lanka is still passing through the preliminary phase of reaching the fourth industrial revolution. Still, in Sri Lanka there are strong advances made by the IT industry, by the IT professionals and their diverse enterprises employing digital technologies. As pointe out in my welcome, Russia advanced from a preliminary capitalist economy to a powerful industrial country with nuclear power in several decades. It was able to move away from its pre-capitalist “backwardness” paving the way for an advanced post-capitalist economy, by telescoping two distinct stages of social development.

Sri Lanka is currently faced with serious economic as well as other crises. According to the government, it wants to build an export-oriented economy to come out of the economic crisis. The regime has been uttering this mantra since 1977, though one cannot see much benefits Sri Lanka gained out of the process. However, given Sri Lanka has IT professionals using advanced digital technologies, Sri Lanka is able to easily telescope the current development phase of Industry 2.0 with Industry 4.0. Sri Lanka mainly relies on fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil for its energy production. However, reaching out to Industry 4.0 will require utilising renewable energy even while in the process of transition. We must move away from thinking in silos to systems thinking.

Systems Thinking embraces Industry 5.0 and moves beyond efficiency and productivity. It focuses on industry and society, as a system that is sustainable in terms of the role and the contribution industry plays in society. However, the current policy in Sri Lanka, if there is one, appears to be focussed simply on an export-oriented economy that will enhance locally manufactured products that will comply with international standards. Industry 4.0 is not about simply integrating advanced technology. It requires a paradigm shift in our thinking, a thinking that will fundamentally alter the way we plan and execute industrial, agricultural and manufacturing processes.

The fourth industrial revolution in its essence is about integrating cutting-edge technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things and big data analytics into manufacturing to improve efficiency and automate production processes. It is underpinned by four basic principles which cannot be detailed here. However, in brief, the principles are Real-time interconnectivity; Information transparency; Technical assistance and Decentralized decision-making.

We have to understand that Industry 4.0 is significantly different from the previous ones in terms of transformation. Industry 2.0 and 3.0 were mainly to do with standalone machines and improved centralized processes. In Industry 3.0, processes are automated using logic processors and information technology, often mostly operating without human interference. However, still there is a human aspect involved behind it. Industry 4.0 denoted the availability and use of vast quantities of data on the production floor.

Industry 4.0 is to do with interconnected systems, collaborations, flexibility and sustainability driven by a host of cutting-edge technologies including Additive Manufacturing (3D printing) and Augmented Reality (AR). Yet, there are many challenges that need to be overcome in adopting and implementing Industry 4.0. If not, the challenges will make the whole implementation process stall.

In Sri Lanka, one of the major challenges is the skills gap in the work force, particularly in an environment where most of the skilled people and professionals are leaving Sri Lankan looking for greener pastures while regimes appear to be encouraging such emigration simply for the survival of the ruling elite by earning foreign exchange so that their lifestyles based on corruption, wastage and mismanagement of the economy can be sustained.

Environment of Industry 4.0 requires a workforce equipped with new skills and capabilities. Upskilling the existing workforce via training, education and development in the use of new technologies can be a highly significant challenge to overcome. The workforce when upskilled should be well-equipped to handle big data analytics, interconnected systems, and automation, among other technologies. On the other hand, the country should provide an environment where they will be able to use their newly acquired skills and survive without leaving the country seeking better opportunities to survive from the calamities they face domestically.

Industry 4.0 is about rapidly evolving technology that requires advancements in a variety of disciplines to improve process efficiency across all industrial sectors, services, and products, including education. Sri Lanka commenced discussing this aspect several years back, but with the current poly-crises, these discussions have gone backstage. The transition needs to modify the existing traditional educational systems to incorporate innovations. The focus needs to be on transforming education’s future through advanced technology and automation. This requires equipping the future generation of students with science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) skills. Convergence of these disciplines is necessary to address the interdisciplinary problems that would be posed. As such, STEAM skills become significant in transforming education systems through new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning methods currently used in the system of education.

Industry 4.0 relies on data-driven decision-making. So, it is not only the quantity of data that is collected that will matter. It is imperative to use that data effectively throughout all aspects of manufacturing. It will provide the foundation of informed decision-making through subjecting the data to analysis guiding the decision- making process to form actionable insights. It will lead to accuracy and precision as those insights will minimize the guesswork. We live in an environment where all phases of life rapidly changes including trends, demands and market dynamics. That is where Industry 4.0 will provide a competitive edge via the collection, analysis and utilisation of real-time data.

Another challenge is data security. Collection and exchange of vast amounts of data poses an increased risk of data breaches due to espionage and hacking. This will lead to cybersecurity issues and increased vulnerabilities. Therefore, protection of data and critical operations from potential cybersecurity risks will become a non-negotiable aspect of adopting Industry 4.0. Even in industrially advanced countries this has become a real risk.

Most of the organisations in Sri Lanka in manufacturing and other industries still rely on technologies and systems that may not be compatible with Industry 4.0 technologies. Finding the right balance between the need for innovation and leveraging existing technologies may pose a complex challenge. A seamless integration of the existing and the new will become critical in this regard.

Initial investment in Industry 4.0 can be costly, though it may bring considerable benefits in terms of productivity, efficiency, competitiveness, and overall quality returns. Hence, careful cost-benefit analysis of such transformations will be essential.

Thus, on a broader level, several factors need to be taken into consideration when implementing Industry 4.0. Furthermore, effectively managing the transition to Industry 4.0 requires understanding the dynamic relationship between the many factors discussed above to gain the much-needed in-depth knowledge.

Sri Lanka does not need to be simply a spectator stagnating in the current Industry 2.0 environment, rather it can be an active participant and a performer in the fourth industrial revolution with a vision, expertise, and determination to overcoming the current poly-crises the country is faced with.

Lionel Bopage

Lionel Bopage was an Editorial Adviser of Sri Lanka Guardian from 2010-2019. He is a passionate and independent activist, who has advocated and struggled for social justice, a fair-go and equity of opportunity for the oppressed in the world, where absolute uniformism, consumerism and maximisation of profit have become the predominant social values of humanity. Lionel was formerly a General Secretary of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP – Peoples’ Liberation Front) in Sri Lanka, and he now lives in exile in Australia.

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