Changing gears for the fourth Industrial Revolution

Dr. Kamau Gachigi on how makerspaces can catch the fourth industrial revolution wave

In November 2016, I attended a two-day series of meetings of the World Economic Forum’s Global Council on the Future of Production, held in Dubai. At the meeting, Vishal Sikka, the CEO of global giant, Infosys Corporation, said, “Things have never changed so fast in world history and, conversely, will likely never be this slow again”. The changes he was referring to constitute what is described by the World Economic Forum as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Just what exactly is the 4IR? It is characterized by the convergence of the physical, biological and cyber worlds through massive connectivity and massive automation. The previous revolutions brought us steam, electricity and ICT respectively, over a period of about 300 years.

So what does this mean for Africa? At first glance, the broad signs are not good. Africa’s economy is still somewhere amidst the first three industrial revolutions, often closer to the first. Our portion of global trade is said to have dropped to 2% in 2013, from about 3% in the 1970s. There are low levels of skills amongst the working population, and poverty remains widespread. Globalization means that we will be sucked into the effects of the 4IR whether we like it or not, and indeed this is already happening. Jim Yong Kim, the President of the World Bank, gave a speech last year in which he said that the Bank anticipates the loss of up to 85% jobs in countries like Kenya due to automation and the effects of the 4IR.

What averaged statistics about Africa’s economic status don’t tell you is about the specific activities at the far right of the bell curve, only observable at a more granular level, that portend better things.

Gearbox is a space around which a supportive ecosystem for hardware entrepreneurs has been successfully piloted, creating a pipeline of innovators and invention-based businesses by removing the key constraints to developing innovative hardware products in Kenya.

The main constraint from our perspective is the difficulty that most innovators in African countries face in creating high-quality prototypes with which to demonstrate the market value of the hardware innovation through a pilot. Removal of this constraint by providing access to modern fabrication tools on a shared basis can lead to investment opportunities, thereby addressing another significant impediment. A further constraint is the dearth of contract manufacturing facilities. This means that every innovator needs to establish his/her own manufacturing facility in order to meet market demand, which often results in lower competitiveness. There are also significant constraints found further upstream in the production value network. These begin with the creative process itself, with many would-be innovators not having much of an understanding of human-centred design. Even assuming one has mastered that, there are other barriers to competitiveness, such as poor product design that doesn’t lend itself to available manufacturing processes.

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At centres like Gearbox, often called makerspaces, innovators are taught all such methodologies. What’s additionally exciting about makerspaces is that they make modern methods and technologies available not only to engineers, but also to the class of people called makers.

We in Africa are very familiar with people who have engineering in their blood, making all manner of things out of recycled bits and pieces. Many such people can be converted into makers, and this happens when they are taught to use a range of tools that are highly empowering because the engineering capacity is designed into them. Tools such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi enable amateurs, without electronics training or understanding, to make sophisticated prototypes without needing to understand in depth how the innards work. This includes coding, which pervades the electronics underlying much of what makes the 4IR work. Makers only need to understand coding peripherally in order to make powerful and marketable products, such as those used in internet-of-things devices.

I have been really thrilled as I have watched engineers and makers transcend the gaps between a variety of types of productive impotence to produce very presentable working prototypes. A couple of them are enjoying significant revenues from their products already, though mass production in each case still takes place in China.

We have people designing and prototyping speed governor and car-tracking devices, point-of-sale devices, all manner of control systems, and even computer numerical controlled (CNC) machines, such as 3D printers, plasma cutters and routers. The latter machines epitomize digital fabrication in which computer-generated designs are sent to the machine which rapidly and precisely converts them into products. Indeed, we are on the verge of launching our very own made-in-Kenya CNC plasma cutters and wood router into the jua-kali (informal) sector. Imagine that, untrained craftsmen, currently producing crude products, raising their productivity by orders of magnitude through digital fabrication.

Centres such as Gearbox and the FabLabs, disruptive centres of all the types of learning I mention above, should be replicated across Africa. They should be seen by governments as having as much importance as building roads, laying power lines, and building information infrastructure.

We shouldn’t wait for tech transfer via foreign direct investment (FDI), which I see as an unreliable form of trickle-down industrialization (unless very carefully embedded win-win terms are employed). We shouldn’t wait for the few engineers that our funds-constrained governments can educate to translate their knowledge into factories making what we need. Instead, it makes more sense to transform significant swathes of our populations into makers through flexible and abbreviated instruction at makerspaces, which then feed centres of high-level prototyping and eventual contract manufacture.