National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Special Annual Theme Award

About the Award

Special Annual Theme Award: Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) 

About the 4IR: The World Economic Forum (WEF)’s website says: “The 4IR represents a fundamental change in the way we live, work and relate to one another. It is a new chapter in human development, enabled by extraordinary technology advances commensurate with those of the first, second and third industrial revolutions. These advances are merging the physical, digital and biological worlds in ways that create both huge promise and potential peril. The speed, breadth and depth of this revolution is forcing us to rethink how countries develop, how organisations create value and even what it means to be human”. 4IR is also associated with the trend towards full automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies and processes which include cyber-physical systems (CPS), Internet of Things (IoT), industrial IoT, cloud computing, cognitive computing, and artificial intelligence. (Wikipedia)

The machines cannot replace the deep expertise but they tend to be more efficient than humans in performing repetitive functions, and the combination of machine learning and computational power allows machines to carry out highly complicated tasks.

The 4IR has been defined as technological developments in cyber-physical systems such as high capacity connectivity; new human-machine interaction modes such as touch interfaces and virtual reality systems; and improvements in transferring digital instructions to the physical world including robotics and 3D printing (additive manufacturing); IoT; “big data” and cloud computing; artificial intelligence-based systems; improvements to and uptake of Off-Grid / Stand-Alone Renewable Energy Systems: solar, wind, wave, hydroelectric and the electric batteries (lithium-ion renewable energy storage systems (ESS) and EV).

The 4IR also involves the beginning of the Imagination Age.

Key themes

Industry 4.0 increases operational efficiency. Four themes are presented that summarise an Industry 4.0:

  • Interconnection – the ability of machines, devices, sensors, and people to connect and communicate with each other via the IoT, or the internet of people (IoP)
  • Information transparency – the transparency afforded by Industry 4.0 technology provides operators with comprehensive information to make decisions. Inter-connectivity allows operators to collect immense amounts of data and information from all points in the manufacturing process, identify key areas that can benefit from improvement to increase functionality
  • Technical assistance – the technological facility of systems to assist humans in decision-making and problem-solving, and the ability to help humans with difficult or unsafe tasks
  • Decentralized decisions – the ability of cyber physical systems to make decisions on their own and to perform their tasks as autonomously as possible. Only in the case of exceptions, interference, or conflicting goals, are tasks delegated to a higher level[32]


Proponents of the 4IR suggest it is a distinct revolution rather than simply a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution. This is due to the following characteristics:

  • Velocity — exponential speed at which incumbent industries are affected and displaced
  • Scope and systems impact – the large amount of sectors and firms that are affected
  • Paradigm shift in technology policy – new policies designed for this new way of doing are present. An example is Singapore’s formal recognition of Industry 4.0 in its innovation policies.

Critics of the concept dismiss Industry 4.0 as a marketing strategy. They suggest that although revolutionary changes are identifiable in distinct sectors, there is no systemic change so far. In addition, the pace of recognition of Industry 4.0 and policy transition varies across countries; the definition of Industry 4.0 is not harmonised. One of the most known figures is Jeremy Rifkin who “agree[s] that digitalization is the hallmark and defining technology in what has become known as the Third Industrial Revolution” However, he argues that “that the evolution of digitalization has barely begun to run its course and that its new configuration in the form of the Internet of Things represents the next stage of its development”


The application of the 4IR operates through:[35]

  • Mobile devices
  • IOT platforms
  • Location detection technologies (electronic identification)
  • Advanced human-machine interfaces
  • Authentication and fraud detection
  • Smart sensors
  • Big analytics and advanced processes
  • Multilevel customer interaction and customer profiling
  • Augmented reality/wearables
  • On-demand availability of computer system resources
  • Data visualisation and triggered “live” training

Mainly these technologies can be summarised into four major components, defining the term “Industry 4.0” or “smart factory”:

Industry 4.0 networks a wide range of new technologies to create value. Using cyber-physical systems that monitor physical processes, a virtual copy of the physical world can be designed. Characteristics of cyber-physical systems include the ability to make decentralised decisions independently, reaching a high degree of autonomy.

The value created in Industry 4.0, can be relied upon electronic identification, in which the smart manufacturing require set technologies to be incorporated in the manufacturing process to thus be classified as in the development path of Industry 4.0 and no longer digitisation.

Primary drivers

Digitisation and integration of vertical and horizontal value chains

Industry 4.0 integrates processes vertically, across the entire organisation, including processes in product development, manufacturing, structuring, and service; horizontally, Industry 4.0 includes internal operations from suppliers to customers as well as all key value chain partners.

Digitisation of product and services

Integrating new methods of data collection and analysis–such as through the expansion of existing products or creation of new digitised products–helps companies to generate data on product use to refine products.

Digital business models and customer access

Customer satisfaction is a perpetual, multi-stage process that requires modification in real-time to adapt to the changing needs of consumers.


Smart factory

Smart manufacturing

Smart Factory is the vision of a production environment in which production facilities and logistics systems are organised without human intervention.

The Smart Factory is no longer a vision. While different model factories represent the feasible, many enterprises already clarify with examples practically, how the Smart Factory functions.

The technical foundations on which the Smart Factory – the intelligent factory – is based are cyber-physical systems that communicate with each other using the Internet of Things and Services. An important part of this process is the exchange of data between the product and the production line. This enables a much more efficient connection of the Supply Chain and better organisation within any production environment.

The 4IR fosters what has been called a “smart factory”. Within modular structured smart factories, cyber-physical systems monitor physical processes, create a virtual copy of the physical world and make decentralised decisions.[38] Over the internet of things, cyber-physical systems communicate and cooperate with each other and with humans in synchronic time both internally and across organizational services offered and used by participants of the value chain.

Predictive maintenance

Industry 4.0 can also provide predictive maintenance, due to the use of technology and the IoT sensors. Predictive maintenance – which can identify maintenance issues in real time – allows machine owners to perform cost-effective maintenance and determine it ahead of time before the machinery fails or gets damaged.  For example, a company in Los Angeles could understand if a piece of equipment in Singapore is running at an abnormal speed or temperature. They could then decide whether or not it needs to be repaired.

3D printing

The 4IR is said to have extensive dependency on 3D printing technology.  Some advantages of 3D printing for industry are that the technology can produce many geometric structures, as well as simplify the product design process. It is also relatively environmentally friendly as it avoids waste. In low-volume production, it can also decrease lead times and total production costs. Moreover, it can increase flexibility, reduce warehousing costs and help the company towards the adoption of a mass customisation business strategy. In addition, 3D printing can be very useful for printing spare parts and installing it locally, therefore reducing supplier dependence and reducing the supply lead time.

The determining factor is the pace of change. The correlation of the speed of technological development and, as a result, socio-economic and infrastructural transformations with human life allows one to state a qualitative leap in the speed of development, which marks a transition to a new time era.

Smart sensors

Sensors and instrumentation drive the central forces of innovation, not only for Industry 4.0 but also for other “smart” megatrends, such as smart production, smart mobility, smart homes, smart cities, and smart factories.

Smart sensors are devices, which generate the data and allow further functionality from self-monitoring and self-configuration to condition monitoring of complex processes. With the capability of wireless communication, they reduce installation effort to a great extent and help realise a dense array of sensors.

The importance of sensors, measurement science, and smart evaluation for Industry 4.0 has been recognised and acknowledged by various experts and has already led to the statement “Industry 4.0: nothing goes without sensor systems.”

However, there are a few issues, such as time synchronisation error, data loss, and dealing with large amounts of harvested data, which all limit the implementation of full-fledged systems. Moreover, additional limits on these functionalities represents the battery power. One example of the integration of smart sensors in the electronic devices, is the case of smart watches, where sensors receive the data from the movement of the user, process the data and as a result, provide the user with the information about how many steps they have walked in a day and also converts the data into calories burned.


Challenges in implementation of Industry 4.0:


  • High economic costs
  • Business model adaptation
  • Unclear economic benefits/excessive investment[51][52]


  • Privacy concerns
  • Surveillance and distrust
  • General reluctance to change by stakeholders
  • Threat of redundancy of the corporate IT department
  • Loss of many jobs to automatic processes and IT-controlled processes, especially for blue collar workers
  • Increased risk of gender inequalities in professions with job roles most susceptible to replacement with AI


  • Lack of regulation, standards and forms of certifications
  • Unclear legal issues and data security


  • IT security issues, which are greatly aggravated by the inherent need to open up previously closed production shops
  • Reliability and stability needed for critical machine-to-machine communication (M2M), including very short and stable latency times
  • Need to maintain the integrity of production processes
  • Need to avoid any IT snags, as those would cause expensive production outages
  • Need to protect industrial know-how (contained also in the control files for the industrial automation gear)
  • Lack of adequate skill-sets to expedite the transition towards a fourth industrial revolution[56][57]
  • Low top management commitment
  • Insufficient qualification of employees[51][52]

See presentations of NSTF Discussion Forums on the 4IR, and 4IR technologies, on the NSTF website, by about 50 expert speakers in total:

  • Year 2023:  Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development – Winner: Prof Andrew Green (Professor: Marine Geology, University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN); and Visiting Professor: University of Ulster, Northern Ireland)
  • Year 2022: Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development – Winner: Prof Marianne Vanderschuren (Professor: Transport Planning and Engineering; Chair: Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) / National Research Foundation (NRF) / Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Co-funded Smart Mobility Research; and Deputy Dean: Social Responsiveness and Transformation, Department (Dept) of Civil Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, University of Cape Town)
  • Year 2021: Creative Economy for Sustainable Development – Winner: Dr Tegan Bristow (Senior Lecturer at the Wits School of the Arts & Fak’ugesi Principal Researcher – with a specialisation on African Art, Culture and Technology. Bristow additionally acts as Editor in Chief and Digital Editor of the ‘Ellipses Journal for Creative Research)
  • Year 2020: Plant Health – Winner: Prof Michael Wingfield (Founding Director of Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI), University of Pretoria (UP))
  • Year 2019: Materials for inclusive economic development – Winner: Prof Alexander Quandt (Professor of Physics, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits))
  • Year 2018: Sustainable Energy for All – Winner: Prof Harald Winkler (Professor, University of Cape Town)
  • Year 2017: Sustainable Tourism for Development – Winner: Prof Melville Saayman (Director of the research focus area TREES (Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society) formerly known as the Institute for Tourism and Leisure Studies, at the North-West University)
  • Year 2016:  Crop Science and Food security – Winner: Prof David Berger (Professor in the Plant Science Department, Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria)
  • Year 2015:  Photonics – Winner: Prof Andrew Forbes ( Distinguished Professor in the Wits School of Physics)

NSTF-South32 Awards


The NSTF welcomes collaboration with other organisations, such as those they have been in partnerships with for many years:

Subscribe to our eNews

Sign up to receive news on what is happening in science, engineering, technology (SET) and innovation in South Africa

Copyright © 2023 All Rights Reserved | National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)