Why is it easier for Tunisia?
First, industry 4.0, it’s new to everyone. So there is no complex to have with “other” actors. Of course, countries like Germany, Italy or France have a long history of development and research in the field, but when it comes to new industrial applications, everyone is in the process of learning.
Moreover, most of the Tunisian industrial tool is at Industry 2.0 level, while Europe and the United States, for example, are strongly anchored in Industry 3.0 (strong automation and robotization). This is largely due to the fact that the Tunisian industrial tool has often been imported after having lived a long life in Europe, then elsewhere, and that the entire Tunisian industrial ecosystem has focused on its adaptation and maintenance. The motto is often: “Make our old machines survive as long as possible”. Now that delay can be turned into a significant advantage for Tunisia if we do it right. Indeed, in recent years, industrial equipment (programmable logic controllers, sensors, industrial communication systems and data collection and management) has made a big leap towards Industry 4.0.
However, if a highly automated production plant (level 3.0, typically European) seeks today to take advantage of the benefits of Industry 4.0, it will necessitate a huge investment, not only in terms of equipment (dozens or hundreds of fully functional PLCs to update) but also in terms of skills. The job of an automation technician, for example, has completely changed. Moreover, today, an automation engineer, an electrician and a computer scientist must be able to speak and understand each other. We no longer work in silos.
In Tunisia, it would often be a matter of replacing an automate that has already been depreciated for a long time, or even of adding automates where there are none. The notion of "sunk cost" therefore does not slow down the motivation of the investor. On the other hand, the population of technicians and engineers in automatic and electrical engineering or industrial computing is young and widely familiar with the basics of computing and programming. The technological step is therefore easy to take.
Thus, our delay also makes us agile, flexible and quick. It is up to us to manage this asset well.
So what is keeping us?
Among the many answers to this question, in my opinion 3 explain our difficulties in getting into new technologies with both feet.
The first is the lack of industrial integrators in Tunisia (there are some very good ones, but too few). This lack is a weak link between, on the one hand, startups that innovate quickly and well, and manufacturers who wish to adopt new technologies. Indeed, the startup cannot present itself to an industrialist with a prototype just coming out of the laboratory. In many cases, this prototype will be insufficiently tested, insufficiently reliable or adapted to the specific needs of the manufacturer. On the other hand, we cannot expect from an industrialist, whose mission is to produce and deliver on time a product of compliant quality, that he takes care of integrating complex technological systems in situ, which calls for many specific skills and which testing would ruin its production.
Precisely, the mission of an integrator is the transformation of a laboratory prototype system into an industrial object that can be tested with sufficient confidence in a real production system. Its missions include, among other things, the standardization of a prototype, in-situ testing, compliance and certification of a system, as well as its specific programming for a client's needs. He is also in charge of advising and informing industrial customers on the many technological responses to be given to their specific problems. So here is a very good development opportunity for the industry in all regions of the country.
On the other hand, we are often locked in a low-cost model where the continuous quest for the reduction of production costs is the essential philosophy for the survival of the company. While this model has been very beneficial for the Tunisian industry in the past, it is now becoming outdated in many sectors. To benefit from the advances of industry 4.0, we have to change the paradigm. We must understand that the investment will bear fruit if it is part of a project to overhaul the production model, but also the business, logistics and organizational model. A 4.0 project must be considered as a whole to get the most out of the investment.
Finally, there is the question of the state of mind. We have been users of technology for decades, so we are very proficient in maintenance, repair, adaptation. Now we have to think like the creators of technology, see ourselves as such, act as such, teach and learn as such. If we have the ambition and the faith that we are going to be successful, we can make the necessary efforts, and our partners will begin to see us as a serious market. We have to believe in it in order to be confident and to be able to invest in the people, the equipment and the new markets that will open up to us.
It is possible
Industry 4.0 technologies bring enormous benefits not only to manufacturers (savings, increased performance), but also to consumers (new services, better quality products), to the environment (less losses, less waste) and to the whole society (creation of skilled jobs, wealth). Beyond the technical jargons and mystification, there is a path to take for which we already have the walking boots. It remains to use our compass well. Not engaging onto this path would ultimately condemn our industry to disappear.