One of the most significant milestones in modern history was the unveiling of the world’s first programmable digital computer in 1945, coined ENIAC. Although, basic in today’s terms, it represented a major leap forward for digitalisation and the power of interconnectivity via the Internet of Things (IoT).
“The path of change is now constant, so staying ahead of the IoT curve is essential to remain competitive and relevant as smart technologies continue to positively transform society,” Bennett explains.
Within South Africa, NEXTEC’s digital transformation thrust is spearheaded by its Infrastructure Solutions and People Solutions platforms. The Infrastructure Solutions business line comprises two key service clusters, namely Digital Infrastructure and Infrastructure Consulting. The latter has two main offerings which includes environmental, sustainability and social-impact consulting solutions and the multi-disciplinary engineering consulting solutions.
NEXTEC’s Digital Infrastructure services are designed to seamlessly integrate physical systems with digital technologies to create intelligent, resilient, and high-performance systems. Areas that they specialise in include water, power, connectivity, as well as building technology, logistics and asset management.
Bennett believes the people solutions combined with the technology offering creates a unique proposition allowing clients to move forward into a more technologically-enabled age. For example, having the ability within the business to provide solutions that use technology to lower accidents rates. In parallel, People Solutions help clients respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by digital transformation in terms of recruitment, learnerships, training, and functional client outsourcing of non-core processes.
“We refer to our holistic services as NEXTOPIA, the connected and increasingly digitalised world we imagine for our clients and their customers,” Bennett explains.
“Technology and IoT provide amazing opportunities to raise socio-economic standards through improved service delivery, smart infrastructure and intelligent business processes, which for any country is essential to remain globally competitive,” Bennett continues.
Every nation is at different stages in the digitalisation journey. Cities like Dubai and Singapore are at the cutting-edge of the so-called Smart City evolution, spurred on by robust GDP growth, IoT investment and adoption, and a highly advanced education system. South Africa still has some way to go to match this, but it’s a work in progress.
The Smart City concept enables the capturing of big data to analyse, interpret, predict, manage, and model every conceivable process via Digital Twining – a virtual rendition of the real world. Within the public sector arena there are far reaching benefits for the management and refinement of all social infrastructure and related activities like education and healthcare.
“Our business model focuses on providing practical solutions that are scalable, improve operational efficiencies, lower costs and boost profitability, and includes close working relationships with our OEM technology partners. For public sector clients, key deliverables include improved asset utilisation, enhanced asset security, and better service delivery,” Bennett expands.
Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (Ai), the large volumes of data captured via 5G devices can be processed with a high degree of speed and accuracy, translating this information into meaningful reports and tasks.
Smart non-revenue water management
An example of a NEXTEC intervention is the use of smart systems to combat non-revenue water (NRW) losses. Currently, some 40% of South Africa’s portable water is unaccounted for due to one or a combination of factors, namely leaks, apparent losses (such as illegal connections and faulty meters), uncollected billing (including non-payment), and inaccurate billing.
NEXTEC’s water solutions include network analysis and master planning, leak detection, and the matching of consumption to billing data. Recent case studies include a project for a large provincial government to identify and then reduce leaks.
Within the infrastructure space, predictive and preventative maintenance interventions ensure well-executed services. However, this is dependent on municipalities ensuring that they have an accurate and up-to-date asset management register as a basis for budget provision and maintenance scheduling. Smart technologies allow municipalities to get ahead of the curve, a prime example being the backlog on road maintenance in South Africa.
Poor road surfaces are a constant, low-level drag on the economy, with potholes becoming almost endemic. And the generally reactive approach to fixing them isn’t working. It simply delays the inevitable deterioration and rebuild. But there’s a smarter approach.
“We have technology at NEXTEC which allows you to look at the cracks in the pavement, and predict where potholes will arise in six months,” says Bennett. “Identifying a crack in the road through image analysis and machine learning is low-cost, and then allows asset owners to fix cracks before they become potholes, at a fraction of the cost and inconvenience to traffic.”
A recent example of a comprehensive asset management solution is a NEXTEC project working with one of the provincial governments which is responsible for managing over 2 800 facilities, including schools, hospitals, clinics, office buildings, depots, parks, and infrastructure.
NEXTEC’s team is developing an Infrastructure Asset Management Framework and Asset Data Model aligned with industry standards and complex technical requirements. The outcome was that communication and governance improved; management was more effective; long-term forecasting could inform strategy, budgeting, and resource allocation; and the department was placed in a position where it had better control over outcomes.
Smart buildings and warehouses
Energy efficiency gains is another focus area, both from an environmental, demand side management and cost perspective, given the recent escalation in electricity tariffs.
In this respect, NEXTEC’s building management solutions have been able to pass on significant efficiency gains for clients with power usage reductions of up to 35%, and a one to three-year payback on the initial technology investment.
NEXTEC also has a division that specialises in the design of intelligent warehouses and distribution centres. Our approach focuses on driving operational efficiency through the design of optimised process flows and the application of fit-for-purpose mechanised and automated materials handling systems, overlaid with appropriate IT systems. Further efficiencies are gained through the design of a building and site envelope that supports the internal operations and flows, enabling the distribution operation to achieve its required throughput. Distribution centres today have a key role to play in environmental sustainability and supporting ESG initiatives - our team has this at the centre of their design approach.
An overriding concern for municipal asset owners is the protection of infrastructure from theft and vandalism. This is a serious problem in South Africa – exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns. Railway networks and electrical infrastructure were among the worst affected.
In response to these and other challenges, NEXTEC has available a wide spectrum of smart security solutions. “It’s far more cost effective and efficient to have drones, cameras and heat sensors monitoring kilometres of railroad and electrical cable than to have people patrolling them. The millions saved could be better spent on other priority areas like education,” Bennett asserts.
NEXTEC’s services are frequently integrated. A recent example is a large Government agency contract secured by NEXTEC for an integrated building management system, digital twinning, and security solution.
The Government agency required a holistic solution for their facility – integrating everything from perimeter control to CCTV, access control, and alarms – as well as a building management solution that linked their IoT and critical assets, including laboratories and data centres, in a utility-efficient manner.
NEXTEC’s system design enabled the agency to access a digitised 3D graphical representation of their buildings’ critical systems. As a result, the agency can now proactively monitor, maintain, and change conditions on their hydraulics, generators, HVAC, and laboratories via smart devices.
Thanks to the progressive roll-out of its 5G network, South Africa’s access to data, communications technology and connectivity is now on par with the world’s best. This is further supported by large-scale local investments in data centres.
“We have the power of connectively in our hands. Now we need to embrace it to shape South Africa’s future socio-economic landscape in a more coherent and collaborative manner. It’s an exciting mind shift, and an opportunity to catch-up and keep pace with digital trends that promote sustainability,” Bennett concludes.