WELCOME to Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution that endeavours to put the entire manufacturing industry on the computer. It is a world in which cyber-physical systems (see graphic) run the show, presiding over robots, 3D printers, big data, the cloud and the Internet of Things; it is what will transform traditional plants into smart factories.
Like all revolutions, this one will be disruptive. And as the Singapore workforce adapts to this new digital economy, the SkillsFuture drive, unveiled in Budget 2015 to help Singaporeans develop skills for the future, could not have been timelier, observers told The Business Times.
The Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF) said: "Workers with new skills will be needed as the manufacturing industry will increasingly need to focus on innovation to drive productivity and competitiveness. Existing skills might become less relevant than before."
It added that traditional manufacturing companies - those with a heavy reliance on manpower or dull, repetitive tasks - face having to move their labour-intensive operations to cheaper markets, or to see their business models made obsolete by disruptive technologies.
Leslie Loh, chairman of professional training centre Lithan Hall Academy, said these disruptive technologies are mostly infocomm technologies (ICT) - those in business intelligence, big data, computer-aided design and enterprise resource planning, for example.
"As ICT becomes more and more prevalent in the manufacturing industry, the workforce will need skills in these areas to complement their basic domain expertise," he said.
Beyond hard skills such as those in robotics, 3D printing or additive manufacturing, the workforce needs flexibility and speed to adapt to new industry-wide trends, said the SMF.
Soft skills such as multilingualism and the mastery of other cultures are likewise important, with increasing globalisation and China becoming a manufacturing powerhouse.
Mr Loh said: "Local manufacturing firms should take advantage of SkillsFuture for growth: skills advancement for staff, hiring of local talent and the development of training and recruitment frameworks that meet Singapore's Workforce Skills Qualifications."
With SkillsFuture focused on training Singaporeans at every stage of their lives, it will go far in attracting young Singaporeans to manufacturing, first by building among them an interest in engineering, technology and science, said the SMF.
The availability of more bite-sized courses will enable older workers to juggle competing commitments such as work and family, and appeal to firms less able to release their employees for extended periods for training.
Employees will also have the flexibility to choose the courses they want, and gain a greater sense of ownership in their career development, said observers.
Singapore-listed firm Stratech, which manufactures detection systems for foreign objects and debris for airport runways, said it would make the most of SkillsFuture.
Its executive chairman David Chew said: "Our analytics skills need to evolve to provide intelligence beyond the runways to air-side surveillance for instance, which will enlarge the market potential of our product."
The SMF said that the challenge is for all stakeholders to define and agree on the skillsets relevant to the various manufacturing sectors.
Another challenge is to convince employers on the importance of supporting their employees in life-long learning and upskilling. The SMF said: "Many employers fear that their investment in their employees is temporary as employees may job hop."
Notably, the Singapore manufacturing industry is wide-ranging, with no one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, while multinational corporations may demand specific skillsets, small and medium-sized enterprises may require their employees to be multi-skilled because of their lean culture. Food manufacturing, in particular, got a kickstart last week with a SkillsFuture Earn-and-Learn programme aimed at grooming fresh polytechnic graduates for roles such as food technologists and food-process engineers.
Meanwhile, Singapore's manufacturing sector was reported to have contracted for a fifth consecutive month in April, dragged by further declines in new orders both locally and from abroad.
While there is no lack of promising homegrown manufacturing companies, these need to be given more level playing fields for their products to be deployed locally. Stratech's Dr Chew said: "We look forward to the day where 'Buy Singapore' rules ... that'd be a sure way to spur innovation."
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