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Automation: The leader of digital transformation
INDUSTRY 4.0 is impacting the world by storm. For Singapore to remain relevant in this highly globalised and competitive environment, businesses need to continuously innovate and use their resources more effectively. The manufacturing industry is no exception.
Manufacturing - which contributes about 20 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product (GDP) and 14 per cent of total employment - is being impacted by new technologies, changes in global supply chains and consumer demands. Local manufacturers must adapt to these technologies, such as robotics, to remain relevant.
Singapore's manufacturing base has been gearing up to adopt the Industry 4.0 model to enhance its efficiency and long-term competitiveness on the global stage. In line with the government's push towards automation and the adoption of new technologies, most manufacturers agree that Industry 4.0 technologies will change their operations.
But while there has been growing enthusiasm among Singaporean manufacturers for Industry 4.0, many are struggling to get started.
Manufacturing companies looking to automate may find that one of the biggest challenges they face comes from within - their employees. Workers fear that the introduction of automation and increase in productivity will result in their redundancy. However, very few occupations - less than 5 per cent - are candidates for full automation. While machines are able to undertake an expanding range of tasks, many tasks still require human dexterity, critical thinking or on-the-spot decision-making, which a robot cannot do.
This relentless march of automation will transform the role people play at work. Contrary to the belief that automation will make the human workforce redundant, research has shown that robots will create up to two million jobs globally from 2017 to 2020. In fact, 65 per cent of jobs that today's children will perform do not exist yet.
AUTOMATION IN VARIOUS INDUSTRIES
Automation is a frontrunner of the digital transformation movement, helping to streamline operations in various sectors. According to a study, more than half of global CEOs are exploring the advantages of collaboration between humans and machines. One of the most explosive trends in robotics is collaborative robots (cobots). Small and flexible, cobots are gaining ground as a valuable tool. Designed to work alongside employees, cobots take over strenuous and repetitive tasks, and free up workers to perform more rewarding duties. For example, Changi General Hospital uses a robot picker - a cobot that can pick a range of objects - including fragile items - from a shelf, allowing staff to focus on catering to patients' needs.
They also offer manufacturers a financially less daunting way to automate, fitting into production lines without overhauling existing infrastructure. B-Loony Ltd, a manufacturer of promotional products such as food flags, bunting and balloons, deployed cobots in its production line, increasing output and reducing average production cost . The cobots increased output by up to 5,000 per cent, achieving a payback period of just nine months.
Singapore is well-placed to drive growth in the adoption and development of robotics and automation solutions. According to the Global Innovation Index, Singapore is a top performer for high- and medium-high-tech manufacturing and high-tech net exports, and is named the most innovative country outside of Europe.
However, the adoption of robotics still needs cultivation among small and medium enterprises (SMEs), while some workers will need reskilling to move up the value chain in a more automated economy. The government has set aside more than S$450 million to help companies adopt robotics technology, and is working with solutions providers to offer packaged solutions at a reasonable cost.
The Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMtech) was created to help SMEs innovate, automate and adopt new technologies. SIMtech develops technology and manpower, and acts as an industry matchmaker for SMEs to find ways to improve their products and workflow. Other schemes include The Productivity Solutions Grant and the Technology Adoption Programme, which give SMEs the resources to adopt automation and robotics.
There are also robotics courses available in Singapore, such as the UR Collaborative Robotics Course, to nurture a pipeline of talent to take on new and higher-value jobs that will arise from automation. UR also established the UR Academy to help make robotics accessible for all. The online training, which includes nine modules on basic cobot programming, is free of charge for everyone. Over 20,000 users from 132 countries have signed up.
BRIDGING THE AUTOMATION GAP IN SOUTH-EAST ASIA
Benefits abound with automation adoption. Manufacturers can expect productivity rates to soar by a massive 300 per cent through the employment of Industry 4.0 technologies such as cobots.
As Singapore continues to strengthen its adoption of automation and robotics, it will pave the way for its Asean counterparts. Currently, Singapore has the second-highest robot density globally, with 658 robots per 10,000 employees in 2017.
With the introduction of new initiatives and platforms such as the Asean Smart Cities Network and the Singapore Cooperation Centres, Singapore is helping its neighbours facilitate cooperation on smart cities development, knowledge-sharing on technical capabilities while securing funding and support from external partners. With greater collaboration, Asean will be in a strong position to reap the benefits of Industry 4.0 for its economy and people.
- The writer is general manager, South-east Asia & Oceania at Universal Robots