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COMMENTARY

Setting the gears of smart manufacturing in motion

THE nations within the Asia-Pacific and Japan (APJ) have long been predicted to drive a new wave of smart manufacturing solutions. Although most of these producers have embraced new techniques to create differentiated products, only 40 per cent rate their manufacturing capability as advanced.

The broad consensus among economists is that the manufacturing sector in Singapore will emerge as a key growth driver throughout 2018. The sector has in recent months notched up robust growth.

With technology redefining new sectors and upgrading old ones, what directions should companies explore in an industrial landscape that is becoming dominated by robotics, Internet of Things (IOT) and artificial intelligence (AI)?

SMART MANUFACTURING - REDEFINED

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Asian manufacturers have enjoyed a strong track record in automation, and it is not just the age-old assembly lines that are being brought into question - the automation that we are witnessing today covers the entire manufacturing space.

It integrates new modes of mobile and real-time workflows, and workforce interactions coupled with live input from customers and partners.

Manufacturing companies are finding that the concept of product development is ceding ground to product innovation. Novel segments such as autonomous vehicles have been a great showcase of this new nature of conceptualising and designing products. Technology has turned product development into a playground where the pace is faster, and there is more time left for innovation through trial and error.

According to Dell Technologies' 'Realising 2030: The Next Era of Human-Machine Partnerships' research, almost half (48 per cent) of Singapore business leaders believe that they will have more job satisfaction in the future by offloading the tasks that they do not want to do to machines.

Pre-defined goals have given way to real-time experimentation. The products that emerge from this dramatically different process can relay information back to the manufacturer, simulate specific environments and build intimacy with customers.

This model of technology-based innovation is seen in the case of PSA Singapore's transformation journey as it gears up to move to the new Tuas facility by 2021. By harnessing data analytics and new technologies, PSA has today deployed the biggest number of automated cranes in a single location in the world, and is looking to complement that with an equivalent suite of automated guided vehicles.

These intensive levels of automation, along with the transformation of its information technology (IT) infrastructure, have allowed PSA to ramp up capabilities quickly to manage unprecedented peaks in business and handle in excess of 100,000 container movements each day.

In turn, PSA is better placed to weather industry changes, focus on innovating and seek new business opportunities.

NEW LOOK AT DATA STORAGE, ANALYTICS

To achieve ground-breaking innovation, the right digital foundation needs to be in place. Manufacturing creates more data points than just about any other industrial sector - yet many businesses in APJ are still learning that Big Data requires a coherent, forward-looking approach to storage and analytics.

Solutions need to be implemented that will allow companies to store and analyse high volumes of data, including unstructured internal and external data from anywhere in the system, thus helping users make real-time decisions. Internalising this need, a growing number of manufacturing companies have been moving to new models such as hybrid cloud.

Meanwhile, data needs to be properly collected, curated and enriched with real-time insights. What manufacturers across the region can expect to achieve is valuable context, more clarity and a better understanding of how, when and where different events occur within their factories.

Advanced analytical tools such as augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) can then serve as a potent source of additional insight into customer experiences, needs and behaviour. By combining these types of data sources with IOT data captured by devices and sensors, the findings provide new learning handles that can help better grasp and represent issues of machine performance and health.

That is precisely how India's Chitale Dairy has turned milk farming into a high-tech industry. By using IOT sensors connected through a high-speed, high-availability IT network, the company has been able to monitor the health and habits of its dairy cows, thus automating and improving milk production.

TALENT AND CREATIVE SKILLS

Quite a few among APJ manufacturers will be challenged to make sure that they have the right skills to take advantage of this new, data-driven paradigm of product design and innovation. Indeed, bringing together the benefits of smart manufacturing and big data requires high-quality human input. Closer to home, where organisations and education systems have traditionally valued hierarchy, new types of talent will be in demand. These include flexibility, collaboration and people skills, as well as the creative ability to draw on disparate themes, fields of inquiry, and experiences. Throughout the manufacturing sector, technology has freed up more time and room for creative resources, which can now be plugged into innovation.

Across the region, creative capabilities will increasingly assert themselves as the most important component in smart, tech-based manufacturing. While technologies such as AI may offer unparalleled ways to process and interpret data, it will still take a human outlook and skill to apply that data in solving real-world problems and in upgrading real-life user experiences. How well local talent performs in managing the fast-emerging domain of human-machine partnerships will greatly determine the region's position in the highly-competitive global manufacturing environment.

  • The writer is managing director and vice-president, Singapore Enterprise Business, at Dell EMC