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Full steam ahead for 5G trials, but factories here still cautious

Businesses are holding back as the technology is new despite government's Industry 4.0 ambitions

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Smart manufacturing is among Singapore's six strategic clusters for 5G development, with S$40 million in funding set aside for it in June.

Singapore

SMART manufacturing is among Singapore's six strategic clusters for 5G development, with S$40 million in funding set aside for it in June.

But despite the schemes to encourage 5G enterprise trials, factories here may be hanging back out of caution - stymying policymakers' race to Industry 4.0, even as Singapore's cooling economy is caught in the throes of technological transformation.

Mao Bor-Yen, general manager for Asia-Pacific manufacturing operations at European chipmaker STMicroelectronics (ST), said that the shop-floor trend is for "more automation, more connectivity", but noted that ST would tap 5G "by the time the technology is ready" - which may be some way off.

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While Singapore's first public 5G networks are expected to go live next year, fuller coverage will be possible only from 2023 onwards. And another barrier to 5G adoption is the relative immaturity of the cutting-edge digital tools that it is meant to enable.

The high speeds and low "lag" time will help factories of the future ramp up connectivity. Navin Vohra, vice-president for Asia-Pacific service provider sales at network provider CommScope, called 5G "a huge enabler for the digital transformation of smart cities and Industry 4.0".

Manufacturers could unplug wired machines on the shop floor, launch an array of wireless sensors, and roll out mobile robots that can communicate with equipment such as cranes.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority, which is offering 5G Grants for industry trials to promote take-up, has dubbed manufacturing a sector marked by "high growth potential with significant global interest".

But the manufacturing use cases tipped to rely heavily on 5G - such as remote production monitoring and remote robotics - are only prototypes, or still need major research and development, as consulting firm AT Kearney noted in a recent industry report.

These roadblocks stand in the way even though AT Kearney estimated that Asean manufacturing could get a value-add of up to US$59 billion in 2025 from 5G-enabled digitalisation.

Family-owned precision maker Fong's Engineering & Manufacturing has held internal talks on how to use 5G for automatic guided vehicles and robotics, transformation engineer Javier Fong told The Business Times. But this goal "still remains at planning stage and far from implementation", Mr Fong added, with no target timeline or vendors and partners.

Yet falling behind in manufacturing is a major no-no for planners. The Committee on the Future Economy, in its 2017 report, called for "a globally competitive manufacturing sector" making up one-fifth of the economy.

Jae Won, the head of Asia-Pacific and Japan for telecom supplier Nokia, warned that Singapore risks lagging its peers "if you wait for the end-use cases to come" before 5G kicks in. In spite of the global economic slowdown, Mr Won cited fierce technology-related competition among leading economies such as the United States, China, Japan and South Korea when asked if countries might be deterred from investments in 5G.

"There is enough pent-up demand to see what productivity improvement can be had," he remarked. "In that sense, there is appetite to invest." He suggested that "you should deploy the network and then enable the end-use cases to be realised, experimented, developed and deployed". For instance, in cases where robotics is already effective, factories may use wireless 5G connectivity for fixed devices even before applying it to roving machines.

For its part, the telecom industry is already working on the systems needed to support factories. Faster 5G networks, specifically designed to support peer-to-peer traffic, should be out in the next year, Mr Vohra said.

Telco StarHub has not unveiled any trials, but Sebastian Tan, head of its 5G business unit, told BT that ongoing industry projects include two in the transport and logistics sectors.

Meanwhile, M1 and the Singapore University of Technology and Design have tied up for research on advanced robots that could be remotely controlled, while Singtel will provide the network for trials at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC).

In a measure of manufacturers' keenness, nine companies signed up for the ARTC 5G pilot from the get-go.

On whether participation in trials is being led by large industry players, David Low, the ARTC's chief, acknowledged that "for now, it's big end-users because it's quite cutting-edge". But smaller companies will eventually get on board too, he added. "5G will come. It's whether we want to start now or later . . . so the plan is to get to the forefront with the interested companies, and start working on it."