Through this article, Mr. Lieu Yew Fatt, Managing Director of Omron Electronics Singapore and Mr. Swaminathan Vangal-Ramamurthy, General Manager of Robotics Business Division, Omron Asia Pacific examine the future of manufacturing in Singapore and the relationship between local and global trends.
Manufacturing has been a key pillar of the economy in Singapore ever since we progressed to an innovation-intensive economy from a labour-intensive one in the early days of nation building. Now, manufacturing contributes close to 20 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP) and keeps more than 500,000 people employed.
Moving forward, the manufacturing sector here will face increasing external pressures in the coming years. In Southeast Asia, we have Thailand, which ranked well for high quality and low cost in a McKinsey analysis on which ASEAN country is most attractive for manufacturing investments. Singapore, not surprisingly, ranked high in high quality but performed badly in low cost.
Meanwhile, the rise of China as a manufacturing powerhouse in Asia has also brought a different level of competition to the landscape. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has been flowing in to China and this adds competitive pressure to the manufacturers in this region, especially since there are some significant overlaps in manufacturing capabilities between the manufacturers in China and here.
The Shift Towards Innovation And Research
Singapore’s manufacturing sector naturally leans towards advanced manufacturing in view of our knowledge-based economy. Manufacturers here are generally more open to leveraging innovation and technology to improve products and/or processes.
In 2016, the Singapore Government introduced the Research Innovation Enterprise 2020 (RIE2020), a plan that charts the course for harvesting an innovative and competitive economy as we progress towards 2020. As part of this plan, advanced manufacturing was identified as a key pillar among others to drive this forward. RIE2020 also identified four cross-cutting technology areas as essential enablers, which will undergird and support the verticals. These are: Robotics and Automation, Digital Manufacturing, Additive Manufacturing and Advanced Materials.
Additionally, the Government has also committed SGD$19 billion, the biggest allocation since 1995, as investment into innovation, research and driving enterprise growth under the RIE2020 Plan for 2016 to 2020.
Keeping Up With Technology Trends
Government support provides a much-needed boost for manufacturers here. However, manufacturing businesses must ensure that they are maximising cost efficiency and productivity in their operations to remain competitive. The good news is that technology can offer tremendous value in these areas.
There are two major trends to watch in advanced manufacturing:
1.Artificial Intelligence And Machine Controllers
Manufacturers can expect artificial intelligence (AI) to play an increasingly prominent role in manufacturing as factory floors become smarter and more collaborative robots (or ‘cobots’) work alongside humans to enhance productivity.
At OMRON, we recently took an innovative-automation approach. By this, we mean an integrating high-precision, high-speed manufacturing with more intelligent controls and data analysis and combining that with a more interactive and collaborative relationship between robots and people on the manufacturing floor.
For instance, we merged AI, machine learning and facial recognition technologies to develop Omron vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) technology. This is used in automobile manufacturing to create products that keep drivers safe. VOR technology uses a camera to capture and sense a driver’s eye movements to spot for early-stage drowsiness and determine his/her suitability for driving. This technology can also be applied to the factory floor to keep workers safe as well, such as when they are operating heavy machinery.
Separately, we have added learning capabilities to machine automation controllers by equipping them with machine learning AI algorithm. This allows the controllers to achieve real time integration between programmable logic controller and AI processing functions. The result is that these controllers can manage equipment changes on the factory floor in microseconds as they send collected data to the host IT system while maintaining control performance.
Additionally, these controllers can effectively keep track of equipment and production status when equipped with sensors set to monitor machines and production lines. They can look out for irregularities or unusual activities and built-in AIs can take action to fix issues or activate safety procedures depending on what they are programmed to learn.
2.Industrial Internet Of Things
The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) in manufacturing is currently already a primary trend affecting businesses in the industry. It transformed manufacturing in many parts of the world due to its ability to enable the gathering and analysis of data and then applying it in new and novel ways.
However, IIoT goes beyond machines to machine connectivity. It is also a movement that is uniting the people and systems on the factory floor with enterprise-level decision makers. The rise of IIoT platforms have also empowered employees as they now have better access to information. With improved collaboration a focus of these platforms, teams can now work across factory floors, or even remotely across wider geographies.
The mindset is also shifting towards that of consumers connected to the industry through customer interactions and social networks, and informed businesses are constantly adjusting their output and production based on consumer demand.
We readily see this in the automobile industry where manufacturers offer many customisable or optional choices. Now, car buyers are often spoilt for choice on things like exterior and interior colors, seat material and design, in-car stereo and GPS systems, sun roofs and so on. Manufacturers are embracing this connected customers and market-driven environment. To remain competitive, manufacturers have to be connected and nimble and the only way they can be successful is to leverage the power of data and newer technologies like IIoT.
It will no doubt remain important for manufacturers here to continue to strive for the age-old goals of increasing speed to market, reducing overall costs and maintaining quality control. Nonetheless, they cannot ignore the fact that digitalisation and disruptive technologies are transforming the whole manufacturing landscape, and it is crucial that they take steps to modernise their operations and prepare for the business environment and the market of the future.
Advanced manufacturing methodologies that used to be mere concepts just a few years ago are now finding practical implementations. It is timely for manufacturers here to explore their actual feasibility and practicality as they modernise their own operations. They may also want to better incorporate automation, data analytics, IIoT, robotics and increased technology adoption into their business strategies and operational planning considerations.
To be future-ready, manufacturers will need to plan toward realising a more transparent supply chain that enhances product traceability by taking steps now to adopt newer and more intelligent production methods and processes.
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