How Singapore factories can get smart and stay ahead

Industry 4.0 is about harnessing what advances like RFID and Real-time Locationing Systems can do.

THE past year has been a spectacular one for Singapore's manufacturing sector, having recently capped its 13th recent consecutive month of growth. To maintain such strong growth, it is imperative Singapore manufacturers continue to watch regional trends carefully to ensure that they do not lose their competitive edge and fall behind.

Much of the recent growth experienced by Singapore's manufacturing industry has been attributed to the success of high-value manufacturing clusters such as electronics and precision engineering. However, other Asian neighbours have not been idling.

While China has made its name as a powerhouse for low-cost, low-value manufacturing, the country is moving toward high-value manufacturing. Similarly, other developed countries such as Japan and Korea have already established strong capabilities for the manufacture of complex and innovative products.

One key insight from the 2017 Asia-Pacific Manufacturing Vision Study, recently released by Zebra Technologies, is the rise of Industry 4.0 in the region.

This refers to the creation of smart factories that give manufacturers actionable visibility of their operations at every stage. In addition, the increased visibility will allow these manufacturers to ensure that its people are accounted for and optimise their productivity on the plant floor. With smart technologies, smart factories can ensure that enterprise processes and regulatory compliance are met throughout the manufacturing cycle. Finally, smart factories also benefit from increased security and safety.

To accomplish that, employees and plant floors are equipped with a range of technologies such as wearable technologies, Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, Radio-frequency Identification (RFID) solutions, and Real-time Locationing Systems (RTLS) to achieve visibility over every aspect of their operations.

The study estimates the number of manufacturers in the region supporting fully connected factories would nearly triple over the next five years to reach 46 per cent by 2022, significantly ahead of the worldwide average.

This means that manufacturers here need to ensure that they stay ahead of the technological trends that regional competitors are starting to adopt.

One of the biggest trends in the age of Industry 4.0 is the adoption of RTLS, which provides information about their goods at every point of the production process.

As opposed to past systems of tracking products only at the goods-in and goods-out stages, RTLS allows manufacturers to accurately identify the problems in the production process that are causing quality issues.

RTLS can also be used by manufacturers to track assets and collect data such as location, stage, and condition. Such information can help ensure sufficient supplies or quality control to avoid costly operational delays. Data can also be shared in real-time with internal and external suppliers, allowing for quicker response times to demand surges or restocking requests.

Another related technology is RFID, which is one of the foundational pieces for IoT.

RFID tags can convey considerably more information - such as bill of materials, tracking numbers and detailed work instructions - than what is usually printed on packages, allowing workers to more efficiently move goods through production lines.

Sensors can also read the information embedded in RFID tags without the need for line-of-sight or manual scanning by workers, which considerably improves productivity. As such, RFID is connecting factories from corner to corner by granting digital voices to goods and assets, allowing them to be "heard" and communicated with. With the real-time tracking enabled by RFID, item traceability and order accuracy can be vastly improved.

Another key insight from the Zebra survey is that only 9 per cent of factories in the Asia- Pacific will lack RFID capabilities in five years' time, underscoring the need for Singapore manufacturers to ensure that they do not fall behind in this regard.

Finally, manufacturers will adopt technologies that will help their workers be more productive. These enable operational processes to become more efficient than the manual processes of the past, which are much slower and prone to "human errors".

The Zebra study showed that 72 per cent of factories in the region will have equipped workers with mobile solutions such as handheld computers, printers and scanners by 2021. These empower workers to record and access information, as well as generate and read product labels, all on the go.

To succeed in the new age of Industry 4.0, manufacturers need to do more than simply create products: they need to improve product quality and factory-wide visibility, react to unpredictable demand, and increase product diversity.

With Singapore's initiatives to accelerate the transformation of the country's manufacturing industry, manufacturers here need to keep abreast of developments and ensure that their technology investments are made wisely and swiftly. Organisations would benefit from the efficiency and productivity gains that are high on the national agenda.

By identifying key technological solutions that will keep them ahead of their competitors, Singapore manufacturers will be in a position to enjoy continued growth.

  • The writer is vice-president and general manager, Zebra Technologies Asia-Pacific

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