COMMENTARY

Robotic automation key to Singapore's advanced manufacturing

SINGAPORE has identified advanced manufacturing as one of the key growth areas to maintain the country's standing in an increasingly competitive landscape.

Some S$3.2 billion has been set aside for advanced manufacturing and engineering under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 plan, to encourage manufacturers to move out of their comfort zones and capitalise on new opportunities. Through this initiative, the government aims to spur on factories that are globally competitive, efficient and productive.

The next phase of this initiative will see people and robots working closely together across a gamut of industries. Many manufacturers in Asia have been quick to recognise this trend, making the region the world's strongest growth market for industrial robots. Singapore has been a key contributor to this growth, increasing its number of robot installations significantly over the past two years. The country now ranks second globally in terms of automation adoption in the manufacturing sector, with a robot density of 448 robots per 10,000 employees.

WHAT'S HOLDING MANUFACTURERS BACK FROM AUTOMATING?

Despite numerous benefits presented by robots, many manufacturers are still apprehensive about robotic automation. Concerns include safety, job displacement and high costs. Fortunately, robots have come a long way since they were first invented. Advances in robotic technology over the past five decades have led to a new generation of robots, known as collaborative robots (cobots). Cobots - robots designed to work side-by-side with people - create process efficiencies, boost operational productivity and strengthen competitiveness.

Safety is often a concern, with many people having a preconceived notion that robots are dangerous. Cobots however come with built-in safety functions. This allows people to work safely alongside the cobots without need for physical safety barriers (though subject to risk assessment), enabling collaboration with the cobots for higher efficiency.

Cobots can take over repetitive and potentially dangerous tasks, reducing the risk of occupational injuries and improving workplace safety. An Austrian factory experienced an estimated 35 per cent reduction in the number of days out due to physical injury following the adoption of cobots.

JOB DISPLACEMENT

Less than 10 per cent of jobs are fully automatable as many tasks still require human dexterity, critical thinking or on-the-spot decision-making, which a robot cannot do. While cobots are able to undertake an expanding range of tasks, they will not replace the need for human workers.

Contrary to the belief that jobs will be lost through automation, the use of robotics in business has created many new jobs. Market research has shown that robots will create up to two million jobs globally from 2017 to 2020.

Cobots are used to enhance efficiency and productivity. People will also be relieved from strenuous and repetitive tasks so that they can take on new roles and higher-value responsibilities. Some hospitals in Singapore have deployed cobots to make healthcare delivery more efficient while reducing the workload on staff. 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.

HIGH INTEGRATION AND MAINTENANCE COSTS

Cobot adoption does not incur high integration costs. While automation is generally associated with high investments, cobots allow for modular implementation - automating selected processes in phases. Through this approach, manufacturers can incrementally reinvest the additional profits to further automate and maximise profits.

Due to their ergonomic design, cobots require minimal change to the infrastructure or production layout in most cases. They are small, compact and lightweight, which enables them to operate even within small spaces and be integrated easily into any existing application, resulting in relatively low installation costs. This can be seen at M Social Hotel where the Front-of-House Autonomous Service Chef, AUSCA, prepares freshly-cooked eggs for hotel guests.

Cobots offer solutions that can grow with the business; they can be redeployed back and forth between different applications over their lifespan and make reconfiguration of the workspace easy for new products and processes. Cobots can also be used around the clock, offering a cost savings in the long run and an average payback period as short as one year.

Programming and maintenance of cobots is simple and can be done by the employees themselves as no technical expertise is required, taking a few hours instead of several days. This allows manufacturers to minimise the costs required to use the cobots throughout their entire lifespan.

WORKING COLLABORATIVELY TOWARDS A BETTER FUTURE

As Singapore enters a new phase in an increasingly competitive global economy, it is imperative for manufacturers to tap opportunities that enable long-term business sustainability and growth.

Robotic automation will play an important role in spurring the country's advanced manufacturing initiative and increasingly shape the way manufacturers work in the future.

  • The writer is general manager at Universal Robots, SEA & Oceania