Robots as building blocks of SME success

SINGAPORE'S Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his last National Day Rally address that Singapore needs to do more for its Smart Nation push. Despite having a solid infrastructure in information technology (IT), a highly literate population comprising pretty much digital natives, Singapore still "lags behind" in certain areas, such as in the use of electronic payments.

The adoption of technology by both public and private sector organisations can be accelerated, especially among smaller companies as they typically are more agile. Also, this transformation should be more than tapping into technology to enhance efficiency and productivity, but rather, to adopt technology into our everyday lives, to "live smart at every age".

Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in Singapore form an important segment of the economy. They contribute to nearly half of Singapore's gross domestic product (GDP) and make up more than 99 per cent of Singaporean enterprises.

Traditionally, leaders in these smaller businesses may find it challenging to plan for the long term, especially if they are constrained by daily business challenges - higher operating costs, lack of resources and challenging global business environments. However, SMEs can gain an edge by looking to innovation and technology, by seizing the opportunities available to them that can help to propel their business forward.

Manufacturing has come a long way in Singapore since the first few factories were established in the 1960s. By the 70s, manufacturing became the largest sector in Singapore's economy.

The next 20 years then saw Singapore investing in high-technology industries like biomedical sciences and chemicals, away from labour-intensive industries. In the 21st century, research and development (R&D) as well as innovation became the DNA of Singapore.

The pace of change in the 21st century is no doubt faster than the century before it. This pace has quickened even more in the past few years. Businesses need to adapt and catch up or drop out of the race. Robotics technology may just be the game changer that some SMEs need. Across industries, robots are already helping businesses overcome common challenges like manpower shortage and resource wastage.

Robots are also becoming smarter, cheaper to install, and easier to operate. In manufacturing, robotics can potentially boost productivity as they operate 24/7, have little to no downtime, and can even aid in predictive maintenance.

More importantly, robotics, with precision technology, can offer higher quality processes and create a safer work environment. Additionally, in today's manufacturing landscape where products are increasingly customised and regularly updated, robotics can offer quick product changeover through flexible and highly reconfigurable production lines.

But will robots replace humans? That is a concern shared by many. In reality, robots can work alongside humans, giving us a better quality of life. For example, robots can take on the menial and mundane tasks, allowing human workers to focus on more stimulating work with higher job satisfaction. Human workers can also be upgraded as they get reskilled and be retrained to operate these robots.

Hence, considering both the tangible and intangible benefits that robotics brings to the table, SMEs can gain an edge in today's competitive business environment by boosting productivity.

Robots today are a far cry from their old image of being complex, bulky machines reserved only for trained specialists to use and are difficult to move from location to location. They now proliferate our everyday lives, come in different sizes and many are mobile.

Some can be mounted to one location while others are wearable. Increasingly, operators with no prior engineering or IT knowledge can be trained to use these robots. We already see many interesting and innovative use of robots in service sectors like healthcare and hospitality.

In today's disruptive business environment, successful businesses will need to push the envelope. Many SMEs will need to constantly reinvent themselves and adopt a business model that best works for them or be overtaken.

SMEs here have recently increased their R&D investments and this is a healthy sign of business leaders planning for the future. The future looks bright too as the government is also supportive. The Singapore government recently committed a S$450 million investment in the National Robotics Programme over the next three years, aiming to support robotics development and deployment across healthcare, construction, manufacturing and logistics.

By harnessing the power of robots, SMEs here can create better experiences for customers, partners and workers through new combinations of information, business resources and digital technologies. SMEs must build agility into everything they do to stay relevant to the needs of tomorrow.

  • The writer is general manager of robotics business division, Omron Asia Pacific