Manufacturing

Singapore’s advanced manufacturing avatar “Industry 4.0”

10 Jul 2017 | Samyukta Raman

Singapore’s advanced manufacturing avatar “Industry 4.0”

Long viewed as a key pillar of Singapore’s growth, manufacturing accounts for nearly a fifth of the nation’s GDP. However, the sector is experiencing considerable pressure from both regional competition and domestic restructuring.

Beyond the global economic headwinds, the local industry is grappling with rising operational costs, a domestic labour crunch and the weakening Singapore dollar. In the face of these mounting challenges, Singapore has acknowledged the need to revamp its manufacturing model into one that offers more innovation-based and high-value production.

Reinventing the manufacturing industry

Singapore’s manufacturing base has been gearing up to adopt the Industry 4.0 model, to enable digitalisation and automation of its processes, enhancing its efficiency and long-term competitiveness on the global stage. This new-age approach allows for high-level integration of information, communication and systems by connecting multiple devices and machines at every step of the manufacturing process.

As part of the coordinated i4.0 strategy, the Singapore government has earmarked significant time and money for investment into research and development (R&D) projects, developing industry transformation maps and strengthening the workforce’s skill sets, to move the industry towards quicker adoption.

The city-state indeed has an ideal mix of ingredients – rich knowledge base, sophisticated smart nation infrastructure, precision engineering, creative and technical design capabilities – to help manufacturers transition from a value-add model to a value creation model. In fact, Singapore’s strong combination of infrastructure and government policy resulted in it being the top-ranked country in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Asian Digital Transformation Index.

Moving to new technologies

While the move to a digital manufacturing environment might seem inevitable, the shift must still align with industry expectations for simplicity, flexibility and quick turnaround times.

To address these needs, technologies such as 3D printing and augmented reality (AR) promise to redefine existing production processes. Using 3D printing, manufacturers can easily print the critical product part they want, without disturbing the rest of production. This can drastically reduce the time to market.

“Spare parts, which would have taken five to eight months to get dispatched from the factory [in the past], will soon take only two to three days [to produce],” said Raimund Klein, executive vice president for Siemens ASEAN, Digital Factory and Process Industries and Drives.

AR is also making great strides. It offers manufacturers the flexibility to redesign their machine tools and processes, based on the specifics of the end product. This is done by first digitising the existing machine tool or process, with the virtual representation known as a digital twin.

“The end product can be tested using the digitised tool or process, and based on that the manufacturer can customise his production process in a cost-effective manner,” said Klein.

In the past, activities across the manufacturing value chain were essentially functioning in individual silos and following a sequential approach.

“Digitalisation, on the other hand, integrates all the activities of the value chain right from R&D to the post-production services into one data model,” said Klein, “thereby creating a quasi-parallel approach.”

Supporting the transition

There is growing enthusiasm among Singaporean manufacturers for Industry 4.0, and many are currently keen to acquire the knowledge and expertise needed for the transition. This is where experienced tech organisations play a vital role.

One such organisation is Siemens ZerOne.DesIgn™, the first Digital Factory Manufacturing Design Consultancy of its kind that will help companies to assess the current state of their facilities, then develop a roadmap to digitalise their factories.

Once the operations are digitalised, clients are provided with a dashboard that displays smart information from across the value chain, along with data analytics. This enables manufacturers to make timely decisions to improve their quality, productivity, flexibility and throughput time.

Since its launch late last year, Siemens has seen positive interests and sign-ups from customers in Singapore and the rest of the region, indicating that the industry is beginning to realise the importance of digitalisation to remain competitive.

Finding solutions for the region

Though some companies are already embracing the benefits of Industry 4.0, they still find it difficult to completely optimise their manufacturing processes. One of the potential roadblocks is Singapore’s minimal factory floor space. New technologies might be fit for purpose, but they may not be multi-functional or designed with space restrictions in mind.

“Most of the robots used in factories are equipped to do only one task, which dents the productivity, as companies need to manufacture not one but different products in that limited space,” said Chang Thai Nam, local division manager, Robotics and Motion, ABB Singapore.

Tech developers and forward-thinking organisations are overcoming these issues by directly addressing the needs of the local industry. Evidence of this can be seen in ABB’s Regional Robotics Packaging Application Hub in Singapore, which offers novel robotic solutions tailored to this region.

The hub’s lean palletising solution, for instance, allows robots to multi-task. When ABB’s FlexGrippers – a range of heavy-duty clamps and claws – are paired with any of their palletising robots, they can handle different items from slip sheets and carton boxes to pallets, all while using a smaller footprint and releasing valuable floor space. This consideration of space in the technology’s design is hugely important for local factories.

Unfortunately, the one-size-fits-all mantra also doesn’t apply to high-value manufacturing solutions. Companies have to combat both region-specific and industry-specific challenges with customised approaches.

For instance, in the Asian meat industry, manufacturers use different technologies to pack their products compared to similar companies in other parts of the world. “The texture of dried pork meat snacks in Asia is different from that of Europe, as it is oilier and hence more difficult to pick and pack,” said Thai Nam.

After extensive research, ABB developed a specially designed suction pump or gripper that could pick the meat up at high speed. It is localised solutions such as these which enable companies of all sizes, and in all regions, to take advantage of Industry 4.0 in a significant way.

Scaling up to a larger region

Singapore’s business environment is conducive to the development of innovative manufacturing solutions. The city-state also provides a springboard to the Asian region; successful technologies and business models can logically be scaled up from here.

Various partnership platforms are available in Singapore, where industry players and manufacturers can jointly collaborate, share resources and achieve technology breakthroughs in a better way. For instance, ABB is part of the Advanced Remanufacturing & Technology Centre (ARTC), where they work closely with other multinational corporations (MNCs) to develop new applications for remanufacturing, with the aim of reducing cost and material use.

“If the solutions we develop from ARTC are successful in Singapore, we go ahead and deploy them in other parts of the region,” said Thai Nam.

Singapore’s ongoing Industry 4.0 initiatives, along with its experimental customer base and dedicated workforce, can be the perfect catalyst to transform the city-state into Asia’s future manufacturing powerhouse. In the years to come, MNCs can continue to leverage on these opportunities to expand their manufacturing footprint to the rest of the region.