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The connected manufacturer: Transforming business models with smart manufacturing

The connected manufacturer: Transforming business models with smart manufacturing

26 Jun 2017

Digitalisation takes centre stage in Singapore

At a factory in Singapore’s Seletar Aerospace Park, Rolls-Royce is making titanium fan blades for jet engines. It uses millions of data points to measure blade dimensions to the accuracy of half the width of a strand of hair. A robot builds 3D virtual models to ensure every blade produced is identical to the one before. Building on Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies, Rolls-Royce collects half a terabyte of data for every fan blade made, and engineers analyse data fed back from engines to address potential problems before they happen.

While Rolls-Royce’s factory may sound futuristic, digitalised manufacturing processes are fast becoming the norm – both in Singapore and around the world. Driven by developments in areas such as IIoT, 3D printing, and advanced manufacturing, the result is manufacturing that is faster and more flexible.

According to Angus Marshall, vice president and managing director of Siemens PLM Software for ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand, digitalisation is the next big leap in smart manufacturing.

“Digitalisation is an opportunity to change business models by making manufacturing more connected,” he says. “It’s a powerful competitive advantage – you get data back, as well as insights to understand what you should do and what you should change.”

The trend is also burgeoning as manufacturers look at making supply chains more efficient.

IIoT fuels manufacturing’s move to digital

Businesses across Southeast Asia appear particularly open to adopting new manufacturing technologies, especially those driven by IIoT. Frost & Sullivan forecasts IoT use in the region will increase by 35 percent annually across industries, which in turn will create more opportunities to weave digitalisation into existing value chains.

Progress is already underway. Many machines on Singapore’s factory floors already harness IIoT to collate, organise and relay data on manufacturing processes. This data offers greater visibility into factory operations, assists workers in detecting anomalies and gives early notice of potential issues.

According to Intel, in 2017, we could well see the integration of wearable technologies such as smart glasses to help workers perform complex tasks, and the combining of IIoT data with business intelligence to enable predictive maintenance.

Using product lifecycle management to make digitalisation more effective

Digital factories, however, need more than just connected machinery. Smart product lifecycle management (PLM) is also essential. By implementing PLM software, businesses can create ‘digital twins’ at each stage of the value chain, from product design to in-service lifecycle support. Mobile phone manufacturers, for example, can digitally represent a product’s mechanical properties, such as a casing or screen type, as well as create a digital copy of the product’s software.

By simulating the entire manufacturing process in a virtual environment, businesses can iron out kinks before creating a product in real life. This saves money and gets products to market faster.

Marshall predicts businesses will soon be able to create digital twins of the electronic parts as well. With Siemens’ acquisition of U.S. software company Mentor Graphics, customers will be able to make digital twins of chips and circuit boards, effectively weaving digitalisation into all aspects of product development.

Singapore as a hub for smart manufacturing

Home to a highly skilled workforce and successful private-public partnerships, some experts envision that Singapore will become a testing ground for innovations that will be rolled out in factories worldwide. Combined with the government’s willingness to invest in smart manufacturing initiatives, Singapore is on its way to becoming a regional hub for smart manufacturing.

The Singapore government, for example, has  set aside S$3.2 billion (US$2.3 billion) for advanced manufacturing and engineering as well as formed partnerships with multinational companies (MNCs) such as UPS and Rolls-Royce to champion smart manufacturing. Also located here is the Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC), which is helping manufacturers move towards Industry 4.0. Supported by heavyweights such as Siemens, ARTC helps businesses re-engineer products for a digitalised world.

Speaking to The Straits Times in January, chairman of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research,  Lim Chuan Poh, said: “We don't have the land to have a lot of the manufacturing in Singapore but this will be where companies do the most interesting things, the latest… and pilot them (processes or technologies) before rolling them out to their manufacturing facilities in other locations.”

Compared to countries such as Indonesia and Cambodia that have yet to transition from labour-intensive manufacturing (e.g. clothing production) to capital-intensive production (e.g. bioengineering and robotics), Singapore’s manufacturing sector offers high complexity and high value.

Transitioning to digitalised manufacturing

Digitalisation is at the heart of today’s connected world, particularly as manufacturing operations and workflows become more resource-intensive and complex.

Marshall says there is a clear imperative to act now. He believes that companies that fail to transition to smart manufacturing risk ending up on the wrong side of disruption. On the other hand, those that improve connectivity across the value chain are likely to be more competitive through improved flexibility, greater efficiencies and an ability to take products to market faster.

He also stresses the importance of viewing digitalisation as a strategic move, rather than a technological one. As such, executive commitment is “absolutely critical”. Once executives are on board, he recommends working with a partner that can digitalise the entire value chain – first by securing data, and then by exploiting that data to build digital twins for each stage.

“If you pick partners that only do a piece of the value chain or can only define one or two things, or you work with a company that might not be around next year because they get acquired, you won’t get value. You need a partner with experience and the ability to invest,” said Marshall.  

To realise all the benefits that smart manufacturing offers, manufacturing companies here are already beginning to take  steps in the right direction. With Singapore on track to become the region’s smart manufacturing hub, businesses that harness digitalisation to transform business models stand to gain a significant competitive advantage, while slow movers risk falling behind.