Traditionally, robots sit in the factory within a finite space and with fixed rules, a safe distance away from its human operators. Today, the capabilities of robots have grown and humans and robots can almost work hand in hand. This may have resulted in the fear of robots for taking over jobs or the loss of the "human touch".
Against the backdrop of the tightening labour market and rising manpower costs, adopting robotic technology could potentially boost productivity, in addition to strengthening competitiveness and generating growth, whilst retaining staff employment. Studies have shown that robotics and automation have made a positive net effect on labour demand in the Europe and United States regions1.
Robotics has been identified as a growth sector in the international marketplace. Having a headstart in building competitive and differentiated robotics ecosystem may prove to be beneficial. According to the International Federation of Robotics Statistical Analysis and EU Roadmap 2013, the global robotics industry is projected to grow from US$20b today to US$80b by 2025.
China, already the global leader in the robotics sales market, will continue their quest at adopting robotics, targetting to achieve a robot density of 150 units by 2020. The Republic of Korea and Japan are hot on the heels of China2. Japan, already a known robotics powerhouse, has plans to triple its spending on intelligent machines to 2.4t yen by 20203. Robotics is also one of the pillars of Singapore’s future economy, with strong government support in the form of the National Robotics Programme.
The path to adopting robotics – starting with cobotisation
The path to adopting robotics has to be a well-planned one, and a good starting point would be to redesign work spaces to allow for an inclusive workplace where humans and robots can work together in a collaborative and mutually reinforcing way – cobotisation.
It is possible for a degree of artificial intelligence, perhaps a form of ambient intelligence, in robotic technologies to create effective engagements between man and machine. With the current advancements in sensor technology, visual analytics, and machine learning, robots are emerging as a viable “working mate” in both traditional settings and for new applications across industries.
At Tung Lok Group, it takes only two chefs to operate a cooking robot that can prepare up to 60kg of food. Smarter robotic arms are being developed to ensure safety and to minimise errors and wastage, monitored by technically-savvy human controllers. Small business owners such as toys and jewellery makers can also save time by automating some of their processes with automated 3D printers. The possibilities of robotics assisting humans are endless.
Getting ready for the change
Like any form of transformation, stakeholders would have to understand the business' stance and embrace the shift towards cobotisation. Business owners, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs), must take the first step in understanding how robotics technologies can help their business stay competitive and look into the potential funding opportunities to ease them into the path of robotic technology adoption.
Small businesses can also participate in incubator programmes or training workshops established by industry leaders. ABB's Regional Robotics Packaging Application Hub features demo units to allow customers, partners, and ABB to run trials with actual products, assemble robotics systems, and run tests. Such innovation platforms benefit the emerging companies and are good best practices that could be adopted to fit their needs.
Before taking the plunge into the drive for robotics and automation, employers should start redesigning jobs and equip employees with new skills to prepare them for the shift towards cobotisation. They could also tap on funding and re-skilling opportunities available through the government or industry associations. In Singapore, we have the National Robotics Programme, which pledged $450m to help companies apply robotics and automation solutions.
Industry support is key
The transformation of the business should also be supported by the government agencies and industry associations.
Organisations such as SPRING Singapore has already taken steps to encourage more enterprises to adopt digital and automation solutions with its recently launched industry-specific roadmap. By partnering the Workforce Singapore to re-skill labour, the agencies will ensure a holistic transition, starting with the food services and retail industry.
The success of the first VendCafé, a food vending machine, is a prime example of the possibility of shifting towards robotics and automation. It not only requires 70% to 90% less manpower, but is also available 24/7 to consumers. There are already plans to launch more of such machines around the country.
1Study of Mannheim Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) and the University of Utrecht, 2016; and World Robotics Report 2016. Source: http://www.ifr.org/news/ifr-press-release/world-robotics-report-2016-832/
2World Robotics Report, 2016.
3Announced by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Japan’s Robot Revolution Initiative Council on May 15, 2015. Source: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-05-28/japan-unleashes-a-robo...
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Oliver Tian is the President of Singapore Industrial Automation Association, and the CEO and Director of HutCabb Services.