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Singapore revitalises its manufacturing industry through robotics and automation

The manufacturing industry is a key component of Singapore’s economy, accounting for around a quarter of the country’s annual gross domestic product.

While the industry has enjoyed steady growth over the years, it increasingly faces challenges — particularly in the form of rising labour costs, a shortage of skilled labour and slower outputs.

To bolster the economy, the government of Singapore has acknowledged the need to promote higher productivity in the manufacturing industry and recognises that this must be achieved with a low dependency on manpower.

In response, the A*STAR Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) and the National University of Singapore (NUS)’s Faculty of Engineering have signed an agreement to establish two joint laboratories focusing on research into precision motion systems and industrial robotics.

The main emphasis of the new laboratories will be to develop advanced robotics and automated solutions to boost output and quality in the manufacturing sector — an aim that is aligned with A*STAR’s Industrial Robotics research program.

“SIMTech focuses on industrial robotics for surface finishing, aircraft wing inspection and welding systems for the aerospace and marine industry,” says Lim Ser Yong, executive director of SIMTech. “With the new labs, the manufacturing industry will have an additional avenue to leverage on the combined expertise of SIMTech and NUS to achieve higher productivity.”

Located at NUS, the two laboratories will bring together a multi-disciplinary team that draws on expertise in the fields of mechanical, electrical and control engineering and computer science.

Technologies will be developed for the medical technology, aerospace, marine and offshore and precision engineering industries, where the use of automation is not as widespread as in the automotive and semiconductor sectors.

A major bottleneck in the adoption of robotics technology by local companies has always been the time-consuming nature of training staff in programming for robotics. The joint laboratories will therefore develop an intuitive robot teaching method over the next three years. Using current platforms as a reference, the overall target is to reduce the time required to teach a worker how to program a robot by at least 50 per cent.

To build on existing robotics capabilities in the marine and offshore industries, novel robotic welding and weld inspection systems developed by the laboratories will be introduced, affording a two-fold increase in productivity and quality consistency.

In the aerospace industry, where high precision in large-scale components is crucial, the teams will create a robotics system that can be quickly and easily reconfigured to perform various tasks.

“We hope to forge a pyramid of strength in the fundamentals and methodologies of current and future technologies,” says Lim Seh Chun, professor and deputy dean of the NUS Faculty of Engineering. “The synergy of upstream and downstream research will complement evolving industrial needs.”

In the long term, SIMTech and NUS plan to establish the two laboratories as centers of excellence, bringing benefits to their targeted sectors not just in the form of cutting-edge technology, but also by providing education and training for a new crop of researchers.

“Given the faculty’s expertise and strengths in precision motion and robotics, I am confident that this new collaboration with SIMTech will fulfill a spectrum of industrial needs in the manufacturing sector,” adds Lim.

The A*STAR Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) develops high-value manufacturing technology and human capital to contribute to the competitiveness of Singapore’s industry. It collaborates with multinational and local companies in the precision engineering, electronics, semiconductor, medical technology, aerospace, automotive, marine, logistics and other sectors.

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