A handful of Singapore companies are taking steps to help manufacturers around the world build factories of the future.
These firms are out to ride the "Industry 4.0" wave sweeping global manufacturing - a fourth industrial revolution that will create "smart factories" producing small batches of highly customised products - where man and machine communicate seamlessly in real time.
"Traditionally, manufacturing systems have been very rigid - the machines are laid out in sequence and connected by conveyors," said Ms Eena Tan, business development manager at Pixel Automation, which customises industrial automation systems.
"But product life cycles are very short nowadays. If companies are going to spend millions on equipment to make each new product line, costs can really add up."
The company has developed a modular manufacturing "cell" to help manufacturers be more nimble.
Manufacturers will be able to use the same line to produce different products, and one operator will also be able to use the same machine to do different things.
MS EENA TAN, business development manager at Pixel Automation, on how its modular manufacturing "cell" works.
Instead of having to invest in an entirely new set of equipment for every product, this cell allows manufacturers to switch out parts within the same machine to make different products.
This means they can re-use at least 70 per cent of the original machine's components instead of having to write it off, Ms Tan said.
"Manufacturers will be able to use the same line to produce different products, and one operator will also be able to use the same machine to do different things," she added, pointing out that this will help firms save on labour costs and floor space.
The modular cell system will also allow manufacturers to make just one item per batch.
"There is a growing demand for highly customised products. We can no longer just stick to the traditional manufacturing approach of making thousands of pieces at one go," said Ms Tan.
Pixel Automation developed this in-house over the course of a year, with help from enterprise development agency Spring Singapore.
The company is in talks with at least one Singapore-based manufacturer keen on implementing the solution, and is also looking to take it abroad.
It was among six firms that went on an IE Singapore trip to Guangdong in September to explore business opportunities in robotics, industrial software and flexible automation solutions.
"We sensed that there are good opportunities there, but we'll need to go back to meet people again," said Ms Tan.
Meanwhile, Arcstone - another company that went on the trip - is "looking to expand and scale very rapidly in China", said its chief growth officer Brian Kim. The start-up provides analytics platforms for manufacturers.
Its solutions are "the digital backbone" that connects all parts of the manufacturing process - from machines to companies' existing software systems.
The Singapore-based company was founded in 2013 and has a presence in Indonesia as well as the United States.
"By next year, we're hoping to open an office in China. We see Vietnam as a target as well," he said.
Arcstone's "open and flexible" software is applicable to a wide variety of different industries and the firm has worked with companies in precision engineering, food and beverage, and pharmaceuticals, among others.
"As their customers require products at a faster speed, of better quality, companies have to look beyond what they're used to doing in order to meet those demands," noted Mr Kim, adding that a lot of Singapore manufacturers have grown over many decades, "but what got them here will not get them to the next stage".
Singapore manufacturers need to adopt Industry 4.0 to remain globally competitive, said Mr Wu Hongyi, IE Singapore's Frankfurt centre director. "Most manufacturers here are only at Industry 2.5, maybe 3.0," he added.
To help, IE is linking firms here with technology expertise and solutions providers in Germany, which started its Industry 4.0 push about three years ago. "Back then, German firms shared the same concerns and challenges as Singapore companies today," Mr Wu said.
The agency is also helping advanced manufacturing firms here look for customers in new markets, particularly in China and South- east Asia, he added.