Helping SMEs adapt with robots

While prospects for the manufacturing sector are bright, for the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) struggling to get by, words such as "innovation" and "digitisation" may seem meaningless.

Help is at hand, though. Economic Development Board (EDB) assistant managing director Lim Kok Kiang says the board is encouraging the smaller firms to adopt robotic applications.

One initiative under way is at the ABB Regional Robotics Packaging Application Hub in Singapore where ABB is working with SMEs in the food-production sector on their packaging processes, which are becoming increasingly automated to raise productivity and competitiveness.

Another initiative involves Danish firm Universal Robots working with SMEs. The robots, equipped with cameras or vision sensors, can pick up parts. This helps those SMEs which are performing precise processes. Operators with no prior engineering experience can program these robots easily.

Mr Lim points out that the growth of robotics also opens up an opportunity for local technology players to get in on the action, to see if they can develop solutions that will benefit the SMEs.

A machine from Universal Robots at work in a factory. Equipped with cameras, the robots can help SMEs perform precise processes. PHOTO: UNIVERSAL ROBOTS

Apart from these initiatives, the EDB has schemes to encourage collaboration between SMEs and the big boys. Administered by EDB and Spring Singapore, an ongoing supplier development initiative supports SMEs to attain the quality standards to allow them to qualify as suppliers to large local firms and multinationals.

The managing director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), Dr Raj Thampuran, is optimistic. He notes SMEs continue to invest in R&D, with A*Star transferring over 130 technology licences to SMEs each year. He adds that to date, there have been over 300 research scientists and engineers seconded to help SMEs, working at 160 companies.

Applied Materials' regional president (SEA) Russell Tham urges the agencies to continue with efforts to get SMEs - and especially SME bosses - to adopt technology. "Every technology inflection can be viewed as an opportunity or a threat. The single largest determinant of success in whether a smaller company can transition to a bigger company is the leadership bench strength of the company."

Lee Su Shyan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'Helping SMEs adapt with robots'. Print Edition | Subscribe