More manufacturers transform themselves digitally amid pandemic

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Hai Sia Seafood staff using the salmon filleting machine before they are de-boned and cut into portions for packaging. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - Workers had to fillet fish by hand at food manufacturer Hai Sia Seafood but this laborious job has been vastly improved as the company digitally transforms.

A new fish filleting machine has increased capacity five-fold after staff members moved from manual labour to learning to operate the equipment.

Hai Sia is just one of many manufacturers that have adopted digital solutions to help them to get through the coronavirus pandemic, which has cut the numbers of people working on site.

Firms in the sector embarked on more than 1,300 projects to upgrade and transform their businesses with help from Enterprise Singapore (ESG) between January and August.

This is about 65 per cent up on the number in the same period last year, ESG noted.

The main areas of focus are in technology deployment and automation, process redesign, and digitalisation solutions, such as human resource management systems.

ESG executive director for manufacturing and engineering Simon Lim said: "This shows that more Singapore manufacturers are recognising the benefits of industry 4.0-related solutions, and are actively taking steps to kickstart or continue with their transformation plans despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Pre-pandemic, the manufacturing sector had already faced the need to manage costs, the need for skilled manpower, and disruptions caused by new technologies and rising competition.

"The pandemic has ... accelerated the push for enterprises to rethink the management of their manufacturing operations and work arrangements."

Manufacturing contributes about 20 per cent to Singapore's economy and employs about 472,000 workers.

It grew about 3.5 per cent year on year in the first six months of 2020 despite the pandemic, supported by higher output in the biomedical manufacturing and precision engineering clusters.

The deboned and cut pieces of salmon being packed by the thermoform vacuum packaging machine. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Around 1,000 manufacturing firms have also joined SGUnited Jobs and Skills programmes, offering more than 6,300 jobs, traineeship and attachment and training opportunities to locals, according to the Ministry of Manpower's jobs situation report in August.

The pandemic has brought about some challenges for this large sector.

Mr Lim noted that safe-distancing measures have seen some firms struggle to maintain productivity as they had to keep the number of employees onsite to a minimum.

They also had to diversify their sources and remain agile in scaling or shifting production bases, due to supply chain disruptions.

"Some small and medium-sized enterprises in the manufacturing sector reacted very swiftly to implement industry 4.0 solutions such as remote monitoring, digital and automation solutions to enable them to perform admin work remotely and automate their production line to increase productivity," he said.

Hai Sia Seafood staff using the salmon filleting machine before they are de-boned and cut into portions for packaging. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Firms can start by taking a "bite-sized" approach to build capabilities progressively, Mr Lim said. They can start by identifying gaps and opportunities, before taking different steps, such as collecting data from existing equipment to improve efficiency to using manpower better to scale digital efforts.

Solution providers said they also have been receiving high volumes of enquiries from manufacturers.

Arcstone said it has seen five times the usual number of requests this year.

Chief executive Willson Deng noted: "By focusing on providing visibility, control and optimisation over a factory floor, we help bring about higher productivity, reduced wastage and improved quality and output for manufacturers."

He added that these solutions can lift productivity despite lower headcount and also help staff move to higher level jobs.

Engineering firm Hope Technik launched a system in June to help businesses detect people's temperature accurately and efficiently at high footfall areas in a cost-effective manner.

Mr Daniel Nia, product owner of the system and head of Hope Technik special projects, said: "Covid-19 has accelerated the need for discerning organisations to look for alternatives as more and more are realising the need for Industry 4.0 solutions to enhance their productivity and processes."

Solution provider Sigenic said it has received more enquiries this year "than ever before".

It provides a real-time machine health monitoring system to firms that manufacture semiconductor wafers.

The system precisely monitors machinery behaviour and provides an early warning of problems to prevent firms suffering unexpected shut downs, production losses and machine damage.

Chief executive Tan Boon Siong said: "Advanced robotic manufacturing techniques are a necessity, while the ever-reducing nano size product manufacturing is the next cutting-edge technology, requiring more accuracy and faultless repeatability.

"Against this background, the ability to effectively predict and resolve machinery abnormalities will be crucial in determining which companies will not only be more successful, but which will survive."

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