The wheels driving research and development (R&D) in Singapore's offshore and marine sector continue to turn even as firms wrestle with one of the most bruising downturns in recent history.
Industry veteran Heng Chiang Gnee, who stepped down as executive director of Singapore Maritime Institute (SMI) last month, believes that in both good times and bad, focusing on R&D can make a big difference to a firm's business.
Speaking to The Straits Times in a recent interview, Mr Heng acknowledged many firms are faced with constraints in terms of resources.
Local offshore and marine players - including big boys Keppel Offshore & Marine and Sembcorp Marine - have been hit by a dearth of orders amid the oil price collapse.
"But in the current situation, if you're able to seize upon it and build up your capabilities, you could well take the lead in the end when the upturn comes," said Mr Heng.
To support innovation in the offshore sector, the SMI has, for instance, brought together local research institutions and two major industry players here to look into and develop new and economical metal powder materials that can be used in 3D printing of components for large offshore structures.
STAYING IN THE GAME
The maritime industry has to embrace the technologies that are evolving, particularly in today's digitised world. If they don't embrace them, they're going to be out of the game.
MR HENG CHIANG GNEE, former executive director of Singapore Maritime Institute, on how firms in the maritime industry must continue to look at R&D, especially as economies all over the world are becoming increasingly digitised.
The project, which started in August last year under the SMI's $5 million Advanced Materials and Manufacturing R&D Programme, would help to reduce the fabrication costs of local shipyards, as well as the lead time of the offshore structure components required.
Mr Heng said firms here must continue to look at R&D, especially as economies all over the world are becoming increasingly digitised. "The maritime industry has to embrace the technologies that are evolving, particularly in today's digitised world. If they don't embrace them, they're going to be out of the game."
IMPORTANCE OF R&D
The broader goal, said Mr Heng, is to bring industry players and public researchers together to work on projects that can meaningfully leverage on the digital age. SMI is a key supporting partner of this week's Sea Asia conference, which will include discussions on the utilisation of big data and "smart" technologies.
"The hope is that in these more difficult times, people will still be induced to embark on new things that will help when the upturn comes."
In a separate interview, Professor Alfred Huan, executive director of A*Star's Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC), voiced similar sentiments: "Over this difficult period, companies will have to balance their books and see what's the best way going forward.
"But R&D will still have to carry on, so that by the time things come up, maybe five years down the road, they will be ready, and we will also be ready to help them."
Last October, the research agency and the National University of Singapore launched the country's first R&D centre for the marine and offshore engineering industry.
The new $107 million Technology Centre for Offshore and Marine Singapore, or Tcoms, will feature a next-generation Deepwater Ocean Basin with simulation capabilities, including smart sensing and data analytics. The centre is slated for completion in 2019.
The IHPC is working on a string of other projects in collaboration with industry players as well.
For instance, it is partnering Keppel Offshore & Marine Technology Centre to develop an advanced prediction tool for deep sea platforms. The tool, expected to be completed by the end of this year, makes use of technology to quickly and realistically simulate the impact of harsh environmental conditions or extreme waves on the structures.
The aim is to help industry players design semi-submersible rigs that are safer and more resilient, and allow them to carry out testing processes in a less costly and time-consuming manner, noted Dr Lou Jing, department director for Fluid Dynamics at IHPC.
The IHPC has also worked with Sembcorp Marine to develop a more energy-saving system to treat ballast water, which was commercialised fourth quarter of last year.
Under the rules of the International Maritime Organisation, all ships must be equipped with a certified ballast water treatment system before they sail across international waters. The new and "green" treatment system will help firms meet increasingly strict environmental criteria, and can be easily scaled up for different operating conditions, noted Dr Lou.
Prof Huan noted that with digital manufacturing being adopted by a growing number of industries, the offshore and marine sector, too, will have to do the same at some stage.
"If you think about building an oil rig, for example - it's 10, 20 scaffolds high, and you have people going up and down these scaffolds to inspect the rig. If you can replace that with say, drones, then that will solve a lot of problems. You won't need that many people doing physical labour," he said.
"And (with) underwater work, given the harsh conditions of the sea, the safety of the divers is an issue. So underwater robotics could be quite useful. It will be something important and I can see it happening."