New $18m lab in S'pore to boost digital manufacturing, aiming to make factories more efficient and productive

Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong (centre) being shown the A*Star-Arcstone joint lab by Arcstone CEO Willson Deng (right) on June 17, 2021. PHOTO: A*STAR

SINGAPORE - Digital manufacturing in Singapore got a boost on Thursday (June 17) with the launch of a $18 million laboratory that would pave the way for higher-quality, more user-friendly goods that get to consumers quicker.

The facility set up jointly by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and local manufacturing software company Arcstone will also look into ways of making the environmental footprint of a product more transparent.

Digital manufacturing is essentially about using technology to help factories become more productive and efficient, and reduce human error.

Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong said at the lab's opening the manufacturing sector is a strong engine for Singapore's growth. The sector registered a 7.5 per cent year-on-year growth in the first quarter of this year, outpacing the overall gross domestic product growth of 0.2 per cent.

"The ambition is for Singapore to move towards high-value manufacturing, where competition is not based on cost, but based on intellectual property, know-how and skills," he said.

The country needs a strong base of local manufacturing firms with home-grown expertise and knowledge in order to be relevant and to build a resilient growth sector, he added.

He commended Arcstone for its innovative spirit, citing its continuous investment in research and development.

"The joint lab will enable Arcstone to not only develop new products, but also help other local small and medium enterprises speed up digital transformation in their factories and make production greener," said Mr Gan.

For instance, one area the new lab will look into is the development of systems that can track the environmental footprint of the entire supply chain - and make that information available to consumers.

Arcstone chief executive Willson Deng said, amid the growing global sustainability movement, providing customers with data, such as via a QR code on the back of a product, will allow consumers to make a more informed choice.

He told The Straits Times: "We'd like to be that digital thread, to be able to leverage technology and peel back all the layers to understand, for instance, for a shampoo bottle, what exactly was the impact from the original farm or oil field or mining site where the raw materials came from, to the point where I picked it up at the store."

Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong (centre) with (from left) A*Star CEO Frederick Chew, A*Star's Professor Alfred Huan, Arcstone head of finance Jaison Kimura and Arcstone CEO Willson Deng at the signing ceremony on June 17, 2021. PHOTO: A*STAR

Digital manufacturing offers companies the chance to make more efficient use of resources - cutting down on wastage and improving energy efficiency, said Professor Alfred Huan, assistant chief executive of A*Star's Science and Engineering Research Council.

Just like how smart home systems allow home owners to easily monitor their electricity or water consumption and then manage their appliances accordingly, digital manufacturing gives business owners the ability to monitor closely the various aspects of the production process.

This monitoring - whether it be taking stock of the materials inventory, ensuring that machinery is operating well or doing quality checks on the final products - is usually done by humans.

But these processes can be digitalised and optimised using a suite of technologies such as sensors and artificial intelligence.

Take, for instance, the process of taking measurements for a car part.

This was usually done with a tactile probe, and the data recorded manually, said Dr David Low, chief executive of the Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre at A*Star.

"But now, we have the visual tools to begin to scan the entire car or specific components, compare that information with the master data and observe if there are any differences," he said.

Digital manufacturing could also allow for real-time monitoring of inventories, so spare parts or raw materials are ordered as soon as stocks run low, or determine when a piece of machinery should be sent for repair.

Arcstone currently has its own manufacturing execution systems that will give manufacturers oversight of their production processes.

But under the three-year partnership with A*Star, the aim is to "upgrade" the existing solutions with state-of-the-art technological tools that A*Star researchers are developing in the realm of artificial intelligence, for instance.

A*Star's Dr Low said public-private partnerships like this will help scientists tailor their research to industry use, and create solutions that can solve real-world challenges.

The lab will also place special emphasis on the user-interface for the system, making it easy to configure and use, especially for first-timers. This will allow other companies, including SMEs, to tap these smart manufacturing solutions.

Arcstone's Mr Deng said: "It's training the brain (smart solutions) to speak the language of the operators and the workers, and every single SME in Singapore."

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