At a busy airport with numerous flights arriving and departing every minute, the control tower plays a crucial role in keeping things going smoothly and safely.
Now, methods are being developed to apply this strategy to the manufacturing industry through a new programme called the Manufacturing Control Tower (MCT).
"At the airport, you want to be able to know which aircraft is coming in to land, which aircraft have landed. You're able to make decisions when there's an emergency," said Dr Lee Eng Wah, director of the Manufacturing Productivity Technology Centre at the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (Simtech), an institute of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).
Similarly, snap decisions are critical in the manufacturing industry, he said.
This is all the more important at a time when the Republic is looking for new ways to maintain an edge in the sector. The manufacturing sector shrank by 5.2 per cent for all of last year, reversing the 2.7 per cent growth in 2014. Foreign investors have nonetheless found the sector attractive, and manufacturing pulled in $8.3 billion in fixed asset investment commitments last year, up from $6.8 billion in 2014.
"Manufacturing continues to be an important pillar of Singapore's economy," stressed Professor Tan Sze Wee, executive director of A*Star's Science and Engineering Research Council. He pointed out that $3.3 billion has been allocated to advanced manufacturing and engineering in the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 five-year funding plan by the National Research Foundation.
The MCT will be a cornerstone in the effort to stay competitive. It does this through a suite of apps that obtain and analyse real-time data on everything from equipment performance to market trends, leading to smooth operations and customer satisfaction.
Dr Lee said the programme would not only diagnose problems but also recommend solutions for better and faster decisions by people. The MCT can also be set up to extract data from the same type of machine being used in different parts of the world in order to discover weak points in the machine's design and operation. It would be very difficult to get this kind of data from a single machine as failure is rare, he noted.
Mr John Bizjak, country manager of multinational corporation Rockwell Automation, one of Simtech's industry partners helping to develop the MCT, said: "Our IT and automation solutions will enhance connectivity and productivity while minimising cost and risk."
Among the companies that will benefit from the MCT are local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Added Dr Lee: "Many companies, especially SMEs, do not have the ability to put all of this information together."
The MCT is being trialled at CKE Manufacturing, which manufactures precision machine components for various industries. "We find huge potential in the benefits that the MCT can bring," Ms Kwan Lifeng, CKE Manufacturing's enterprise development manager, said, adding that it allows them to monitor and control operations round the clock without having to be there.
Prof Tan added: "We need to look at ways in which we can continue to produce more with less."
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