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In a challenging economic environment, it is imperative that SME’s work to be more efficient and competitive. One way for them to advance is through adoption of automation and robotics.

By Shermine Gotfredsen, GM, SEA & Oceania, Universal Robots.

SINGAPORE holds a reputation as one of the world’s most advanced economies. And yet even with its highly developed economy and competitive edge, Singapore has its challenges. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth declined from 4.7 percent in 2013 to 1.8 percent in 2016, outpaced by Indonesia (4.8 percent), China (6.9 percent) and India (7.7 percent). At the core of this decline is a slowdown in productivity. From 2011 to 2017, productivity grew by only 1.1 percent per year.

While large MNCs may be higher profile, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) make up 99 percent of all Singapore companies and contribute 46 percent of the nation’s GDP.  It is therefore imperative that SME’s work to be more efficient and competitive.

One way for SMEs to advance is through adoption of automation and robotics. Unfortunately, SMEs have been slow to embrace these technological solutions. This is due to a lack of in-house capabilities to identify processes that can be automated, as well as how to deploy and maintain them. Cost is another contributing element. Moreover, 90 percent of local SMEs say their day-to-day priorities are more important than long-term strategies to future-proof their businesses.

How Can SMEs Get Ready For Automation?

Start with setting business objectives, for example decreasing material wastage or reducing production downtime. Next, look at automating processes that are repetitive and do not require human dexterity or critical thinking. Then, find solutions that are easier to implement.

Collaborative robots (cobots), robots designed to work side-by-side with people, are lowering the barriers to automation in areas previously considered too complex or costly, helping businesses of all sizes. They have minimal integration costs due to their ease of use, flexibility, small footprint, are easily programmable and can be updated in-house. They can be implemented in a modular format, reducing initial investment and allowing users to gain more experience and results before making further investment.

Adopting cobots is further simplified with Universal Robots’ UR+ platform, an online platform that leverages UR’s global ecosystem of third party developers. The platform offers various resources from cobot end-effectors to vision cameras and software to help end users customise an automated application to meet their needs.

Shermine Gotfredsen, GM, SEA & Oceania, Universal Robots.

Funding and Training Support

The government has introduced and enhanced initiatives to help SME remain competitive. Budget 2018 has seen a greater focus on helping SMEs enhance their capabilities and encourage innovation with the introduction of various initiatives. Schemes such as The Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG) and the Technology Adoption Programme (TAP) give SMEs the resources to adopt automation and robotics.

The PSG provides businesses with up to 70 percent funding support, serving as an avenue for companies to make long-term technology investments. TAP, an initiative launched in 2013 by A*STAR, provides advice on relevant technology and matches SMEs with available solutions. Under the scheme, A*STAR also works with SMEs on technology implementation and scale-up efforts.

There are also robotics courses available in Singapore to nurture a pipeline of talent to take on new and higher value jobs that will arise from automation. Most recently, Universal Robots has partnered with NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), a network that funds skills-upgrading ventures, to establish the UR Collaborative Robotics Course. The course empowers individuals with knowledge and skills to self-deploy robotics solutions and maintain automation equipment.

Alternatively, one can also upgrade their skillset online for free at Universal Robots Academy, which provides knowledge on basic cobot programming. To date, over 20,000 users from 132 countries have participated in this programme which includes nine hands-on online modules.

Reforming Industries

Adoption of automation technology such as cobots can reform major industries such as precision engineering and electronics. The hospitality and services sectors can also benefit greatly with cobots, addressing the labour crunch and rising operational costs.

For example, at M Social Hotel, a UR cobot can prepare eggs sunny-side-up or as an omelette. Cobots are also being used by physiotherapists and Chinese medicine physicians in the country to assist practitioners with sports massage and acupoint therapy.

Cobots enable businesses to boost productivity, enhance output quality while improving employee wellbeing. They also allow businesses to automate repetitive tasks and operate round the clock unsupervised. As a result, employees are relieved off mundane and strenuous tasks and this gives workers opportunities to focus on higher-skilled, higher-quality and higher-paid tasks.

Helping SMEs Succeed

Automation need not be a daunting task for SMEs with the emergence of new robotics solutions such as cobots. Cobots are offering businesses the chance to transform the way they operate and compete more effectively not only domestically but on the world stage.

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