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Collaborative robots offer future to SMEs

WITH a competitive business environment and unpredictable economy, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in Singapore continue to face challenges in the form of manpower and cost constraints.

In fact, the recent 2016 SME Development Survey carried out by DP Information Group highlighted that 72% of SMEs identified manpower cost as their top challenge. The same survey also identified cost of materials or equipment and real estate as top issues for SMEs.

There is no doubt that in order to prosper, SMEs need to do more while spending less.

SMEs in Singapore are heavily reliant on their current and potential employees for future success. With an increasingly educated workforce striving for more each year, it is imperative that SMEs in Singapore provide meaningful opportunities to attract top talent who are looking for the most innovative companies to join.

As such, companies must ensure they are staying progressive to attract the best talent and maintain high performance, while keeping costs down.

Automation - a new reality for SMEs

The shortage of skilled labour has been a long-standing concern in manpower-lean Singapore. As SMEs strive to increase productivity and remain competitive, automation is an affordable and effective way forward.

Traditionally, many SMEs believed that advanced technology, like robotics, will either be out of their budget, will not fit into their small work spaces, or is too complex and will require too much effort to deploy. However, there are now several new automation technologies that cater better to SMEs.

A new generation of collaborative robots (co-bots) is an example of a viable option for SMEs, as they can work safely alongside humans and serve as a tool to assist in completing repetitive tasks (with consistent precision).

They can be used for a wide range of applications, from assembly and packaging, to quality control and testing.

They are also safe, lightweight, cost-effective, user-friendly and flexible; game changers for various industries, especially small businesses looking to cut costs while maximising performance. With such co-bots deployed, human workers can focus on other more stimulating and less repetitive tasks.

Big opportunities for small businesses

Technological innovations such as co-bots allow SMEs to stay competitive. This has become particularly important with the fast growth of other manufacturing hubs in South-east Asia, such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, due to their labour availability advantage.

Co-bots provide businesses with all the advantages of advanced robotic automation, with none of the traditional added costs associated with robot programming, set-up, and dedicated, shielded work zones. As a result, co-bots have comparatively lower costs, and faster payback periods.

In addition, the flexibility of co-bots mean that they are capable of performing a wide range applications based on a company's needs - from machine tending and palletising in manufacturing, to making thosai in busy kitchens - enabling SMEs to quickly deploy a cobot according to shifting market and production needs.

This also means that workers are able to upgrade their skills to take on more supervisory roles, while leaving such tasks to robots.

Taking advantage of such technologies will allow local SMEs to achieve longer term success through innovation and technology. In fact, the importance of automation has not gone unnoticed by the Singapore Government.

Among several opportunities, the Productivity and Innovation Credit Scheme is an example of government support towards businesses investing in automation technology to mechanise repetitive business processes.

The Automation Support Package (ASP) is another government scheme that incentivises the deployment of automation solutions for productivity improvements.

At the same time, SMEs in Singapore are also encouraged to look at their human resources capabilities and invest in re-skilling or training for their human employees.

Help is already available, such as a new scheme by the Robotics Application Centre of Excellence (Race). It aims to train more than 2,000 local professionals and technicians in the next two years to operate and implement automation in their production systems.

Today, there are several SMEs already benefiting from such automation technology. PLC Industries in Singapore, for example, was able to easily programme two co-bots to work efficiently among their staff and within their small production space.

Through this, they have experienced a 40 per cent increase in output within a year, enabling one human worker to now attend to four times the number of machines than before.

The advancements in automation technology and training schemes make automation more of a reality for smaller businesses, allowing them to stay competitive in the global market. A win-win scenario for all involved and a bright future for SMEs in Singapore.

  • The writer is general manager, APAC, Universal Robots.