The Future of Singapore with Robotics
Not quite flying cars, sentient cyborgs and Skynet domination in the style of the Terminator franchise but Singapore has a vision of a future in which robots feature prominently. The country’s determination to embrace robotics is part of its drive to become a Smart Nation, one in which technology enhances and empowers lives.
The island-state is marching into the digital age. Robotics is here to stay. But how far is the robot revolution going and what can we expect from it?
What we can look forward to:
Robots are already being put to work in Singapore’s manufacturing sector. With the government’s strong push in this direction, expect more robots on the factory floor.
This will lead to an increase in productivity. Precision engineering enterprise Feinmetall Singapore’s manufacturing plant experienced a 10% increase in productivity when it adopted automation. In an economy that has been registering flat labour productivity growth, the numbers are encouraging.
This is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. According to McKinsey & Company, manufacturing companies can see up to a 300% increase in productivity if they graduate to the use of collaborative robots or cobots and autonomous guided vehicles.
Robots can work longer hours, more consistently and with greater precision. With robots in the workplace performing the routine, repetitive tasks, there will be more efficiency. At KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), its robotic bottle dispensing system (BDS) which loads, picks, assembles and labels medicine bottles saves up to 8,760 man-hours every year. It has also reduced patient waiting times by half during peak hours.
Robots can be sent where it is too dangerous for humans or be used to protect workers. This means greater safety in the workplace.
Singapore has already been exploring the use of robots in dangerous jobs like firefighting and defence. The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) has tested out firefighting robots, exoskeletons that help firefighters carry more and move faster as well as a tracking system that can monitor firefighters’ location and vital signs through sensors on their equipment.
Singapore Technologies Engineering is developing unmanned surface vessels for the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) as part of RSN’s effort to create a fully unmanned mine countermeasure force.
Since robots can work more consistently and precisely, higher quality is to be expected. This will increase competitiveness and ensure sustainable growth.
NO MORE BORING WORK
As the Singapore worker becomes more educated and skilled, blue-collar, menial jobs will hold less of an attraction. Already, the Republic is seeing a labour gap with workers shunning non-PMET (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) jobs. Robots are a solution to this. With robots doing what humans will not, people are free to pursue higher-skilled, innovative jobs that are more fulfilling.
CREATION OF NEW JOBS
There is a real fear that robots will displace humans at work. But automation can also create new jobs. People are needed to train, programme and maintain robots. Data scientists are required to understand the vast amounts of information machines collect. Humans are still needed to innovate, resolve situations and make executive decisions. While robots will take over many jobs, it is also estimated that robots will create up to two million jobs worldwide from 2017 to 2020.
As new jobs are created and old ones are streamlined, those who can perform tasks that only humans are capable of will be more valued. Jobs that require the human touch, those that demand digital skills such as data mining, cloud computing and technology will command higher pays. A study by Boston Consulting Group found that new jobs created in advanced manufacturing will pay an average 50% more than those jobs lost.
In Singapore, at SATS’ ecommerce AirHub, automation increased its mailbag processing capacity by 300% and halved the time taken. This has allowed its workers to be upskilled. The former roles of forklift driver, cargo handler and cargo coordinator have since been merged into one and the new role now commands a pay that is 10% higher. Panasonic Singapore’s use of cobots resulted in a median salary increase of its staff by 35%.
What we need to address:
FEAR OF LOSING JOBS
This is perhaps the greatest obstacle in the robotic race anywhere. A study by McKinsey & Company predicts that one in every four work activities in Singapore will be displaced by machines by 2030. A survey by consultancy Willis Towers Watson also found that AI and robotics will account for 29% of work in Asia in the next three years.
The fear of being displaced by robots is a real one. It is true that new jobs will be created. But those labour-intensive, repetitive jobs in manufacturing and services that can be easily automated will certainly be slashed. Workers who feel threatened will certainly be resistant to any introduction of automation.
Robotics require sophistication and can be costly. As a result, developed countries are better placed to pursue it. This can result in a greater divide between the rich and poor nations. Foreseeing that possibility, physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk once signed a letter along with several others highlighting the need to balance research in technology with efforts to address the pitfalls.
Inequality can stifle global economic growth. As a tiny nation, Singapore is particularly sensitive to any shifts.
With robots filling the labour gap, there is less need for developed countries to turn to developing ones to manufacture their goods. This is good for a country like Singapore that suffers from labour shortage. It may not be good for third-world nations and the 800 million unemployed in the world, many of whom come from those countries.
Investing in robots is no small matter. A robot that stores and dispenses medicine, for example, costs S$119,500. Cleaner robots can cost as much as $85,000 a unit. It is money not every business can afford, particularly local SMEs.
How we can prepare for a future with robotics:
HELP WORKERS GET COMFORTABLE WITH ROBOTS
Singapore’s workers need to get comfortable working with robots. To help, companies like SESTO Robotics have installed cameras on their cobots to monitor the attitudes and reactions of their human colleagues. The data is then used to educate workers and help them cooperate with the machines.
Others have adjusted the speed and colour of their robots to make them more acceptable to their human counterparts. The robot butlers at Hotel Jen, for instance, are coloured to look like they are wearing uniforms.
Singapore’s workers need to have their fears allayed. Robots will not and cannot entirely replace humans. McKinsey Singapore noted that only 43% of tasks in workplaces in Singapore can be automated by adapting current technology. Workers need to be reminded of this.
TRAINING IN NEW SKILLS
Companies can look at how they can improve employee expertise to cope with the changes. This involves acquiring new skills, particularly in robotics and data science. It also involves training workers for jobs that may not yet exist as jobs get redesigned.
Thankfully, Singapore is well-placed to do this. According to the Economist's Automation Readiness Index, Singapore is the third most prepared country in the world for the coming wave of intelligent automation, just behind South Korea and Germany. The S$500 SkillsFuture Credit given to every Singaporean aged 25 and above is one initiative the government has in place to encourage local workers to get trained.
FUTURE-PROOFING EXISTING JOBS
Workers should be trained to do jobs where robots cannot and where humans do best. Analytical skills, problem-solving abilities and decision-making capabilities will be increasingly valued as will building relationships, showing empathy and written and verbal communication. Transferrable skills that can be applied to other jobs and industries will also help.
HELPING MANAGE COSTS
The government has in place several funding schemes to help companies adopt technology. This will help those who want to but cannot always afford to use robots.
In addition, there are other possibilities. Singapore company LionsBot International is planning to rent out its cleaner robots. At just S$1,200 a month, renting the robots will definitely be cheaper than buying one which would set a company back by anything between S$55,000 and S$85,000.