Published: Apr 25, 2022

Singapore robotics: all you need to know


Singapore had continuously maximised information technology and computing for decades. To date, Singapore is the second most automated country globally, with only South Korea superseding it.

Robotics solutions are supplanting the local workforce in diverse areas and industries in Singapore. Aside from using industrial robots for repetitive tasks and autonomous mobile robots, robotics solutions also include software robots for robotic process automation (RPA) and chatbots (or AI bots).

With the relentless advances in the intertwined domains of data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and robotics in the AI hub and technology centre that is the island state of Singapore, we can surely expect further leaps from this robotics powerhouse.

Why is Singapore Pursuing Robotics?

Singapore's Smart Nation Initiative includes various government-led efforts to fully harness the developments in computing. It aims to promote the nation's interest via automation, innovative technologies, and research. Through its three pillars of the Digital Society, Digital Economy, and Digital Government, the initiative seeks to realise the transformation in key areas of health, transport, urban solutions, public spaces, finance, and education through the use of digital technologies. The initiative continues to be extremely successful, which led to Singapore's top awards.

Moreover, the initiative seeks to strengthen Singapore's "Academia-Industry-Government Nexus" through its support of research, innovation, and enterprise. Government entities such as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) work closely with research institutes, international companies, enterprises, and academic communities such as the Nanyang Technological University. In turn, the Startup SG Programme provides an ecosystem of support that involves mentorship, internationalisation, funding, and the like to encourage innovation.

Robotics solutions to perform tasks, (e.g. industrial robots in manufacturing plants and autonomous mobile robots) are among the features that contribute to this ongoing success. Terence Teo, President of the Singapore Industrial Automation Association asserts, “Robotics can be a Singapore success story and we are well on our way to reaching that goal. We have the talent base to create it, the capital and investor interest to fund it, the infrastructure to support its development, the economic diversity to apply its solutions and the network to grow it regionally."

Furthermore, the Singapore government actively supports robotics through different means, such as its National Robotics Programme to which it granted a S$450 million endowment in 2016 and the establishment of the National Research Foundation. The nation also holds various major events in robotics, including conferences and competitions.

In addition to direct governmental efforts, Singapore's economic and political stability, outstanding global reputation, and advantageous tax system provide fertile soil for the robotics industry. For instance, the Singapore-based robotics company SESTO Robotics recently acquired an additional $9.7 M funding from investors. Singapore has institutionalised a drive towards technological advancements, for which the fields of robotics has benefitted in local and global terms.

Robotics as a Solution to Population and Labour Problems

Despite its many advantages, Singapore faces several challenges, some of which are ameliorated by the initiative, particularly via the application of robotics technologies.

Ageing Population

As of June 2021, the 30 to 34 year-olds represent the largest age group in Singapore. By 2050, the average age of residents is expected to be just under 52 years old. The ageing population will continue to be part of the workforce beyond the age of 62. This trend will create a "silver tsunami" with implications for industry, health care, and social services.

Low Birth Rate

By 2019, the fertility rate of Singapore was 1.1 and below the replacement rate of 2.1. The fertility rate has been decreasing since 1980. Financial considerations (e.g. having to focus on thriving in an expensive city-state) and time constraints for a good work-life balance (e.g., lack of time to raise children) are the primary reasons for this low rate. The Singapore government has offered cash incentives for parents and encouraged dating and marriage through Internet-based matchmaking services. These efforts, the improved educational system, and added support for families have not had clear effects.

Labour Shortage

Given the ageing of Singaporeans, the number of prime working-age adults entering the workforce will be insufficient to offset those workers who will exit. Manpower needs that could be directly supplanted or partially addressed by the use of more robots, especially autonomous mobile robots, RPAs, and Chatbots, are likely targets for science, technology, and research efforts as the nation braces itself for an ageing labour force.

Labour Gap

Singapore has relied increasingly on foreign labour, which accounted for 34.7% of its workforce in 2010. Singaporeans generally eschew 3D (dangerous, dull, and dirty) jobs, and these types of assigned tasks are among those that cleaning robots and autonomous mobile robots are especially suited for. During the COVID-19 pandemic, foreign labour hiring faced delays, further revealing the susceptibility of Singapore's labour force. Thus, real-world applications of robotics solutions and increased automation will be helpful for many firms, particularly local SMEs.

Robotics in Various Industries and Domains

Singapore's industries, economy, and society have benefitted greatly from robotics solutions. Harnessing fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies including cobots (robots that function in collaborative environments with humans) is one of the ways that Singapore pursues to strengthen its industries.

Robots are naturally suited for application to 3D jobs. By freeing up the workers that would otherwise be dedicated to performing such tasks, they effectively contribute to better allocation of human resources. Moreover, robots can tirelessly engage in their duties without the danger of burnout or overwork while their human counterparts can enjoy better work-life balance and explore more rewarding aspects of their professions.

Manufacturing

Singapore, a powerhouse with numerous manufacturing plants, has a highly skilled workforce and is a global leader in microchip and semiconductor manufacturing. It excels in advanced manufacturing, which employs Smart digital technologies for production and business activities. Those technologies include robotics, AI, the Internet of Things, big data analytics, and cloud computing. Advanced manufacturing also entails higher-value factors such as precision, quality, and intellectual property.

Exploring and expanding deep tech is another thriving domain in Singapore. Deep tech startups focus on patent-backed technologies involving hardcore scientific research. Covering areas such as clean technology, urban solutions, autonomous technology, medical technology, and life sciences, deep tech and its focus on prototyping is one way for Singapore to create niche advanced manufacturing.

Healthcare

In 2017, Singapore was the first to utilise a robot that dispenses medicine for an outpatient pharmacy system. Two years prior, the Changi General Hospital established the Centre for Healthcare Assistive and Robotics Technologies (CHART). CHART receives support from Singapore's Ministry of Health and its Economic Development Board as it continues to establish ways to integrate Smart solutions (including robotics) to automate tasks, improve outcomes, and develop assistive and rehabilitative robotics to assist and improve the current healthcare system and anticipate future challenges from an ageing population.

Robotics solutions are employed in different healthcare areas including dispensing medicines, assistive technologies, staff scheduling, and billing and claims. The pandemic highlighted the benefits of robotics in reducing the exposure of healthcare staff to infection as well as its ability to assume tasks related to nursing and disinfection. SingHealth, the largest group of healthcare providers in Singapore, even deploys robots for patient reminders and non-urgent patient requests. CHART is also developing a standardised healthcare robotics middleware for a platform that integrates robotics and medical systems into Singapore's Smart health systems.

Given its ageing population, Singapore is focusing on Smart solutions, including the use of robots, in developing healthcare-related technologies that will benefit not just patients but also staff through better service delivery, enhanced healthcare outcomes, and reduced workload.

Service

Robotics has been crucial in augmenting the Singaporean workforce in various domains, especially for the performance of 3D jobs. Beyond performing programmed tasks, autonomous robots deployed in many services can adapt to their environment and to user requirements. With the advancements in data analytics, cybersecurity, AI, and deep tech, we can expect Singapore to be at the forefront of innovative technologies that provide efficient and effective service and personalised assistance.

Hospitality

As part of hospitality technology, hotel robots have been employed for frontline services, as well as for housekeeping and maintenance work. Aside from their novelty factor, they offer dependable customer service. As Chatbots, they perform information dissemination (including marketing), facilitate client bookings and requests, and offer language-related assistance. Cleaner robots reduce housekeeping and sanitation-related staff workload.

Dangerous Jobs

The COVID-19 pandemic cemented the usefulness of robots that can engage in endeavours that would be too difficult or risky, even achieve those that would be impossible for humans including working in extremely hazardous environments. Robots were relied upon to deliver services and even conduct disinfection in Singapore during the pandemic, thereby undoubtedly contributing to the extraordinary success of the country's response to COVID.

Homes

Cleaning robots have understandably gained popularity for their efficiency and cost-effectiveness in terms of time and manpower. Bots are also applied in the human-computer interface of Smart home solutions, such as controlling different fixtures via Smartphones. With the focus on supporting the continued independence of an ageing population and providing health care and social support via technology, robotics is likely to feature in related service delivery in the homes of the future.

How is Robotics in Singapore Being Supported?

As a feature of its Smart Nation Initiative, robotics in Singapore is backed by a fleshed-out policy, various government agencies, one of the richest economies in the world, and an excellent reputation as an enterprise hub. Moreover, the initiative's support for an Academia-Industry-Government Nexus creates a highly conducive environment for the collaboration and co-creation of these three domains.

Funding and Financial Support

As indicated earlier, government, enterprise, and academia all lend support for the development of robotics in Singapore. Examples of government agencies include the CHART, A*STAR, and the Smart Nation Programme Office. The National Robotics Programme, through its Industry Transformation Program, provides funding to enterprises to promote innovation. Financial and tax incentives are also in place to encourage the involvement of SMEs.

Partnerships

Different programs facilitate productive partnerships between the private and public sectors from within and beyond Singapore for developing robotics. For instance, the partnership between Hanwa Robotics of Korea and the PBA Group of Singapore led to Singapore's first robot production facility in 2018. SESTO Robotics has generated funding for its expansion to the European and German markets. Of course, many associations among government agencies, educations providers, private enterprises (e.g. SESTO Robotics), start ups, and the other sectors of society were forged to promote robotics technologies and research.

Education

All six of Singapore's public universities offer robotics-related courses. Aside from the science and technology degrees, some institutions highlight the role of robotics in light of managerial and business issues such as organisational changes and supply chain issues. Providers of health education are also involved in the exploration of AI and robotics for healthcare.

The Future of Singapore with Robotics

With its firmly entrenched Smart Nation Initiative and its stable government and economy, Singapore is set to maintain its pre-eminence as a hub for innovation in robotics.

What We Can Expect

Increased Productivity and Efficiency

As robotics continues to gain widespread commercial and domestic applications, higher outputs with greater efficiency can be expected. Autonomous mobile robots can increase productivity and promote better usage of resources by outperforming their human counterparts for repetitive and time-consuming tasks, delivering services with fewer errors and for longer working hours, and by freeing up human resources for other tasks that are not yet within the scope of robotics (e.g., networking and superior customer service). Moreover, the advances in AI, deep-tech and assistive technologies will likely lead to greater functionality customisation of robots, thereby further expanding their sphere of applicability.

Improved Safety

Deploying robots to undertake more of the 3D jobs can enhance workplace safety by reducing the exposure of the human workforce to hazards and lightening workloads so as to minimise the occurrence of burnout. In the public sphere, robots have been used for diverse purposes from cleaning and disinfection to promoting peace and order. More of these functions could be assigned to robots, in line with their further evolution as research and development efforts improve robotic capabilities.

Enhanced Application of Automation and Robotics in Healthcare

With robots having broken ground into assisting in surgeries, we can undoubtedly look forward to more advancements in accordance with developments in related fields of AI, deep technology, and health science.

Further Exploration of the Ethical Aspects of Automation and Robotics

Singapore is an interesting laboratory of a nation that is intent on maximising scientific and technological advancements while contending with the danger of an ageing population and the needed influx of foreign labour. How will Singapore's Smart Nation safeguard human rights and dignity and promote self-actualisation as it enhances its existing initiative?

Possible Challenges

Below are some of the potential issues that may arise as robotics gains greater prevalence in Singapore.

Fear of Losing Jobs

As robots gain greater autonomy, they can increasingly become more cost-effective alternatives to hiring human workers. Singapore could expand its Digital Society vision to promote more intensive upskilling of workers to generate "future-proof" jobs that maximise soft skills and develop know-how that would complement the strengths of robotics solutions.

Inequality

The digital divide between those who are ICT savvy and those who are not can be mirrored in the inequality between nations that can and cannot afford to harness the advancements in robotics. Governments and international organisations and alliances will have to strengthen their partnerships to aim for synergy.

Preparing For a Future With Robots

As a technology centre, Singapore remains prevalent in robotics application, research, and industry and may shortly topple South Korea in these domains. Its Smart Nation Initiative must promote greater knowledge about issues such as automation, knowledge based robotics, AI, and big data analytics amongst residents, as well as encourage a participatory approach in the refinement of that initiative to better reflect the evolving needs and concerns of citizens.

Conclusion

Given its wealth, political stability, and Smart Nation Initiative, Singapore is on an unstoppable trajectory of prevalence in the field of robotics. This lion of robotic innovation will most assuredly utilise this immense capability to help ameliorate its weaknesses and ensure a thriving and healthy workforce and nation.


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