Navigating the ‘Valley of Death’

Article By : Matthew Burgess

Now entering the final stages of the RIE 2020 plan; Singapore have used their huge R&D to pioneer in manufacturing technologies to lead Asia in Industry 4.0.

With the aim of increasing Singapore’s economic competitiveness through the development of science and technology, the National Technology Plan was launched in 1991. The S$2 billion research and development (R&D) fund, to be used over a 5-year period, set Singapore on a path to becoming one of the most innovative nations in the world.

Now referred to as the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) plan, 28 years later Singapore now commits 1% of GDP (S$19 billion) to R&D. With an eye on further economic growth, the RIE 2020 Plan has focused on key areas such as advanced manufacturing, biomedical sciences and urban solutions.

As part of the RIE 2020 plan the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) have developed two model factories – one at SimTech and the other at the Advanced Re-manufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC).

ARTC Shop Floor

The Shop-floor at the Advanced Re-manufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC)

Operating as a public-private partnership platform to co-develop and test-bed advanced manufacturing technologies, the model factories feature technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, autonomous guided vehicles and big data analytics. To date, A*STAR has engaged over 1,700 companies and undertaken projects with more than 70 companies through this initiative.

Looking to bridge the gap between technologies developed at Universities and industry deployment, the ARTC operate at technology readiness levels 5-7, otherwise known as the ‘Valley of Death’. To minimise their failure rate, ARTC maintain a strict 6-12 months project duration time, anything longer will be split into bitesize chunks and developed separately.

The projects which are carried out at ARTC are introduced by their members through a weighted voting system which is predicated on annual membership fees. But no matter how much a company pays in fees, the IP is owned by ARTC and all members gain a royalty free license whilst they remain a member. What’s novel about this arrangement is that it has allowed many SMEs the same access to cutting edge technology as industry juggernauts such as Rolls Royce and Coca-Cola.

Harnessing data

The ability for members to pick and choose projects has proven to be very alluring but a key factor which keeps attracting new members is the high-level equipment all in one place.

Virtual Manufacturing Lab

The Virtual Manufacturing Lab

The Virtual Manufacturing Lab is one such tool.

Enabling 3D virtual models of the factory floor, the Virtual Manufacturing Lab helps companies visualise the impact of digital transformation, especially in the areas such as employee training and production planning. A new engineer is able to interact with a life-sized virtual model of the factory floor and learn in a safe environment without impeding operations on the factory floor.

The truly innovative element of the virtual lab is that it allows for a trainer to communicate with and train multiple engineers simultaneously, from anywhere in the world.

Taking it one step further, the Virtual Manufacturing Lab allows companies to better manage resource-planning through digital twin technology. By utilising big data, an operator can monitor factory operations in real-time or even plan a new production line. With this level of connectivity an operator can redesign the factory floor to optimise factory assets, even testing the layout before they are physically implemented.

ARTC have a variety of robots at work in the Model Factory, all part of their attempts to digitise the assembly line and create the factory of the future. There are currently over 20 different types of robots being used and all provided by a variety of members as to not to play favourites. These range from non-caged robots which are fitted with a touch sensitive ‘skin’ and sensors that allow them to work alongside their human compatriots to deburring robots which can be guided by a picture.

There are AGVs which can restock factory workers’ workstations when sensors register low stock levels and robots which can clean by shooting dry ice on metals which are too sensitive for solvents.

Manufacturing Intelligence Control Room

Manufacturing Intelligence Control Room

To truly embody the factory of the future, all of the separate segments of the Model Factory generate data and all of that data is funnelled into the Manufacturing Intelligence Control Room. This is a room which allows companies to really get a sense of the power of Industry 4.0. By providing a complete view of the entire factory’s operations in real time, a factory manager has all the information displayed on a wall of monitors.

Through the collection and analysis of data, the Manufacturing Intelligence Control Room is able the monitor the ‘Heartbeat’ of the factory floor. This feature is able to signify the health of production and alert an operator to any loss in efficiency. Through the data collected from digital twins, the system is able to anticipate equipment failure and automatically send a maintenance worker to the required equipment prior to any breakage.

Knowing that trying to keep up with change isn’t always good enough, the work by agencies such as A*STAR has enabled Singapore to pioneer in mechanisms that will power the factory in the Industry 4.0 era. With facilities such as ARTC providing a sandbox environment that allows the freedom of experimentation, businesses can witness the benefits from harnessing the flow of data without any downtime in their own factories.

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