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Transforming for the Age of Innovation

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Designed to look human-like, complete with shades, this robot at Ugene Lab knows one thing: To do its job perfectly. Image source: Ugene Laboratory

Frustrated with not being able to find people to work for her microbiological testing company, Ms Eunice Ng decided to make her own worker instead.

In 2015, Ugene Laboratory, which does testing of food and water, worked with Kawasaki Robotics to develop a two-arm robot capable of doing what a human worker might do. 

It was the first time that a robot with two arms was deployed for the food testing industry, said Ms Ng.
And so far, the investment into building the robot, which looks like it was inspired by Japanese manga, has worked out well. 
The robot can go on indefinitely, as long as its parts continue to function and the electricity powering it continues to run. It does not pull a “black face or get sick and its accuracy is close to perfect”, said the company’s technical director Eunice Ng.

It is, in short, the perfect worker.

“Many Singaporeans don’t want to work in a lab, wearing a coat. It’s been hard to find people. So we decided that we will go ahead with building a robot instead,” she said.

 “One robot does the work of three people. The best part is that you just need to press a button and it will do the job. You can walk away and collect the result later.”

This frees up her staff to do other higher value jobs such as auditing or business development, she said, adding that many of her staff now see the value of the robot.

With the robot, Ugene Lab, which obtained funding from Spring Singapore, is able to do 35 per cent more work with its existing staff. At the same time, business for the company has soared, with clients impressed by Ugene Lab’s innovation and ingenuity.

Wanted: The Transformers

Ugene Lab is a shining example of what the Government is hoping to achieve with the transformation of the economy.

The world is on the cusp of a new technological era, one which will completely change the way economies function, influence how societies work, and revolutionise how people work, play and live.

But this also means that it will no longer be business as usual. Traditional businesses will be replaced with companies that thrive in the new data, artificial intelligence (AI) and automated era.

The Committee on the Future Economy warned that change is inevitable. With technology racing ahead, there is a pressing need for companies and workers to transform and innovate to keep up with times.

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, in the debate over his ministry’s budget last month, put it in stark terms.

“To be on the winning side, we need to keep crossing the technology gate, better and faster than the competition, so that we will not end up in the black hole of global competition,” he said.

The good news is that the message is being heard. Last year, Spring Singapore supported some 16,300 companies in their bid to engage in more innovative and productive work.

Take the traditional business of school buses for instance. The Singapore School Transport Association worked with the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology to develop a School Bus Management System.

The system combines GPS, dynamic bus routing, an in-bus surveillance system as well as automatic student attendance taking. The pilot of the system saw bus companies log in higher productivity, by saving time and fuel on their trips. 

In fact, one big area that can be quickly exploited for gains is robotics and automation. In Budget 2016, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced an Automation Support Package, which subsidises firms of up to $1 million.

In the past, only big companies such as automobile companies with scale and invested in industrial robots.

But the costs of robots are falling, making the technology more accessible for the local firms, said Mr Daniel Heath, managing director at Race Robotics, which provides robotic training and consultancy services for SMEs.

Today, an SME can get access to a smaller robot for less than $30,000, with grants from Spring Singapore.

“We call them co-bots. They work together with human beings, side by side, to complete tasks together,” he said.

 “I think we are seeing a growing understanding amongst SMEs of new technologies that are coming to the fore.”

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