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Why is Singapore Going Robotics?

Emma is a masseuse at a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic. She specialises in back and knee massages, tending to her clients with a therapeutic touch that is equal parts precision and gentleness.

(Image Source: NTU website)

Edgar is witty, imaginative and, thanks to his keen knowledge of Singapore, can tell you where to get the best chicken rice. He was also one of the hosts of the 2017 National Day Parade. With such impressive credentials, he is an ideal candidate to front major events, serve as a guide at attractions or man service counters.

But Emma and Edgar are not human. They are among a rising fleet of robots designed and created in Singapore, and already put to work in the country. Welcome to Singapore’s robotic age where automation has moved beyond mere machines to human-like technologies.

Robotics as part of Singapore’s Smart Nation Initiative

The nation’s interest in robotics is part of its effort to become a knowledge-based, innovative, smart nation. An early adopter of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Republic has established itself as an AI hub. Today, it is the second most automated country in the world, behind South Korea. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), Singapore has 488 robot workers per 10,000 human employees, far ahead of the global average of 74. Singapore’s robot labour force is expected to double by 2021.

Robotics as a solution to Population and Labour Woes

Leading the charge in robotics is a strategic move on the part of the country to solve looming problems.

Ageing Population

Like many industrialised nations, Singapore is ageing. Residents 65 and above account for 13.7% of the population in 2018, up from 13% the previous year. This has placed the island-state as the second-fastest ageing population in the world after South Korea based on United Nation figures.

Declining Birth Rates

Compounding the issue is the country’s persistently low birth rates. It takes 2.1 babies per woman to renew a population. Singapore recorded only 1.16 births per woman in 2017, a further dip compared to 2016’s 1.2. The country is now one of the least fertile countries in the world, ranking 197th out of 200 in fertility.

 

Increasing Longevity

Meanwhile, the population is living longer. Life expectancy has been on the rise. Singaporeans can now expect to live to 83.1 years, up from 83 in 2016. Nearly two decades before in 2000, it was 80. A generation ago in 1980, it was barely 75.

 

Labour Shortage

The population trend means that Singapore is rapidly becoming a nation that cannot renew its labour force. As workers age out of the market and retire, the country will not have enough younger people entering the workforce to replace them. It faces a real danger of labour shortage.

With the seniors living longer and a decreasing pool of working adults, those capable of providing economic support to the elderly will shrink accordingly as well. Nearly 30 years ago in 1990, there were 10.5 workers supporting one elderly. By 2018, the number had shrunken to just 4.8 workers. The strain on the Singapore worker will only increase.

Labour Gaps

Singaporeans are among the most educated and skilled workers in the world. In 2018, it was named the best country for developing human capital by the World Bank, topping 157 global economies.

Accordingly, its people are also fussy about what they want to work in. Manual, menial labour is shunned; PMET (Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians) jobs are preferred. The service industry, in particular, is feeling the squeeze with positions no local wants to take up.

Foreign Labour Challenges

Opening doors to foreign manpower to fill the labour gap created new problems for the government. Locals, unhappy with the increased competition from foreigners for jobs, housing and transport, made their discontent clear. In the 2011 General Election, the ruling political party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), saw its lowest win – 60.14% – since Singapore became independent. The result forced the government to rethink its foreign labour policy.

 

Non-human workers present Singapore a way to overcome these population and labour woes, doing work the country no longer has workers to do or which its workers refuse to do.

Robotics as a response to Changing Landscape

Singapore is a forward-thinking nation. It is always keen to stay in step with advances and strengthen its global position. There is no denying or escaping smart automation and Singapore intends to harness it to sharpen its competitive edge.

Improve Productivity And Efficiency

Singapore may not have much but it excels in optimising what it has. It may not have many workers but it can make its workers more productive and the work more efficient. It may not have many workers but it can ensure its processes are flawless. Robotics offers an excellent way to achieve all this.

Industrial robots can work tirelessly with precision and consistency, delivering quality every time. Their efficiency also means reduced material wastage while improving productivity and safety.

In addition, they relieve workers of strenuous, repetitive tasks, freeing them to perform higher-value functions. Many hospitals in the country use cobots or collaborative robots that work alongside human workers to pick, pack and deliver medicine so their human colleagues can concentrate on the patients.

Draw Economic Benefits

Contrary to common belief, the rise of robotics has not led to a loss of jobs but to the creation of new ones. Worldwide, robotics is expected to create up to two million jobs from 2017 to 2020. New jobs sustain economic growth. Singapore understands this well and robotics is one of the ways it is driving development.

 

Manage A Changing Workforce

Millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000 – make up one in five of Singapore’s workers. Often called the strawberry generation – easily bruised like the fruit, unable to manage pressure or commit to hard work – their expectations of work are vastly different from those of their parents’. They want flexibility and eschew routine. Using robots to do the more mundane jobs allows employers to meet the expectations of the Millennial worker.

Meet Expectations Of Customers

Consumers are getting more sophisticated and the Singapore consumer is no exception. A 2017 Accenture survey showed that Singaporeans welcome AI, with 35% ready for hyper-personalised services. To be a thriving business hub, Singapore needs to transform customer experience.

Local bank, DBS, is among the first to do this. It has ventured into conversational AI with the creation of a chatbot that interacts with customers on mobile, web and Facebook Messenger. The chatbot provides information on products and services and doling out advice on spending in very much the same way people use social media.

With the seniors living longer and a decreasing pool of working adults, those capable of providing economic support to the elderly will shrink accordingly as well. Nearly 30 years ago in 1990, there were 10.5 workers supporting one elderly. By 2018, the number had shrunken to just 4.8 workers. The strain on the Singapore worker will only increase.

Man has long envisioned a world where humans leverage robots to enhance and optimise their lives. We have crossed the threshold of this dream and Singapore has every intention of being in the forefront of man-machine interaction.

 

How is Singapore Supporting Robotics?

Forward-Thinking
Cutting-Edge
Competitive

Whatever places Singapore in the forefront on the world stage, this island-nation is interested to invest in. That is why it is deeply committed to building a reputation as an innovator in robotics and intelligent machines.

 

Here is a look at what Singapore is doing to support the advancement of robotics in this next phase of the digital revolution.

Singapore is a forward-thinking nation. It is always keen to stay in step with advances and strengthen its global position. There is no denying or escaping smart automation and Singapore intends to harness it to sharpen its competitive edge.

Ecosystem

In order for robotics to thrive, it requires an entire ecosystem of support that includes Artificial Intelligence (AI), digital innovation and smart technology. Singapore is already establishing itself as a centre for AI experimentation and innovation. It has invested heavily in digital infrastructure. In addition, it is a highly connected nation. 97% of its population has access to fast and reliable internet connectivity.

This drive towards technology has drawn industry leaders in this area to its shores, helping to enrich the locals’ understanding and appreciation of robotics. In 2015, Singapore held the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. Self-driving golf carts that could carry passengers while navigating winding paths with pedestrian and cyclists were showcased at the event.

In November 2016, the city hosted the first Singapore International Robo Expo (SIRE). 2,000 people from 26 nations participated. Other global gatherings have since followed – Inside 3D Printing Singapore and Manufacturing Technology Asia (MTA).

Industrial robots can work tirelessly with precision and consistency, delivering quality every time. Their efficiency also means reduced material wastage while improving productivity and safety.

In addition, they relieve workers of strenuous, repetitive tasks, freeing them to perform higher-value functions. Many hospitals in the country use cobots or collaborative robots that work alongside human workers to pick, pack and deliver medicine so their human colleagues can concentrate on the patients.

Research

Research into future technology is big on the island-state’s agenda. In 2006, Singapore set up the National Research Foundation under the Prime Minister’s Office. Apart from developing policies and strategies for research, innovation and enterprise and providing funding, NRF also coordinates research throughout the government and across various industries.

NRF builds connections with robotics researchers around the world, too. One of its key initiatives is the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), a partnership between NRF and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The programme offers four-year graduate fellowships which cover tuition for students at the affiliated schools as well as undergraduate and postdoctoral research fellowships.

Singapore is also home to Asia’s first centre for testing and developing new manufacturing technologies. The Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC) is led by the country’s main R&D body, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in partnership with Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The collaboration aims to increase the adoption of advanced processes and robotics.

There are other robotics research facilities as well including research universities like NTU, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Polytechnic (SP). These have seen several breakthroughs.

NTU’s Robotics Research Centre developed a revolutionary bio-inspired robotic sock. The wearable tech has soft actuators that mimic the tentacle movements of corals that promote blood circulation by helping lower leg muscles to contract, preventing bedridden people from developing deep vein thrombosis.

NTU also partnered Singapore-based engineering firm, Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd, to form an advanced robotics and autonomous systems laboratory. The collaboration is aimed at developing the next generation of robots through new technologies, generating new products and services, and increasing employment opportunities for researchers and scientists while providing exposure to students in industrial R&D.

At NUS, the Advanced Robotics Centre introduced a swan-like GPS-guided robot that can take water measurements and transmit the results wirelessly while being entirely unobtrusive.

At the Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology, a research facility at NUS, surgical robots and robotic devices that help people cope with injuries and disabilities have been developed. One such device is a portable knee-ankle-foot robot designed for gait rehabilitation.

Talent Scouting

Understanding the importance of networking and partnership to foster exchange of ideas and provide support, Singapore has created several platforms for such purposes. Launchpad Robotics Centre was established in 2018 to let start-ups in the robotics and automation sector have greater access to support, innovative technologies and communication networks. The 1,600-square-foot centre has a marker space with a range of equipment, co-working spaces and even a display area.

There are private platforms as well. The Singapore Industrial Automation Association (SIAA) is one such organisation propelling the country’s robotics endeavours. Its 500 active members companies and professional include most of the Republic’s major automation and electronics businesses and Singapore-based units of several international manufacturers. SIAA brings these players in automation, IoT and robotics in the business community together through events such as sharing sessions, study trips and collaborations.

The Robotics Automation Centre of Excellence (RACE) is a not-for-profit training academy set up by Singapore-based PBA (Precision Bearings and Automation) Group. RACE helps smaller business and factory owners understand more about the various robotics solutions available through training, mentorship and partnerships. Companies can also try out robots before committing to purchases.

Funding & Financial Support

Singapore has been more than generous with funding. In 2016, it pledged over S$450 million across three years to support the National Robotics Programme (NRP). NRP promotes the adoption and development of robotics solutions in healthcare, construction, manufacturing and logistics.

The sum is part of an even larger initiative – Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 (RIE 2020) where S$19 billion has been set aside over five years to support and realise research in science and technology that will benefit the nation. In 2019, an extra S$540 million was allotted to RIE 2020. The top-up is for the creation of AI systems to identify patients predisposed to chronic diseases and to the building of robots to perform menial tasks as well as the development of wearable sensors that can help in the early intervention of heart failure. This brings the fund for research and development in AI, robotics and supercomputers to S$900 million.

Also introduced in 2016 alongside funds made available to the NRP is the Automation Support Package (ASP). ASP supports projects that involve large-scale deployment of automation solutions that improve productivity and manpower efficiency. It includes grant support for up to 50% of project costs, capped at S$1 million as well as 100% investment allowance and up to S$15 million in loans for automation equipment.

There are funds that, while not directly meant for robotics, can still be tapped on by companies looking to automate. The Enterprise Development Grant (EDG) supports companies in their efforts to upgrade, innovate or internationalise. It funds up to 70% of qualifying project costs such as third-party consultancy fees, software, equipment and internal manpower.

Another such fund is the Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG) reserved for projects that promote productivity by adopting technology. Companies can expect up to 70% funding support.

In addition, NRF offers funding for strategic initiatives that go towards transforming Singapore into a vibrant R&D hub.

Education

In schools, robotics has moved beyond co-curricular activities and is now offered as part of core curriculum. In 2014, primary and secondary schools received S$2.8 million from the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) and SP to support robotics and computer coding education as part of the Robotics and Maker Academy. The programme, which lasted till 2017, gave 10,000 students from 30 schools the opportunity to understand technology through hands-on exercises and exposed them to computation thinking.

Postgraduate students can also look to training at a centre set up by US software firm, Salesforce, in various fields in AI such as natural language processing and deep learning where computers are taught to learn by example. The centre is the company’s first AI research centre out of its R&D hub in California.

Training Workers

Meanwhile, workers are being trained to embrace robots in their workplace and acquire skills so they can adapt to new technology. There are several courses on robotics available at institutes of higher learning and through the national SkillsFuture programme.

For an ageing society with intentions to improve productivity to create a sustainable and viable economy, and a secure and convenient urban environment robotics is an obvious solution. This is something Singapore is holding to with laser-sharp focus.

How is Robotics Changing Life in Singapore?

Forward-Thinking
Cutting-Edge
Competitive

The smart tray return robots may be the most visible robots in the country but they are by no means the only ones. Robots are steadily becoming part of Singapore society and economy.

Here are some ways they are changing the way we live, work and play.

Singapore is a forward-thinking nation. It is always keen to stay in step with advances and strengthen its global position. There is no denying or escaping smart automation and Singapore intends to harness it to sharpen its competitive edge.

Manufacturing

One of the key pillars driving Singapore’s economic growth, manufacturing is where robotics has taken firm root. Singapore has the second most automated workplace in the world, behind only South Korea. According to an International Federation of Robotics report, the nation has 488 industrial robots for every 10,000 workers. Findings by advisory, broking and solutions firm Willis Towers Watson noted that the number is expected to double by 2020 to account for 29% of all work done by companies in the country.

Already, Singapore precision engineering firm PBA Group has been using the patent-pending Golden Retriever Automated Robot (AMR). The advanced goods-to-person technology automates inventory storage and replenishment; and transports items within production, warehouse, fulfilment and distribution centres.

Panasonic Singapore uses robots in its manufacturing operations. Over three years, this has led to higher skills and productivity for its workers and a rise of median salary by 35%.

Czech manufacturer in Singapore, Multi-Wing CZ, uses cobots that work alongside employees in the production line of its tailor-made ventilation systems for radiators and other markets. The cobots handle strenuous, repetitive tasks so the human employees can take on more rewarding responsibilities. Smart automation has allowed the company to speed up production and manage space constraints. Its production capacity increased by 336 hours per year while production costs dropped by 10% to 20%. In addition, the cobots can be deployed without safety barriers and so reduce the amount of workspace needed.

In anticipation of future needs in Singapore and worldwide – there will be an expected 3 million industrial robots globally by 2020 – local companies are already moving into robot production. PBA Group partnered Fortune 500 Korean industrial robot company, Hanwha Robotics, to launch a robot production facility in 2018. They manufacture the Hanwha Collaborative Robot which can pick and place items, palletise, screw-drive, polish and dispense.

Singapore start-up SESTO Robotics has also jumped onto the bandwagon. It is working to develop robots that automate traditionally labour-intensive work in factories, particularly those in semiconductor manufacturing. These robots are being designed to manage materials between work stations and move bulky items in warehouses.

Research

Perhaps of greatest interest to Singapore is the use of robots in healthcare. With an ageing population – 13.7% of its people are 65 and older – the country runs the real risk of an elderly population with complex diseases living a longer time but with few caregivers available. There is an urgent need to use technology to both meet medical manpower needs and make healthcare more efficient and effective.

Since 2007, Singapore General Hospital (SGH) has been using a prostate interventional procedure robot to conduct prostate biopsies. Mona Lisa, the collaborative effort of doctors at the hospital and engineers at NTU, draws samples through the perineum instead of the rectum. This provides up to 90% accuracy and also greatly lowers the odds of infection compared to manual methods.

From 2013, over 15 healthcare institutions including two public hospitals – Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and National University Hospital (NUH) – have been using robotic drug storage and dispensing machines. These robots retrieve medicine from cabinets when prescriptions have been filled, update stocks and send out alerts when supplies are low. They also print and label medicine with patients’ details.

Changi General Hospital has a robot porter that delivers documents, drugs, specimens and linen independently.

Robot masseuse Emma works at NovaHealth Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic. She gives back and knee massages with a robotic arm equipped with soft silicon tips that are warmed to body temperature to mimic human touch.

There are more innovations in the pipeline. Stroke patients may soon have wearable robotic systems to rehabilitate them and help them in their daily routine. The ExoGlove is a robotic glove that draws inspiration from the movement of coral tentacles. It has soft actuators that can contract, extend and bend like the coral tentacles and help define movement with the use of air pressure. Its counterpart is a robotic sock that helps bedridden patients that improve blood flow and ankle mobility with robot-assisted ankle-foot exercises. This prevents deep vein thrombosis. Both wearable technology are undergoing clinical trials.

Under development also is a wearable sensor that lets healthcare professionals remotely monitor a patient’s mental state, movement and strength. This can prove useful in preventing suicides and make early intervention of other ailments easier.

NTU and TTSH are jointly working on a handheld acoustic sensor which looks like a stethoscope. Placed on a patient’s chest and paired with a smartphone app, the device can detect excess fluid in the lungs. A patent is pending for the device which has over 92% accuracy.

NRF builds connections with robotics researchers around the world, too. One of its key initiatives is the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), a partnership between NRF and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The programme offers four-year graduate fellowships which cover tuition for students at the affiliated schools as well as undergraduate and postdoctoral research fellowships.

Singapore is also home to Asia’s first centre for testing and developing new manufacturing technologies. The Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC) is led by the country’s main R&D body, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in partnership with Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The collaboration aims to increase the adoption of advanced processes and robotics.

There are other robotics research facilities as well including research universities like NTU, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Polytechnic (SP). These have seen several breakthroughs.

NTU’s Robotics Research Centre developed a revolutionary bio-inspired robotic sock. The wearable tech has soft actuators that mimic the tentacle movements of corals that promote blood circulation by helping lower leg muscles to contract, preventing bedridden people from developing deep vein thrombosis.

NTU also partnered Singapore-based engineering firm, Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd, to form an advanced robotics and autonomous systems laboratory. The collaboration is aimed at developing the next generation of robots through new technologies, generating new products and services, and increasing employment opportunities for researchers and scientists while providing exposure to students in industrial R&D.

At NUS, the Advanced Robotics Centre introduced a swan-like GPS-guided robot that can take water measurements and transmit the results wirelessly while being entirely unobtrusive.

At the Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology, a research facility at NUS, surgical robots and robotic devices that help people cope with injuries and disabilities have been developed. One such device is a portable knee-ankle-foot robot designed for gait rehabilitation.

Service Industry

Singapore’s service industry, which suffers from chronic manpower shortage, has turned to robots as well. Apart from smart tray return robots at food courts, robots are being used to clean floors at coffee shops as well. FoodTastic at Choa Chu Kang Avenue 1 uses a red Elmo-looking automatic floor cleaning robot to help its human cleaners.

Rong Heng Seafood Restaurant at East Coast Park made the news in 2016 when it introduced robot waiters to meet its manpower needs. The robots, which speak Mandarin, deliver food, collect dirty dishes and can even entertain diners.

The world’s first socially autonomous robot, Nadine, created by scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is a receptionist at the Institute of Media Innovation (IMI). 1.7 metres tall and bearing a remarkable resemblance to its creator Professor Nadia Thalmann, director of IMI, Nadine can express moods and emotions, recognise faces, remember past conversations, and react to situations.

DBS Bank has a chatbot that interacts through Facebook Messenger. It can answer customers’ banking questions, provide answers about products and services, dispense advice on spending and make payments.

At Crosscoop Singapore, a humanoid robot named Nao sits at the reception providing information on a range of topics from preferred accounting firms to where to eat.

Hospitality Industry

Robots are working in hotels, too. Park Avenue Rochester Hotel uses robots with driverless technology for deliveries. Named Robie, the robot assists in housekeeping by delivering duvets, pillow cases and towels; and transporting waste and bulky items between floors. Its robot co-worker is Cobie. The automated steward delivers food to guests in their rooms and can handle up to three food deliveries a trip.

M Social’s driverless technology robot is called Aura. The Philippe Starck-designed hotel uses the robot butler to deliver bottled water, fresh towels and toiletries to guests. Aura has a robot co-worker employed in the kitchen. Ausca is a front-of-house autonomous service chef robot that prepares eggs for guests at the hotel’s restaurant, Beast and Butterflies.

Sofitel Singapore City Centre has its own robot butlers, too. Xavier and Sophie are responsible for delivering items to rooms and opening the mini bars. The ever-smiling robots can speak, answer questions and move independently using Wi-Fi sensors to find their way to the rooms. The hotel has two housekeeping i-robots as well that help provide back-of-the-house services to guests.

At Hotel Jen, robots Jeno and Jena ride lifts and deliver amenities and in-room meals to guests. Equipped with advanced sensors, they can avoid obstacles in their paths and can even make phone calls to guests’ rooms.

YOTEL Singapore’s Yoshi and Yolanda robots are the first in the world with Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM). Programmed to move autonomously and even take lifts to make deliveries to guests, they come with touchscreen, motion sensors and compartments for storage. Both robots have their own unique personalities and voices as well as facial expressions.

Andaz Singapore Hotel by Hyatt piloted a chatbot that helps customers from pre-booking right to their entire stay. The chatbot can attend to requests, and make recommendations on places of interest and food destinations.

Education

At schools, students are not just learning robotics, they are learning from robots. Nao, who works at Crosscoop Singapore, was tested at MY World Preschool in Bukit Panjang where it taught children through dance.

My First Skool Jurong Point was part of a six-month trial in which Pepper, a humanoid robot developed by Japanese corporation Softbank Robotics, taught the preschool’s six-year-olds. Using interactive activities such as stories, memory games, songs and dances, Pepper assisted the teachers in making lessons effective and fun.

Little ones are not the only beneficiaries of robot teachers. In 2014, Lions Befrienders Senior Activity Centre at Mei Ling Street became the first to test out RoboCoach. The human-sized social robot developed by Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP) students led the elderly in exercises using motion sensing technology. Since then, more RoboCoaches have been built and sent to work as companion bots.

Postgraduate students can also look to training at a centre set up by US software firm, Salesforce, in various fields in AI such as natural language processing and deep learning where computers are taught to learn by example. The centre is the company’s first AI research centre out of its R&D hub in California.

Dangerous Jobs

Apart from being able to work longer than humans, robots can go where it is unsafe for humans to. This makes them eminently suitable for dangerous jobs. In 2018, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) unveiled a new portable emergency responder robot, the Red Rhino Robot or 3R. 3R has autonomous firefighting capabilities and is set to work in teams with three other human firefighters. Also introduced was a Life Detection Robot which can help rescuers detect human life in urban search and rescue missions.

Research

In July 2015, a swan-like GPS-guided robot drew much attention when it was introduced. Designed to blend in with its surroundings, the robot can take critical water quality measurements and transmit the results to researchers wirelessly. Because it is guided by GPS, the robot will not check the same area twice, making it highly efficient.

Homes

Most may not think about it but Singapore already has robots in many homes in the form of robot vacuum cleaners. The robots powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) are part of a slew of consumer robots that include lawn mowers and pool cleaners. Nearly 100 million of these are expected to be shipped worldwide between 2015 and 2020 according to market intelligence firm Tratica.