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Industrial Transformation in the Asia-Pacific region is accelerating

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

We recently had the opportunity to attend the Industrial Transformation Asia-Pacific 2022 trade show held in Singapore. ITAP2022 is a sister event to the much larger Hannover Messe trade show, held annually in Hannover, Germany. Despite ITAP2022’s relatively smaller size, there was a lot on offer on the show floor, with multiple country pavilions interspersed with technology vendor booths, as well as regional distributors. Through several conversations and keynotes, most of our key takeaways are centred around a few key themes.

Singapore is a key driver for the region’s industrial transformation

Singapore, in many ways, is a perfect venue to host such an event as the country is currently at the forefront of introducing and implementing policies that will foster a new wave of future-ready industries. One of the areas of Singapore that was showcased prominently at the event was the upcoming Jurong Innovation District, under the auspices of the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) to the west of the island city. Jurong is fast developing as the industrial hub of Singapore, and the Innovation District will bring together multiple enterprises, manufacturers and technology partners.

Singapore is also embracing Industry 4.0 in a number of ways with initiatives led by multiple government agencies to help create “smart industry” and to foster collaborative ecosystems. The Smart Industry Readiness Index (SIRI), created by the Singapore Economic Board (EDB) offers a diagnostic tool for industries to ascertain their relative status and progress in digital transformation. The SIRI tool also lists 14 key performance indicators (KPIs) to help businesses learn about key standard, use cases and training resources.

Collaborative robots are now mainstream

One of the most striking aspects of the show floor was the sheer volume of robotic arms and collaborative robots (cobots) on display. Cobots are now becoming mainstream in ways unimaginable even a few years ago. Cobots as a key emerging technology for industrial transformation has certainly received a boost both through the pandemic and from the post-pandemic recessionary climate that is sweeping across the globe. The biggest issue is that labour availability is simply not a certainty for industry, in manufacturing and other verticals. As a result of these labour shortages and an increasing focus on driving productivity, cobots have seen increasing adoption on production lines, in warehouses and other facilities. The use cases are numerous and rising. The most common use cases demonstrated were for material sorting, packaging and stacking. The best part of the cobot value proposition is that once the upfront CAPEX investment has been made, cobots can be rolled out for specific use cases but easily “re-programmed” for future use cases. For example, a cobot programmed to sort/remove a specific component in an assembly line can be repurposed for doing similar work in a different area or for different parts.

Of course, no two cobots are the same! Behind the masses of robotic arms and cobots that look similar, it was possible to see areas of divergence. One vendor whose cobot demo was stuttering cited the lighting conditions as a factor for the stop-start performance of the cobot. As it turns out, the cobot eye (camera) was 2D, not 3D which was likely also a factor in performance. Another vendor, a German robotics company was displaying a cobot without an “eye”. Their position was that a 3D camera with machine vision would add an additional $20,000 in cost. their pitch was to adjust the production line and processes to suit a scenario where the robotic arm would not need precision but get away with degrees of sensitivity. However, this doesn't fit all use cases neither will companies shift their processes and lines to save only on cameras. All in all, a lot of exciting possibilities are not within reach for cobots but there is clearly a lot of technical and commercial issues that will need to be “optimized”.

The Industrial Metaverse comes into clearer view

With all the buzz around the metaverse over the last year, it has become increasingly challenging to see which use cases make real-world, not to mention, commercial sense. While we remain sceptical about collaborative meetings and conferences in the metaverse, the industrial metaverse, as a subset, makes a lot more sense. Some of the usual suspects were showcasing products and demos on the show floor, including Microsoft, HPE and Dell. We spent some time on the Microsoft booth with a view to understanding their move towards enabling mixed reality environments specifically for use in industrial environments.

Microsoft’s view of this emerging space is that the future will see the emergence of digital twins for the industrial environment as well as mixed reality for immersive experiences for employees and partners. The vision is to make the physical world “digital”, apply all of the data into advanced AI models, and convert that data into insightful and actionable use cases that will see shared, immersive experiences with 3D content and real-time data. Of course, in the future, no two industrial environments will be the same so all of these immersive worlds will also need to be “interoperable”.

We had the chance to partake of a demo for the HoloLens 2 device. At the outset, it must be said that the device took some time to get used to, not only in terms of the fairly large head mounted display but also to get used to the interface, with holographic content overlaid onto the glasses that can initially cause some cognitive dissonance. All that said, there are also possibly some limitations with field of vision, or the device may need calibration for every individual which could make it tedious. Of course, it also possible that some of us are just simply slower than others!!!

The HoloLens 2 demo was a training exercise to fix a faulty fuse. In theory, an operator with training would find the whole exercise very much do it yourself (DIY). However, training will be required for operators to get up to speed with the interface. In principle, there are a number of use cases that are possible. From training in isolation to live aid, to tutoring for consumers, to many more.

Drones, with love from Indonesia

We have been following the increasing availability and adoption of drones across the APAC region for some time now. But it was still fascinating to see the Indonesia country pavilion dominated almost entirely by Indonesian startups with a wide assortment of drone models and use cases. Indeed, there are currently over thirty drone manufacturers and service providers in Indonesia, with significant support from the Government. At present, most of the use cases relate to agritech for crop spraying and land surveying. However, there are also use cases already commercialized for oil and gas, exploration, mining, defense and other industries.

Some of the drones on display were re-fitted drones from DJI, the Chinese manufacturing giant. However, there were some original, made in Indonesia models on display as well. We spoke to one of these companies, UAS, who offer drone models under the brand name BETA. Most of their current customers are in the agriculture, defense, oil and gas and mining sectors, with use cases across exploration, land surveys, crop spraying and others. UAS manufactures their own drones but since the CAPEX investment to buy a drone is relatively high for many farmers and Indonesian enterprises, UAS is exploring a rental model for which they are projecting a $5bn addressable market, based on covering all 42m hectares of arable land in Indonesia. The premise is that there are several far to reach remote areas of Indonesia, both due to the fact that it is an archipelago but also due to the hilly topography. To cast the net wider and increase the total addressable market (TAM), UAS has come up with a rental model for different drone models. For example, a drone fitted for crop spraying could be “rented” at US$10 per day while one of the surveying drones could be rented at US$30 per day. The price differential is due to the different use cases. Crop spraying drones fly barely 3 meters above ground, while surveying drones go around 100m above. Surveying drones cover a much greater area, up to 25 hectares on a single charge, while the spraying drones cover around 3 hectares, because they are heavier and burn the battery. To round out the value proposition, UAS is also looking to implement a distributor model across Indonesia that will give it the widest possible coverage.

5G is not yet a factor for Industrial Transformation

The last but not least important of the major themes from the event was the relative silence on 5G across the show floor. While there were some explicit mentions of 5G and a number of inferences made with commentary about low latency applications, the simple truth is that 5G was missing at this event. There are two ways to interpret this. One, it is relatively early days for 5G to move the needle for enterprises looking at industrial transformation. Put another way, industry 4.0 is not dependent on 5G and enterprises have far more pressing matters to sort through. Second, the 5G hype machine has been on overdrive and its benefits have been slow to trickle down to industry. This can be for something as simple as affordable modules for machinery or that the number of use cases are still relatively limited to justify investments today. There is also the fact that 5G, or the true vision of 5G, as promised and evangelized, is still a couple of years away at least. Many of the core features that will be crucial for industries like time-sensitive networking (TSN), ultra-low latency communications, (URLLC), 5G positioning, sidelink, IoT reduced capability (RedCap) are not yet fully supported in chipsets and infrastucture, either because some of them will only be standardized with Release 17 of the 3GPP specs, or even if they are finalized under Release 16, will need more time to gain support and wide availability from equipment and chipset vendors. There is also the question of affordability, as limited supply keeps pricing high and mutes investment and adoption.

We came across a couple of prominent, or at least visible, mentions of 5G on the show floor:

  • Singapore Polytechnic – is an educational institution in Singapore and they were showcasing the fruits of their research work with partners like Singtel, Ericsson, Bosch, AWS and Milestone at their 5G & IoT Labs. Their installation showcased a number of use cases for 5G-enabled cameras and machine vision. One application involved a security use case, where 3D cameras in parking lots could be trained to read license plates of cars to predict fraudulent or erroneous parking by linking back to an edge application hosted on an AWS Snowdrop server. Connectivity was provided by Singtel in conjunction with an Ericsson core network server.

  • Weston Robot – this was probably the only booth to showcase a robotic canine that was equipped with 5G. it was also armed with a 3D camera from Unitree Robotics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, while the sales representative claimed that they had already shipped several of these models, he was less inclined to spend much time answering our questions on adoption.

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