November 07, 2017      

Bigger is not always better. Industry analysts talk a lot about how the U.S. and China’s economies of scale are important to the adoption of industrial automation, but technology can also advance from the policies of smaller, more nimble nations. Take, for instance, Singapore, which has been positioning itself as a gateway for Asian robotics. What lessons can we take from robotics in Singapore?

Last year, Lim Hng Kiang, Singapore’s trade and industry minister, said his country is an “ideal destination” for foreign companies to try innovations in robotics, artificial intelligence, and unmanned systems, as well as design thinking.

At the time, Kiang was speaking at a forum about relations between Singapore and Sweden, but his comments point to something bigger. Two challenges in particular are driving robotics in Singapore: labor shortages and economic turbulence.

Business Takeaways:

  • Robotics in Singapore is developing in response to labor shortages and competitive pressures.
  • Singapore’s willingness to partner with companies around the world could make it a contender in Asia alongside larger countries such as South Korea and Japan.
  • In addition, Singapore has proven to be fertile testing ground for robots in hospitality, self-driving cars, and AI applications.

Robotics in Singapore benefits from labor shortages

Singapore, like the United Arab Emirates, has a massive number of foreign workers and is looking to robotics. For a population of about 5.6 million, Singapore has 1.32 million foreign workers.

Many of these workers are taking jobs that could go to locals, so to “level the playing field,” the Singaporean government has been adjusting its policies for years. The problem is, locals don’t want the jobs that foreign workers take because they are perceived to pay worse and be lower in social status.

Last month, Japan-based Omron Asia Pacific spent $13.5 million on a new automation center in Singapore intended to develop custom production lines.

Singapore tests robot wait staff

About 90% of businesses in the city-state’s food and beverage sector are struggling to find workers, so these businesses have turned to robotics.

Chilli Padi Nonya Cafe has used robots to collect used dishes from customers and take them to the kitchen for cleaning. Timbre tried autonomous drones in its restaurant to speed the delivery of food.

Rong Heng Seafood Restaurant has deployed two robots called “Lucy” and “Mary” to conduct tasks in the restaurant, like delivering food to the table.

Koufu, a Singaporean restaurant chain, tested robots last year. Three robots roamed a shopping mall food court and took dirty trays from customers. Once they were full, the robots took these trays to the washing area.

Hospitality robotics in Singapore on the rise

Hotels and hospitals are also considering robots to cope with worker shortages. The Park Avenue Rochester Hotel last year announced that it would be deploying robots to deliver water, linens, food, and more. The hotel is turning to robots is because it has a housekeeping staff of 22 but needs a team of 40.

In 2014, three organizations in Singapore invested a combined $78.6 million (U.S.) and launched the Rehabilitation Research Institute of Singapore. The objective of the institute is to invest in technologies to solve healthcare labor shortages, with one of the main focus areas being clinical robots.

This year, the Tan Tock Seng Hospital began using an AI-enabled system that uses “small robots” to dispense medicine. It has resulted in an 80% drop in dispensing time for pharmacists.

Will worker shortages become even more acute in Singapore? Much of the developed world is facing a similar problem because of aging populations.

If more businesses choose robotics in Singapore, another question arises. Will Singapore develop its own homegrown robotics solutions, or will it seek out ready-to-go packages from abroad?

Economic turbulence leads to automation

The second reason why Singapore is turning to robotics is because it has experienced economic turbulence and needs a new “driver.”

Singapore’s banks face a huge crisis if capital outflows aren’t managed, claimed Felix Zulauf, a Swiss billionaire. The main reason is the slowdown in China, he said.

Singapore is looking for new sectors to drive its economy forward, and one of them is robotics. The country is already deploying robotics in construction, healthcare, and transportation. The hope is that robotics in Singapore will improve productivity and speed up economic development.

JTC Corp. and Nanyang Technological University have teamed up to develop the QuicaBot (which stands for “Quality Inspection and Assessment Robot”). The autonomous QuicaBot is designed to help construction crews find defects in buildings. The robot can analyze rooms in the half the time it takes humans.

The two organizations have also worked on PictoBot. It can paint a wall up to 10m (30 ft.) tall 25% faster than humans and doesn’t need time off at night.

In the education sector, the Singaporean government is investing in a robot called “KIBO,” which allows young children to program robots to perform different tasks. Singapore has made a concerted effort to be a world leader in education.

Waltham, Mass.-based KinderLab Robotics Inc. makes KIBO. This raises a question: Will Singapore import its robots or develop and produce them itself?

Autonomous vehicles roam Singapore’s roads

Self-driving cars has been a noteworthy area of robotics in Singapore. Last fall, Uber clone Grab announced it had partnered with Cambridge, Mass.-based nuTonomy. They are already testing self-driving cars in Singapore, and nuTonomy’s partnership with Grab gives it access to a large customer base.

The companies have offered free rides in self-driving cars to people within a designated area. They were offered for a few months to give people a firsthand experience of what it’s like to ride in a self-driving vehicle.

Karl Iagnemma, the CEO of nuTonomy, said he expects Singapore to become the first market in the world for self-driving vehicles. Will Singapore also be the first nation to develop regulations for this area of automation?

In March, Tokyo-based NEC Corp. announced that it had successfully tested AI to predict bus crashes. The system uses sensors on the bus and cameras that monitor the driver to make a real-time probabilistic predictions. This application also raised questions about about the ethics of monitoring employees in this way.

More on Global Robotics and AI:

Robotics in Singapore still growing

Labor shortages and economic turbulence are loosening its purse strings to turn Singapore into a gateway for robotics in Asia.

In March, the Singaporean government said it will invest S$45 million (about $32.5 million U.S.) to develop robotics and AI technologies to be used by the military.

Singapore also has a $450 million fund to develop robotics. In addition, Singapore-based Vickers Venture Partners has raised $230 million (U.S.) to invest in “deep technology.”

As Singapore develops its niche, know-how, and infrastructure for robotics, more companies and countries will gravitate to Singapore to test their robotics innovations in Asia.

Trade associations in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam are working together to develop the Southeast Asian robotics ecosystem. The country also worked with the Netherlands on the Singapore International Robo Expo earlier this month.

However, becoming a gateway to Asian automation could pit Singapore against other robotics powers, namely South Korea and Japan.

At the same time, Singapore has served as a launch pad for non-Asian businesses.

For example, in June, Montreal-based Element AI raised $102 million (U.S.). The AI company plans plan to use a portion of these funds to open its second Asian office in Singapore (the first one is in Japan).

Robotics in Singapore is developing for various applications through public-private partnerships and a mix of local and foreign firms. Will this emerging Asian automation player seize this opportunity to race into the 21st century, or will it be last to jump on the ship?