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Automation can help drive productivity and complement tight labour market

Dr Chong Yoke Sin, TechSkills Accelerator Committee Chairman, Singapore Computer Society | July 13, 2016
By integrating automation into business operatives, we are inching towards a less labour intensive, but more productive, economic landscape.

Automation, whether they are software-based smart machines or physical machines, are not new in Singapore. Scientists at Nanyang Technological University have created a robot, named Nadine, who can potentially serve as a personal companion for children and the elderly at home. In October 2015, Singapore Post successfully employed an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to deliver a package carrying a payload of a letter and a T-Shirt. The drone was the result of a joint development between Singapore Post and the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore as a way to encourage collaboration between industry leaders to chart new frontiers in the ecommerce space. These are just a few examples that show how automation, be it drones or social robots, can assist humans in our pursuit for higher productivity and efficiency.

According to International Data Corporation (IDC), robotics spending in Asia Pacific will double by 2019, from US$71 billion (2015) to US$135.4 billion in 2019. While robots are traditionally used in the automotive industry, IDC noted that there is an increasing adoption of robotics in sectors like electronics, retail, healthcare, logistics, agriculture, services, education, and government.

Closer to home, the Singapore government has recently announced in the Budget 2016 that it will be pouring more than S$450 million into the National Robotics Programme over the next three years to help develop and deploy new technologies to drive industry-level transformation and to solve problems pertinent to the economy. As part of this initiative, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) looking to improve productivity, scale up and internationalise can also look forward to the Automation Support Package. SMEs in Singapore have made notable progress with a survey showing that nine out of 10 SMEs embarked on productivity initiatives in 2015.

By integrating automation into business operatives, we are inching towards a less labour intensive, but more productive, economic landscape. Organisations will be able to streamline their operations and dedicate more resources to value-add their products and services. Ultimately, this will help organisations maintain consistent quality and create a more sustainable and successful business. 

Increased usage of automation: economic benefits

This pursuit of productivity is in step with the development of the digitalised, hyper-connected environment we are in: mobile-first, cloud-first and with every product and service backed by an application. While this is a positive step towards a more efficient way of life, it is critical to examine the effect automation will have on people. Specifically, we will have to better understand how automation will affect the workforce.

Low-skilled and labour-intensive jobs such as clerical work, agriculture, goods delivery and security may gradually be supplanted by an app, machine or a robot. This replacement rate is exacerbated by the rapid technological advancements and an ageing population. Faced with tighter labour constraints and a constantly evolving global economy, the only way is upwards and that will involve using technology to boost our capabilities. In other words, automation is here to stay. Instead of worrying about being displaced by machines, workers in Singapore should explore platforms to reskill and retrain so that they can remain relevant in an economy that is led by humans, but supported by machines.


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