JOSEPH LEE CHING HUA,
HEAD OF CO-INNOVATION CENTRE &
GENERAL MANAGER OF DEVELOPMENT CENTRE,
YOKOGAWA SOUTHEAST ASIA
"End users can achieve their smart manufacturing goals through autonomous operations; we define these as assets or operations with human-like learning and adaptive capabilities, responding alone to situations that have not been pre-programed in the design."
Could you give a brief overview of Yokogawa’s activity in Singapore?
Yokogawa Engineering Asia in Singapore is the regional HQ for the South East Asia, Taiwan & OCEANIA region. Our business is in the areas of measurement, control, and information for the industrial automation industry. The Co-Innovation Center, the first of its kind in Singapore, consists of 150 researchers and is the largest R&D Center outside of Japan. It focuses on global product development and co-innovating with customers to deploy new digital tools and technologies. Our offer is captured in the slogan “IA2IA”: “industrial automation to industrial autonomy.” End users can achieve their smart manufacturing goals through autonomous operations; we define these as assets or operations with human-like learning and adaptive capabilities, responding alone to situations that have not been pre-programed in the design, while ensuring all safety-critical functions within a secure bounded domain.
How has the pandemic affected Yokogawa’s business?
Two years ago, Yokogawa started the digitalization (DX) journey through our Co-Innovation Center together with several regional customers, yet the uptake was slow as the industry tends to adopt a “wait and see” attitude. This is either because they are uncertain or unaware of the benefits, or they adhere to a belief that technology is always evolving and thus they do not want to hop in too early. However, the pandemic is changing this paradigm. Covid-19 acted as a powerful catalyst to what a fully autonomous future can look like. As manufacturers race to redefine processes and build remote systems, they approach cutting-edge technologies to make industrial autonomy a reality. In our most recent survey, 80% of respondents in the manufacturing business argued that they expect to see their companies fully autonomous in the next 10 years. Compared to two years ago, we see many of our partners set up their own internal DX task force with a dedicated budget and reporting directly to either the CTO or CEO, which speaks of the greater seriousness attributed to the matter.
What are the key motivations for customers looking at digitalization and automation solutions?
Certain enterprises see this as a way to transform their operations into digital manufacturing plants, while others fear automation will lead to job losses. Looking at the value chain, the upstream oil and gas industry is already operating unmanned platforms due to the risks and costs of sending people offshore, but now we are also working more in the downstream sector, as refineries also face issues with on-site human resources due to the pandemic. Relying on people presents not only a safety risk, but it can also disrupt the value chain. The chemical industry specifically requires substantial human manual intervention at chemical plants, but customers are more ready to digitalize operations to allow for more flexibility and resilience in the face of change. For simple maintenance, for instance, autonomous robots can be deployed at chemical sites.
What trends do you notice in terms of the use and application of your solutions for the industry?
In the sensors business, new 5G technology enables sensors to communicate in real-time, whereas bandwidth and even wireless technology have not had this latency this far, so there is immense potential in this sector. Moreover, we will be looking at developing AI on the sensors themselves so that simple commands can be handled at the sensors level, without the control systems. Cloud computing will be a key aspect that businesses could use to provide information to consumers. Over the past year, in particular, Yokogawa has also been investing in renewable technologies such as solar-powered batteries and worked with customers on hybrid power plants.
What are your views regarding Singapore’s profile as an innovation hub?
Singapore is an ideal R&D base, mostly due to its diverse talent pool; at our R&D center alone, we hire 13 nationalities. The government has consistently supported innovation, and, in line with it, greater climate action. Committing to cut down CO2 emissions by 36%, the government gives both carrots and a stick to motivate manufacturers towards reducing emissions. These initiatives are good news for innovators because they create a “peg” for manufacturers to engage with tech providers like Yokogawa.
Yokogawa Engineering Asia (Singapore) established a new AI lab to help customers in their transition to autonomous operations. We are engaged with universities to improve their current teaching program through a mixed reality digital twin of a physical plant; this makes lectures more interesting, cultivating students’ curiosity and familiarizing them with the inner workings of the plant to be better prepared and more comfortable when they start working life.