By Jonathan Tan
“Manufacturing is slowing down, companies are not transforming enough and workers do not know what lies ahead. Only two MIWU branches are in the process of constructing smart factories while PSA is building the mega port that is leveraging technology. There is an urgency to get union leaders to embrace Industry 4.0 and prepare them,” said Metal Industries Workers’ Union (MIWU) and Singapore Port Workers' Union (SPWU) Executive Secretary Jessie Yeo.
It was at workplan meetings for both MIWU and SPWU that Ms Yeo convinced leaders to embark on a two-year learning journey to learn more about smart technologies and the changes they will bring to the workplace.
To better understand Industry 4.0 and the automation, cyber-physical systems and data exchange that characterise the transformation, MIWU and SPWU leaders participated in talks and workshops on the topic.
Another part of the learning journey saw MIWU organise a trip to Chengdu, China, from 29 March to 1 April. MIWU executive committee members, management staff from PSA Singapore Terminals and senior leaders from SPWU visited the Siemens and Green Point factories.
NTUC Enterprise Chairman Lim Boon Heng, who is a trustee of MIWU, also participated in the trip. He joined fellow union leaders in sharing some of their observations and reflections.
A Company In Transformation
Part of the Jabil group of companies, the Green Point factory in Chengdu is akin to a self-contained township and one of the group’s largest facilities in China. The factory employs 12,000 staff and has dormitory housing for 11,000 and amenities such as a bus terminal, clinics, convenience stores, a bank outlet and even a football field. Management and workers wear the same uniforms and take meals in the same staff canteen.
Mr Lim noted how data analytics will play a key role in the management of the factory’s operations, including inventory management, as it upgrades itself to be a smart factory.
Mr Lim also observed that robots have been introduced to replace difficult and dangerous tasks, which helped account for the employees’ willingness to embrace change. Changes have also been well-managed with regular communication centred around encouragement and motivation.
He shared that in the face of change, foreign workers will quietly find skills that are needed, what courses to take and sign up for them. Singaporeans though largely do nothing.
"Singaporeans have lost their resilience, the ability to think for themselves, and now expect the union and the Government to take care of them. This cannot continue," he said.
Siemens Factory – Embracing Technology
Modelled after its smart factory in Germany, Siemens factory’s backbone is its information and data analytics system. Mr Lim and the team learnt that flexibility in the system enables the factory to cost-effectively produce products in small batches, a process that used to be very expensive. Additionally, programming has helped sequence the process and ensure quality control, while data analytics monitors the workflow at every aspect of production.
While the factory employs just 600 workers, its output is expected to increase by nearly 10 times thanks to the technology used in the production and operations process.
“I am happy with the visit. We saw two versions of smart factories, and saw how the Chinese have progressed in leveraging technology in their daily lives with QR codes and WeChat.
“PSA management and SPWU leaders picked up good learning points for the Tuas port such as e-learning in bite-sized courses, focusing on soft skills, having a library with computers for staff and how to manage a canteen for 12,000 staff, among others. For MIWU leaders, they also now see how their own factories are lagging behind,” said Ms Yeo, summarising how the trip had achieved the objective of enabling the participating union leaders to realise just how technology is driving the next level of change in their industries.
As a continuation to the learning journey, Ms Yeo added that the unions will be engaging both senior union leaders, branch officials, delegates and members with more in-depthtalks by domain experts, discussion sessions and visits to local organisations who have adopted smart technology.
Technology Is A Means To An End
While the Siemens and Green Point factories are different, both have the same objective of using the internet of things to collect data. Green Point is in mass production, while Siemens is in flexible production of small batches. In time, Siemens will enable machine learning that will further improve the manufacturing process. Green Point intends to do the same.” - NTUC Enterprise Chairman and Metal Industries Workers' Union Trustee Lim Boon Heng
The Need To Step Up
Multinational corporations used to upgrade factories in Singapore. When the processes were successfully test-bedded, they would send Singaporeans to lead the upgrading of regional factories. Now the situation seems to be reversed. We have fallen behind." - NTUC Enterprise Chairman and Metal Industries Workers' Union Trustee Lim Boon Heng
With the visit, we are now concerned that many plants here are lagging behind. Our manufacturing plants still operate on conventional processes. Business models also remain unchanged, focusing on meeting targets, cutting costs and struggling with manpower shortage. Not many companies think big to innovate and digitalise their operations. Some companies have made efforts at innovation, but with simple automation or robotics, they are at most at an Industry 3.0 or 3.5 level. If this trend continues, we are likely to lose out to global competition and our workers will suffer. I really hope we can have more employers and corporate leaders who are game enough to think big, invest big and transform the workplace quickly.” - Metal Industries Workers’ Union President Toh Hock Poh
The Right Attitude
The implementation of Industry 4.0 differs between organisations. While one did it on a massive scale with lots of information technology [Green Point], the other was compact and highly automated and done with greater efficiency [Siemens]. Neither is right nor wrong. These companies are willing to think big and are willing to invest in technology and automation despite the huge costs and train the workforce to handle them. It is only possible if the leadership has the guts and conviction to push through. The visit to these smart factories has shown me that there are some ideas that can be modified and implemented in any other environment if we choose to do so.” - Singapore Port Workers’ Union General Secretary Arasu Duraisamy