Transforming industries through innovation

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Transforming industries through innovation

15 Dec 2017

The Business Times

BY VINCENT CHONG

THE world is transforming as we speak. The exponential advancement in technology - some disruptive, some breakthrough - has often led to an improved quality of living for citizens and greater sustainability for cities.

Meanwhile, the fusion of physical and cyber systems brought about by the fourth industrial revolution has seen artificial intelligence and machine learning become increasingly ubiquitous. New business opportunities, fresh skills and brand new jobs have since emerged.

Companies today are moving with the trends, embracing disruption and developing employees to be more globally agile and adaptable. They are shaping and re-training employees into industry-ready talent with digital skills, international expertise and multidisciplinary skillsets. Continuous learning is now a necessity to evolve with the times.

The Singapore government also saw the urgency to transform industries in Singapore. Announcing a S$4.5 billion industry transformation programme for Singapore in 2016, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is also chairman of the Future Economy Council, said that Singapore's enterprises and industries would be transformed through innovation. A few Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) have since been launched, targeting specific sectors, and another S$2.4 billion announced this year to build the country's capacity for the future economy over the next four years. The Future Economy Conference and Exhibition in Singapore in November this year also cast the spotlight on industry transformation, helping companies better understand their respective ITMs, to position themselves for the future.

MAGNETS FOR TALENT

Mr Heng made a good point regarding the need to drive transformation through innovation. Just as a company can only be as strong as its people, a country can only be as effective as the talent that it has. Innovative countries are magnets for talent, which in turn drives economic growth for these countries, while enabling firms operating there to enhance shareholder returns.

While some may ask whether they are ready to transform, the fact is: the world has always been transforming. From past to present, civilisation has mandated progress for survival. We are in the midst of another transformation, even as some industries plod on in an evolutionary manner while other industries disrupt and zip through paradigm shifts. From the first industrial revolution to now the fourth, we have come a long way.

Today, we co-exist harmoniously with technology. Tablet PCs are our waiters, robots live among us vacuuming our floors and drones are finding applications in logistics, inspections and film making, to name just a few examples. At a US hospital in Pittsburgh which I visited, autonomous mobile robots co-exist with doctors, nurses and patients, relieving hospital workers of menial labour, plying hospital grounds autonomously, including calling and riding elevators. These robots are currently in use in over 140 hospitals in the US with 700 units deployed in more than 200 customer sites globally. The very same robots, whose maker we have since acquired, will soon automate material movement in Singapore at three hotels to streamline the laundry supply chain process. Besides addressing intra-logistics needs in the hospital and the hospitality segments, autonomous mobile robots are also being deployed in manufacturing facilities.

Disruptive technologies are indeed around us. Businesses must first see the need and want to transform. In Singapore, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have been responding to the government's call in the SMEs Go Digital movement to harness technology for daily operations. Large enterprises are also fast transforming digitally to set themselves ahead of the curve. At ST Engineering for example, we have embraced digital technologies for aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul, through digitalisation and collaborative robots, such as robots that help with the sanding and polishing of airframe parts, additive manufacturing and data analytics solutions so that our customers can enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations. We are also developing a "Smart Shipyard" to drive higher efficiency all round, targeting design, manufacturing and data analytics aspects of our shipyard operations.

Yet, no man is an island, as has been the case for any industrial transformation. Mr Heng has signalled industry transformation to be a team effort, calling for the active support of leaders from industry, the Singapore Business Federation and trade associations and chambers to drive initiatives that can level up all companies and industries and create value for their members. The set-up of Global Innovation Alliances (with the inaugural initiative in Beijing recently) further highlights the need for collaboration in evolving any industry. The team at ST Engineering has long recognised that the best ideas are harnessed from collective genius as well, which is why we leverage on strategic partnerships and open innovation for long-term growth and value creation.

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for innovation since different industries transform at different pace and manner. However, there are some common threads.

CONSTANT DISRUPTION

If the future is constantly being disrupted, it follows that companies which can innovate would be better positioned for growth as they are more agile and market-ready.

Business innovations are increasingly being seen as having a positive impact on society because they are not just drivers of economic growth, but are also catalysts to solve society's most pressing problems. Thus, if businesses begin with the intent to solve real-world problems, and move beyond only improving operational effectiveness, they would be able to introduce innovations much needed by the market.

Speed to market is important. Strategic partnerships can help speed ideas to market, by reducing the time taken to iterate prototypes, especially for solutions which require multi-disciplinary expertise.

Certainly, it is neither pragmatic nor realistic to expect all industries to consistently produce only disruptive and breakthrough forms of innovation. Sustaining innovations are also important for substantial "upgrades" of products and services that meet customers' existing needs and demands, and are what the market needs to level up any one industry progressively. Industry transformation is hence not always about an overhaul of the system, but about businesses constantly taking a proactive approach in solving problems and anticipating needs so that we can improve the quality of life.

While much advancement has been made in industry transformation, there are still gaps in technologies that limit scalability and adaptability. As industry captains, opening our doors to technology partnerships and co-creation, as well as driving collaboration will help support and facilitate the nation's quest in becoming a future-ready economy.

* The writer is president & CEO of ST Engineering and a board member of JTC Corporation. He was also a member of the Committee on the Future Economy.

This article was first published in The Business Times.

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