IR4.0: Making it even easier to automate in Selangor
This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 3, 2021 – May 09, 2021.
MSF’s lab has a variety of automation equipment set up for visitors to have a visual understanding of how the technology can be implemented
Determining how to start the automation process can be a difficult task, with some choosing to use external consultants while others try to do everything in-house. The Malaysian Smart Factory 4.0 (MSF), run by the Selangor Human Resource Development Centre (SHRDC), aims to help companies do the latter and be more self-reliant.
MSF runs various programmes that train company employees to implement automation. It was set up in 2018 in collaboration with the Swiss Smart Factory, a Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR 4.0) research centre in Switzerland.
“Our focus is on sustainable digital transformation through talent development because we see that through upskilling and reskilling talent, we can help industries grow more organically. This has been seen to work in a couple of the companies that we’ve supported,” says Dr Chua Wen-Shyan, head of MSF.
This approach has a few advantages. A people-focused strategy, for instance, empowers the employees to take charge of IR 4.0 projects and be involved in the implementation process.
“For example, if a company wants to connect its machines to the internet and collect data, we have a programme for that. After its employees go through the programme, they can start a project on their own. This makes it cost-effective and empowers the employees to take charge of IR 4.0 projects. It also creates ambassadors within the company for digital transformation,” says Chua.
“We believe in developing internal teams so they can maintain the project and maybe scale it up later on. This allows for more efficient and effective maintenance and downtime management.”
This people-focused strategy could be game-changing because without leadership buy-in, digital transformation would be very challenging. This is a factor often cited by digital transformation case studies globally.
“When companies don’t focus on the people, they may purchase technology that people don’t use and the adoption rate becomes slow. That’s why we advocate starting with talent. We try to build domain expertise because if the [people] working there can be an expert, they can continuously improve and scale up the technology deployment,” says Chua.
Another strength of MSF’s programmes is that they simplify automation for companies that might find IR 4.0 daunting. They teach companies to digitalise step by step, starting with data collection. This could mean starting by retrofitting existing machines from one factory line with sensors, so the data collected can be displayed on a dashboard.
“We have companies that started with one machine and now have over 13 machines connected to a dashboard. They built a customised solution based on what they learnt in the training programme. When they want to scale up further, they have options and can utilise other platforms to store and visualise data,” says Chua. MSF can support companies to build their digital transformation roadmap and proof-of-concept projects through training. “If they want to take the first step, we will guide them to get started, see the impact and show it to their top management. Then, they may decide to apply for grants or use their own money to invest in automation,” he adds.
MSF works with a variety of local and international partners, such as Omron, Plus Solar, AGCOE and Skymind. If relevant, it could educate the companies on how to integrate these partners’ products with their smart factory ecosystem. The software that MSF uses is a community-driven, flexible and scalable platform that is easy to use.
“Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have more options now. We tell them that these options are available depending on their budget, talent and requirements,” says Chua.
No excuse not to start
Often, it takes seeing and experiencing something to truly understand how it works. That is why MSF has a lab in SHRDC’s headquarters in Shah Alam that is open to everyone. A variety of automation equipment is set up in the lab for visitors to have a visual understanding of how the technology can be implemented.
For instance, a dashboard displays the status of several machines in the lab, one of which is an automated engraver that can support mass customisation. There is also a digital twin simulator, a mobile robot that can transport items and smart sensors for predictive maintenance.
MSF’s training programmes break down IR 4.0 into five levels of increasing difficulty: data generation, data visualisation, data storage, data formulation and data analytics.
Companies can send their employees for the training sessions, starting with the most basic all the way to the most complex. Some companies even present a problem statement to MSF, whose team then helps the companies develop a proof of concept, a roadmap or even curate modules to educate their employees on how to use technology to solve the problem in question.
“Before the Movement Control Order, we would do a factory visit. The companies would tell us which processes they wanted to digitise. We would help identify what signals could be tapped, which programmes were suitable for them and who should go for the training. Once they’re done with the programmes, they had the option of implementing the project using what they learnt,” says Chua. However, following the restrictions brought about by the pandemic, MSF has added digital training programmes to its offerings, where participants can take a facilitated online course and test their skills in a remote lab set up by MSF. Through a camera, the participants can observe the devices in the remote lab.
“They can do the programming at home, upload it to the machine and trigger the devices in the remote lab set up in our building. We are trying to make this our regular learning programme so we can support those in other states,” he says.
Many SMEs are already aware of the importance of automation, especially after the pandemic impacted the flow of foreign workers into the country. That wake-up call has made it easier for MSF to persuade SMEs to automate, observes Teh Sook Ling, executive director of SHRDC.
Cost is another commonly cited barrier, she adds. “They’ll say that getting foreign labour is cheaper or that integrating technology is too expensive.”
But MSF hopes to prove them wrong. It hopes to show that by using a peoplefocused strategy, the company can deploy a more cost-effective and sustainable IR 4.0 roadmap, says Chua. Companies can start with a proof of concept and scale up the project once they see the returns and impact created.
According to MSF, the cost of its programmes is upwards of RM3,000 per pax, claimable from the Human Resources Development Fund.
“Some of the companies that have already gone through our programmes are doing the implementation now. They need advice on what to do and we do our best to support them from the technical perspective. It’s good that we have this process because we can learn from them as well. It gives us the knowledge on how to strengthen our programmes to continuously support our industries,” says Chua.