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Digital technology can change the face of manufacturing

tabla! | Seeram Ramakrishna | Friday, Sep 9, 2016

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Alumni who have made a difference to their profession and Singapore were honoured at an annual dinner at the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Engineering.

This year the Distinguished Engineering Alumni Awardee was Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli.

I was at the table of past deans who served during the past three decades. We all felt that the world has indeed changed. When asked which major trends led to this change, all were quick to identify digital technologies such as the Internet, mobile communication, search engines and computers.

It took considerable deliberation to identify two other trends - mobility of people and participation of women in workforce. Will digital technologies impact industrial manufacturing in the future?

Yes, according to several leading engineering companies in USA, Germany, China, France, India, UK, Korea, and Japan. The Internet has connected people and changed their ways of life forever.

Now imagine an Industrial Internet which connects millions of manufacturing machines and transforms the way products are made and shipped to the customers.

It is also known as Industrial Internet of Things. Engineering company General Electric (GE) predicts that the Industrial Internet market will reach US$225 billion by 2020.

GE employed 1,400 to apply digital technologies to the world of industrial manufacturing. It is also partnering with software giants like TCS, Infosys, Wipro and Capgemini to develop an easy-to-use, plug-and-play software called Predix. This resulted in detection of gas leakage and savings of $350,000 per year at one of the GE plants.

To enable machine-to-machine communication on a large scale, pervasive sensors, microprocessors and embedded systems capable of data generation, intelligent processing, faster and selective communications need to be deployed.

This accentuates the need for disruptive innovations in microprocessor technologies.

Intel and ARM have dominated the architectures for computing over the last 30 years. However, their established architectures are running against their limits.

Out-of-order processing, multithreading and multicores all established in mainframe computers many decades ago fueled the performance drive from smartphones to high end servers. What is next?

Super computers have used heterogeneous architectures for many decades. They overcame resulting software complexities by employing hundreds of programmers, often for just one algorithm.

As today's computing world is dominated by billions of lines of software, heterogeneous architectures will require additional hardware or software layers to process this software.

This will limit the processing performance as more data must be processed or more overhead built into the processor. The solution lies in advanced polymorphous processors which can emulate the behaviour and performance of specialised architectures while being transparent for the software.

While the incumbents get ever more complex, young start-ups like Hyperion-Core Inc. in Silicon Valley are getting ready to compete with innovative solutions.

Innovations are needed on several other fronts as well. Thus far, industrial sensors and devices are mainly made of hard materials.

Soft sensors, electronic skins, flexible electronics, 3D-printed and environmentally benign disposable devices suitable for industrial environment are being developed. They need to be less energy consuming, and preferably self-powered.

Faster and ubiquitous computing and autonomous control is to be realised via advances in big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing. Here, cybersecurity becomes paramount to avoid industrial espionage, hacking and disruptions.

Nexus of digital technologies and industrial manufacturing will lead to new products, lower resource consumption and improved services.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled a $19 billion Research Innovation Enterprise 2020 Plan (RIE2020) to build up innovation and technology adoption in companies.

Advanced manufacturing and engineering is among four priority areas to drive economic growth.

The Institution of Engineers Singapore established a technical committee to deepen awareness and raise the technical competencies of engineers about the digital technologies enabled transformation of manufacturing.

The upshot is that the more engineers are comfortable with digital technologies, the more innovative they can be in shaping a comfortable world for all.

Professor Seeram Ramakrishna, Chair of Institution of Engineers Singapore Technical Committee on Future of Manufacturing & National University of Singapore.


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