By Datuk Mohd Rauf Nasir
A fulcrum of Malaysia’s export economy, the country’s manufacturers now stand at the crossroads of digital transformation. While Malaysia’s government has been leading this digitalisation charge via national initiatives such as the IndustryWRD policy, global crises such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted the need for manufacturers to leverage automation to improve their operational flexibility during disruptive periods.
While automation has always been at the heart of boosting industrial productivity, digital automation between manufacturers has been limited. As the nation transitions towards Malaysia 5.0, many manufacturers are racing to adapt their operations amid the pandemic. However, to thrive in the new, digitally driven normal, they must now adopt more advanced Industry 4.0 technologies to create factories of the future. These will need to be powered by robust next-generation wireless connectivity provided by Malaysia’s communication service providers (CSPs) and their technology partners.
Catalysing Industry 4.0 technology usage with private wireless networks
Fixed cables or previous-generation wireless networks – such as 3G and 4G – are no longer practical for tomorrow’s factories. During the 4th Industrial Revolution, the level of productivity, efficiency and operational agility enabled by more advanced digital applications require ultra-low network latency and reliability that legacy networks cannot provide.
New, industrial-grade private wireless solutions powered by 4.9G or 5G connectivity can offer factory operators greater enterprise control and capacities needed for long-term operability and efficiency. This is due to their more robust signals, lower latencies, and enhanced security – factors contributing to their unparalleled ability to sync with connected devices that can reliably support human operations.
These advanced networks also enable network slicing, whereby a dedicated slice of the network can be assigned to various specific operations within the manufacturing environment. This can raise automation in factories to new levels as ultra-low latency and ultra-high reliability connectivity enable smooth operation of transformative Industry 4.0 approaches such as digital twins, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), augmented reality (AR)/ virtual reality (VR) as well as edge computing.
Insights-driven operations via digital twins
Digital twins refer to the data-driven representations of physical systems using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and analytics. In Malaysia, this technology is already being used to accelerate the development of landmark infrastructure projects such as the Pan Borneo Highway.
For factory operators, digital twins allow them to gain deeper insights via increased data collection to develop virtualized models of both machines and production lines. The technology can also help operators better understand how changes will impact equipment performance and reconfiguration to meet on-demand manufacturing.
Overall, digital twins enable the monitoring of every factory environment aspect to keep production quality high while also allowing for predictive maintenance to keep downtime low. However, they can be enhanced by further private wireless to improve the reliability and operational efficiency of equipment and production lines.
During the ongoing pandemic, digital twins were used to improve vaccine production efficiency and safety, while also doing the same for personal protective equipment manufacturing for COVID-19 response efforts. In Malaysia, locally-based manufacturing companies have already been integrating aspects of digital twin solutions into their work scheduling and maintenance.
Smarter and more adaptable operations with AMRs
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can make large manufacturing environments more sophisticated, flexible, and cost-effective. Compared to conventional automated guided vehicles (AGVs), AMRs allow more dynamism in helping human personnel navigate through factory complexes.
To enhance AMRs in realising their full potential, they can be powered by a resilient, low-latency private wireless network to make them more intelligent and collaborative. This is as high-performance connectivity can empower smarter AMRs with context-awareness and open-path navigation for obstacle and collision avoidance. Such networks can also connect data and systems across the factory to keep AMRs updated on production line changes., alongside leveraging real-time data from on-board cameras and sensors to enable smarter collaboration between human and autonomous workforces.
With Malaysia being an important part of the global semiconductor supply chain, AMRs will be particularly transformative in futureproofing operations to mitigate production shortfalls during crises. What makes the country’s manufacturers poised to integrate AMRs into factories is that Malaysia is already developing the robots, as they are already being used in other key parts of the supply chain such as logistics and warehousing.
Powering new realities through edge computing
Edge computing offers cloud computing capabilities and an IT service environment at the edge of the network. It is a powerful innovation catalyst, as the edge environment is characterised by proximity, ultra-low latency, and high bandwidth. Especially when enhanced with high-performance wireless connectivity, edge computing can also support computer-intensive IoT applications that use virtual reality (VR) and/or augmented reality (AR). This is as real-time data allows for the direct feeding of information to workforces using connected devices (such as headsets and mobile tablets) via VR or AR to quickly change setups and retool for new requirements.
For important sectors such as automotive production, VR and AR can be applied to designing, prototyping and production. Specifically, VR or AR assists in building true-to-life virtual versions of vehicles and parts for key sectors such as automotive manufacturing, namely by helping to visualise how they would operate in various scenarios. This allows engineers to have more hands-on training to detect errors such as faulty connections between different parts of the vehicle and develop ever-changing parts to suit the vehicle’s needs, before moving to the production process. This leads to more efficiency and significantly lower error rates.
Edge computing can also make production lines more productive and flexible, by enabling the combination of real-time data and historical profiles to automatically adjust systems for peak performance, while ensuring machines can predict maintenance and prevent faults. This allows manual operations to be automated, such as using wireless robots and being able to repurpose them as needed, which is useful in making production lines more flexible to facilitate operational continuity during disruptive crisis periods.
With Malaysia now laying the foundations of advanced connectivity nationwide, edge computing adoption is expected to accelerate in tandem with other technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). These require seamless, high-speed transmissions that only edge computing can support, opening potential use cases in not only manufacturing, but also other industries.
Creating Malaysian factories of the future today
While the call for factories to digitalise has been ramping up in Malaysia for years, this urgency is heightened further to make operations more resilient during challenging economic periods. These applications can also create pathways of agility for improved future competitiveness, both domestically and internationally.
Yet, to digitally transform the entire factory environment, all applications and processes must be underpinned by ubiquitous, highly reliable wireless connectivity. This means that key stakeholders in the country – such as the Malaysia’s government, businesses and CSPs – will have a catalysing, collaborative role in building factories of the future in the country.
Datuk Mohd Rauf Nasir is Nokia Managing Director for Malaysia, Maldives and Sri Lanka.