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Manufacturing is one of the key pillars of economies in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region. According to GlobeNewswire, APAC is the largest general manufacturing market in the world, accounting for 43% of the global market. With the advent of the Industry 4.0 revolution, the world’s largest manufacturing hub will experience significant shifts as connectivity becomes the backbone of next-generation factories, where artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, cloud computing and the Internet of things (IoT) are being embraced to unleash technology-driven smart manufacturing.

Founded on the interconnectivity of machinery sensors and intelligent systems, the Industrial IoT (IIoT) adds intelligence to traditional manufacturing processes and management. Smart manufacturing solutions help to connect, automate, analyse and monitor equipment and processes to yield informed decision-making, maximise operational efficiency and improve product quality. Advanced IIoT solutions offer real-time data and meaningful insights that accelerate response time to raise overall productivity and sustainability.

5G is critical to smart manufacturing

Factories are moving towards real-time capabilities, virtualisation, decentralisation and modularity to facilitate productivity, precision and agility. At the heart of this revolution are 5G networks that deliver reliable, high-speed connectivity, greater bandwidth to accommodate massive data traffic, extremely low levels of latency between devices, network slicing for virtual separation of networks and mobile edge computing (MEC) to facilitate edge computing. As a key enabler in smart factories, 5G together with IoT bring about innovative technologies such as automation, collaborative robots (cobots) and real-time remote monitoring.

In 2020, the global smart factory market was valued at USD270.74 billion. According to Mordor Intelligence, this value is estimated to reach USD461.82 billion by 2026 – representing a CAGR of 9.33% during this period. During which, APAC dominates the market owing to increased foreign direct investment and industrial development. In conjunction with the deployment of 5G in countries, governments in the region are also encouraging smart manufacturing adoption through policies and assistance.

As one of the earliest adopters of 5G innovation in the world, and an economy that relies heavily on manufacturing, South Korea unveiled a plan last year to leverage 5G and AI to roll out smart factory solutions alongside telecom providers to the country’s small and medium-sized businesses. The aim is to have 30,000 factories by 2025.

In China, where manufacturing accounts for about 38% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020, and the world’s largest manufacturer in terms of output, strategies are in place to tap on advanced manufacturing to grow its position into a manufacturing superpower. Initiated in China, the “Made in China 2025” 10-year government plan was rolled out in 2015 to focus on rapidly developing the country’s manufacturing capabilities critical to its fourth industrial revolution. Reinforcing its efforts, China revealed a more comprehensive plan on 5 March 2021 as part of a new 5-year plan to enhance its manufacturing capabilities by 2025.

Currently, smart manufacturing is adopted more widely in industries that emphasise high-volume and low-margin production. It is also deployed in highly-regulated industries such as the pharmaceutical and food and beverages industries, where tracking and traceability are critical. Entire value-chain processes can be automated to rely on robotic inspections, for instance, to reduce human errors. With automated inspection processes, smart factories harness machine learning and AI to accurately detect defects.

Increasingly, innovations are focused on areas such as predictive maintenance, remote monitoring and control, real-time supply chain management, advanced process control and quality management.

Using a network of IoT sensors, CCTVs and thermal imaging cameras, equipment wear and tear can be determined ahead of time to prevent disruption to production lines. In the event of failures, engineers from across locations can leverage remote augmented reality (AR) to troubleshoot problems so that maintenance can be carried out as promptly as possible to reduce downtime and eventually costs. Blockchain is also becoming relevant for manufacturers as the technology fosters transparency and accountability throughout the supply chain as massive information is shared simultaneously across large quantities of devices.

Last year, disrupted supply chains owing to global lockdowns placed a tremendous strain on the manufacturing industry to respond to volatile market demands. Yet, manufacturers with fully-automated production lines that relied on AI, big data and remote operations managed to cope better. Manufacturers also saw the benefits of cobots working alongside humans, with cobots performing more repetitive tasks while humans attended to important decision-making to better respond to disruptive trends and deliver more optimal products.

With 5G networks being critical to the digitalisation of the manufacturing industry, many tech providers are already expanding into the 5G space to provide private 5G networks. For telecom operators, this means tapping on its expertise to generate new revenue streams. Instead of simply providing manufacturers the 5G network capacity and connectivity required to power smart factories, telecom operators are partnering with strategic service providers to assist manufacturers in adopting transformation technologies that future-proof their processes.

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