5 mins read

Manufacturing: Robotic revolution to address workforce challenges

December 11, 2023
The Edge
5 mins read

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 11, 2023 - December 17, 2023

The workforce landscape has undergone significant changes post-pandemic, marked by a shortage of both skilled and non-skilled workers. Industries are facing challenges in finding willing individuals for demanding roles in factories and warehouses due to various factors, including the appeal of remote and flexible work options. This scarcity has prompted businesses to seek innovative solutions to address the gap between labour supply and demand.

Enter robotic arms from Hand Plus Robotics Pte Ltd — a potent technological answer that holds the potential to revolutionise the way we approach manufacturing and warehousing with a reliable and efficient alternative for dull, dirty or dangerous jobs often shunned by human workers. The integration of these sophisticated robotic arms could be the key to overcoming the current workforce challenges while elevating productivity and safety standards.

The flexible robotic arms are versatile and safe, and can handle basic to intricate tasks with advanced sensors for safe operation. They suit manufacturing, healthcare and logistics industries with adaptable, precise movements.

Pioneering practical applications

Hand Plus Robotics began as a group of university researchers in engineering who excelled in competitions such as those organised by Amazon Robotics and DHL. Their success drew interest from different businesses, prompting the team to adapt their lab work for practical industry use. While refining existing solutions and crafting new ones to meet the needs of their customers, they began to imagine a world with robots working with or for humans.

“It was a natural progression to set up the business so we could help bring more robots into practical application. We aim to empower manpower-intensive businesses with sustainable operations, one software-powered flexible robot system at a time,” says Albert Causo, the company’s CEO and founder.

Making the jump from lab to real-life application had its own set of hurdles, however.

“There are many variables in the real world that robots designed in the lab may not account for. As such, our software incorporates a degree of machine learning — where the robotic arms can perform tasks and improve on these or better handle risks and disruptions,” explains Causo.

The firm secured small contracts to create tailored solutions for clients, and it started with the Panasonic R&D Centre in Singapore. Several months later, it served its next client, a hospital. Its hands-on experience allowed the company to learn and refine its approach.

Demystifying misconceptions

Hand Plus Robotics faces challenges of misconceptions about robot capabilities versus costs. Traditional factory robots were inflexible, fostering a misconception that adopting one is as simple as buying an appliance. Crafting a cohesive robot solution involves intricate programming and integration, often requiring systems integrators.

Robot arms boast versatile handling, managing items from tiny pins to hefty car doors and weights up to a tonne. A robot’s forte lies in repetitive tasks with minimal downtime, but managing expectations and awareness is crucial.

The robot’s software serves as its brain, complemented by vision sensors as its “eyes”. Diverse software options offer unique features for programming arm actions, integrating sensors such as cameras for enhanced functionality. Some provide simulation tools for testing movements before real-world use, along with remote operation capabilities. Compatibility with specific hardware configurations is vital before adopting robotic arm software.

“It’s like building a car — you need to take care of the engine, wheels, lights, sensors and indicators. Alone, these components are wonderful but not useful; put them together and you have a car,” says Causo.

Driving the robotics revolution

Although primarily serving Singapore, Hand Plus Robotics aims to penetrate the Malaysian market. Over the past three years, it has delivered more than 15 robots to eight Singaporean clients, generating nearly S$2 million in revenue.

Last year, the company secured an angel round and is now seeking a US$2 million (RM9.3 million) seed round. It aims to use these funds for expanding marketing, product development and after-sales engineering teams. Profit-wise, the company’s margins per product are comparable to industry standards.  It is “bootstrapped, and our current clientele allows us to operate continuously”, says Causo.

Its June launch of PACK+ at Automex 2023 in Malaysia garnered substantial interest, motivating it to expand through trade exhibitions, online marketing and partnerships with robot manufacturers, distributors and systems integrators to bolster its presence here.

“The Malaysian market is similar to Singapore in terms of logistics and manufacturing. There are a lot of similarities in terms of culture and a strong government push for digitalisation and 4IR technologies. So, we see our solutions being adopted very well here,” Causo says.

Malaysia’s manufacturing and logistics sectors offer significant opportunities, especially in Penang’s electronics industry. Being physically closer to these industries allows Hand Plus Robotics to better support them with tailored solutions.

In addition, Malaysia’s talent pool, especially in Kuala Lumpur, makes it easier to recruit skilled individuals for robot development. With an R&D centre in Malaysia, the company aims to nurture local talent, offering internships for hands-on experience. And leveraging a co-founder’s Malaysian network means the country stands as a strategic expansion hub, following the firm’s success in Singapore.

Causo believes Malaysia is also a prime environment in which to embrace robotics and automation innovations. He says the country needs to swiftly advance its value chain amid competition from Vietnam and Indonesia for China’s manufacturing projects.

Malaysia faces a manpower shortage that is exacerbated by the allure of remote work in the gig economy. This shortage affects the willingness to take on demanding roles in factories and warehouses, which, in turn, affects productivity.

“It is encouraging that the government has set out the 4IR blueprint and is pushing for a ‘Digital Malaysia’ agenda to push the country forward. With the world and many industries and businesses in Malaysia moving into the digital and 4IR era, expect to see more robots in the factory, working alongside humans, in kitchens and hotels, in the streets and in the sky, outdoors or even in outer space. We can see more robots go into applications that require more dexterity, more processing of visuals [cues], and more collaboration with humans,” he says.

“Based on our experience with existing clients, it’s possible to maintain the same level of productivity and manual operation while saving between 25% and 75% of manpower using robotic arms. There’s a vast market to be tapped — and Malaysia can certainly position itself to realise value from robotics technologies.”

Revolutionising workforce dynamics

Causo also anticipates that integrating robotics and automation in Malaysia’s industries will liberate the local workforce, enabling them to concentrate on higher-value roles such as client management, ideation and services.

It aims to transform job roles in Malaysia, shifting talents from packing to roles as robot operators or programmers, offering significant career growth. This transition would redirect focus from mundane tasks to handling valuable items or engaging with clients, improving the nature of work.

Still, Hand Plus Robotics has yet to find local businesses that want to incorporate its models into their existing services, but it has a strong supporter in the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology & Innovation (MRANTI). Not only is the agency helping the company with an assortment of programmes to strengthen its footing, it is also helping it raise awareness about industry solutions.

The company currently offers three products tailored to diverse needs: Pick+ serves as a versatile solution for picking, packing and palletising; Pack+ embodies a comprehensive robot-in-a-box concept combining picking and packing functionalities; and Move+ presents a mobile robot arm mounted on a base, designed to navigate client sites efficiently for diverse applications. These products can be applied to tasks such as mobile picking, inspection, tree pruning, mail sorting and more.

“Our solutions can start from around RM300,000, depending on customer requirements. The hardware itself can last quite long. Robot arms can last from 15 to 25 years. For software, we can provide annual updates. We also offer ‘Rent-a-Robot’ or leasing programmes for customers to have options for commercial agreements. In addition to our robotics division, we also offer robotics training and consulting, software development and custom robotic solutions,” Causo says.

Hand Plus Robotics also has its eye on the regional market, with plans to expand into either Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam or the Philippines.