SINGAPORE (Apr 24): When Malaysia announced a two-week movement control order to stop travel in and out of the country from March 18, the economic impact to its neighbour to the south, Singapore, was expected to be substantial.

After all, as one economist put it, the two countries are “joined at the hip by geography and history”. Every day, some 300,000 people living in Malaysia commute across the border to Singapore.

“Banning daily commuters will essentially cut off almost a tenth of Singapore’s labour force, hurting both the manufacturing and services industries,” said Chua Hak Bin, a senior economist at Maybank in Singapore.

Just weeks later, Singapore announced a month-long “circuit breaker” – the suspension of all non-essential business activities until at least May 5 to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The one-two punch has heightened fears that Singapore’s economy could be knocked out cold.

Already, the affluent city state was facing a recession because of virus-related disruptions to the city’s trade and tourism.

Now, its gross domestic product can only be expected to contract sharply this year. After all, the travel restrictions have put a dent in its manufacturing workforce – the majority of which is made up of foreign labour.

In 2019, Singapore’s economy expanded by just 0.7%, down from 3.1% in 2018 and marking its slowest growth in a decade. The figure is expected to decline even more dramatically on the back of the virus-led manufacturing labour crunch.

The crisis has exposed Singapore’s need to embrace smart manufacturing – and fast.

Enter Industry 4.0

The stakes are high: Manufacturing makes up about a fifth of Singapore's economy. And according to 2019 estimates, the sector employs more than 400,000 workers, or about 14% of the workforce.

Traditionally a key driver of overall productivity growth, it has found itself in the doldrums following several consecutive quarters of contraction.

Employing computer-integrated manufacturing, high levels of adaptability and rapid design changes, digital information technology, and more flexible technical workforce training, smart manufacturing has the potential to relieve Singapore’s reliance on labour, and revive its engine of growth.

Factories of the future will make use of artificial intelligence, real-time data collection and collaborative robots building a wide range of products on the same assembly line.

Dubbed the “fourth industrial revolution”, or Industry 4.0, it is the shot in the arm that Singapore needs to transform its manufacturing industry and open up new opportunities for growth and innovation.

The manufacturing hub needs to embrace emerging technologies such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), and transition towards "smart manufacturing" and "smart factories".

Driven by full-fledged 5G capabilities

But as Singapore moves towards Industry 4.0, the ability for companies to build smart factories with technologies such as automation, AI, augmented reality for troubleshooting, and the Internet of Things (IoT) will hinge on the strength of the country’s 5G networks.

5G refers to the fifth generation of high-speed mobile internet that aims to provide faster data speeds and more bandwidth to carry growing levels of web traffic.

Minister for Communications and Information, S Iswaran, in October last year revealed that Singapore will be rolling out commercial 5G services from 2020 as the country seeks to establish the “backbone of our digital economy”.

At the same time, Singapore’s telecommunication regulator, Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), announced that at least 50% of the city-state will be covered with a standalone 5G (SA) network by the end of 2022.

IMDA stressed that only the standalone 5G networks will have the capacity to support and deliver full-fledged 5G capabilities, which are crucial for the development of innovative new applications, including smart factories, massive IoT devices and autonomous vehicles.

On the other hand, non-standalone 5G (NSA) – or the upgrading of existing 4G infrastructure – only offer higher speeds, without the benefit of allowing Singapore to realise its smart manufacturing ambitions.

Potential 5G usage scenarios. Source: IMDA

5G Standalone vs Non-Standalone

5G networks offer three main features: super high speed, ultra-low latency, and massive connectivity. While a NSA network opens the door to only super high speeds, a SA network enables all three features.

The high speeds and low latency promised by 5G will propel societies into a new age of smart cities and IoT. Potential use cases for 5G networks fall into three important categories: Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), massive machine-type communications (mMTC), and ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (URLLC).

eMBB, which can be supported by both NA and NSA 5G networks, is expected to be the primary use case for 5G in its early deployments, according to wireless operators. eMBB will bring high-speed mobile broadband to crowded areas, enable consumers to enjoy high-speed streaming for in-home, screen and mobile devices on demand, and will allow enterprise collaboration services to evolve.

However, the real magic which will drive Industry 4.0 forward only comes in the latter two categories.

5G is also expected to drive the evolution of smart cities and IoT through the deployment of a considerable number of low-power sensor networks in cities and rural areas. The security and robustness built into 5G will make it suitable for public safety as well as for use in mission-critical services, such as smart grids, police and security services, energy and water utilities, and healthcare.

mMTC can be used for IoT, asset tracking, smart agriculture, smart cities, energy monitoring, smart home, remote monitoring, while URLLC will drive autonomous vehicles, smart grids, remote patient monitoring and telehealth, and industrial automation. And these are only made possible with 5G SA.

Its low latency performance characteristics make it suitable for remote surgery, factory automation and the control of real-time processes.

5G SA’s low latency and safety characteristics will play well in the evolution of intelligent transport systems, enabling smart vehicles to communicate with each other, and creating opportunities for connected, autonomous cars and trucks.

For example, an autonomous vehicle operated via a cloud-based, autonomous driving system must be able to stop, accelerate or turn when told to do so. Any network latency or loss in signal coverage preventing the message from being delivered could result in catastrophic consequences.

For countries that have their sights set on new services such as smart factories, a straight-up 5G wireless technology that is no longer dependent on an existing 4G network could make more sense.

The race for Standalone 5G

Already, 5G commercial services have rolled out in countries such as the United States, South Korea and China. Singapore has been left behind in the first burst of 5G construction – the race for NSA. But as the second burst of 5G SA begins, the city state must embrace the standalone network as soon as possible as it could make smart manufacturing real.

Today, 5G has become a key technology that is enabling the transformation of smart manufacturing, and connecting widely distributed and scattered people, machines, and equipment to a universal network.

The emergence of 5G is bringing a revolution. This will lead to a new era in which humans and machines deeply interact and all things are connected.

5G will inject momentum into the quality and efficiency improvements of the manufacturing industry, as well as into the transformation and upgrading of the real economy.

Indeed, as Singapore’s factories grind to a halt with the coronavirus outbreak puts a stop to the movement of labour, the question is not whether we need to turn to smart manufacturing, but whether we need to accelerate our 5G network plans and bring forward our Industry 4.0 revolution.