Derrick Yap, CEO of PBA Group, offers forecasts and lessons from the robotics and automation industry

Startup founders all aspire to be unicorns, but I like to call my company, PBA Group, a phoenix. 

My father founded Precision Bearings and Accessories in 1987 as a ball bearing distributor. While we're a mature company, we've reinvented ourselves. We've been reborn, and today PBA means "Platform for Bots and Automation", as we've radically pivoted to become a successful robotics and automation company that helps businesses to harness Industry 4.0 technologies. These are technologies, says McKinsey, that are seeing in the digitisation of the manufacturing sector—driven by connectivity, advanced analytics, automation, and advanced-manufacturing technologies. 

When I took the helm at PBA Group, my priority was to harness these new technologies as part of our strategies to future-proof the company. We could easily have continued what we were doing—after all it was still making good money – but I felt the hardware trading business lacked growth potential and was vulnerable to market changes. So we transformed ourselves from a distributor to a product owner, and from a component maker to a platform. We’ve now built R&D centres in Korea, Taiwan and China, and have over 500 employees in 10 countries—proof that mature companies can and should evolve to stay relevant.

Here are some key learnings and forecasts about the future of automation and robotics.

Developing and developed countries require different robotics solutions

Singapore is a very small market, but conducts a lot of testbedding and experimental research because our government is extremely supportive of the tech industry. However, a product that takes off here may not be as successful elsewhere. Take the autonomous cleaning robots you see in Singapore’s malls and airport as an example. It makes sense to rent or buy such robots here, given Singapore’s high labour costs and government subsidies for adopting technology.

However. the value proposition of these robots would be very different in a country like Indonesia, where wages are considerably lower. For these markets, we focus on automated solutions that do things that humans can’t do, or that humans can do but not for long. An example is automated inspection, where you need to inspect hundreds or thousands of objects coming off the production line. Or we’ll introduce automation in scenarios where objects need to be positioned with micron and nano accuracy, which humans simply aren’t capable of.

 

Factories will return to Europe and the US

The future will be so automated that the labour content to the cost of products will be minimal. This means that factories will return to high-tech, high-labour-cost countries like Europe and the US, where labour wages are five or six times that of Asia. Companies there will want factories to be closer to their customers, which enables reduced freight costs, a quicker reaction time and improved customer service.

In the past, we didn’t see a need to expand to the West, as Asia was growing rapidly and globalisation meant that US and European companies were setting up shop in the region. But in recent years, we’ve seen a supply chain split where Asia seems to be producing for Asia, while Europe and US want to build their own supply chain.

The electric vehicle (EV) market offers immense growth potential

Ten years ago, no one was keen on the electric vehicle market but now it’s driving so much technological change. And this is only the start—EV currently represents just a tiny percentage of the market versus traditional internal combustion cars, so its growth trajectory is going to be immense. PBA provides the precision robotics used in the multiple processes required to build the lithium batteries used in EVs. We currently supply BYD but aim to supply our tech to all the EV brands and lithium battery manufacturers. We want to be a platform for tech companies, not their competitors. Much like Intel, which doesn’t build laptops but builds the chip that empowers companies to build better laptops or phones.

 

Cobots will become widespread

Robots used to exist only behind the scenes but as production methods become more advanced, faster and cheaper we’ll see the proliferation of cobots— collaborative robots that are designed to interact with humans. These include robots that brew coffee, or PBA’s Sunburst UV Bots, which we created in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. These mobile robots emit a powerful, disinfecting UV-C light and were deployed across Singapore’s shopping malls, healthcare and transport facilities during the height of the pandemic.

Everyday objects will physically change to accommodate automation

We get a lot of enquiries from hotels about introducing automation into changing bed linens. It’s a stress point as they need to hire a lot of manpower daily to carry the heavy beds, lay the new sheets, fold the blankets and so on. It’s backbreaking work, especially for older staff! It got me thinking that in the future, the physical form of beds could very well change so that it can accommodate automation.

Just take the dustbins you see everywhere in Singapore. They have a distinctive rectangular shape with hinges that easily hook onto dump trucks, which are automated to lift them, flip them and unload rubbish. Dustbins weren’t always shaped this way but they changed so that automation could take place.

Prepare your children for the future by raising their AQ

We’ve all heard that occupations like lawyers, accountants and many doctors can be replaced by AI since it’s superior in terms of finding precedents, balancing the books, or diagnosing illnesses accurately. I even attended a talk where several participants asked the speaker, an AI expert, if their children should go to coding school. The expert said there are currently multiple AIs being taught to code AI so eventually we won’t even need humans to do this.

In the future, most industries will experience change or be disrupted. I’m training my kids to be generalists who appreciate tech, not engineers. We need people who are all-rounded. In the past, IQ and EQ were important, now it’s AQ, or Adaptability Quotient, that is critical for thriving in the future. How fast can you change and adapt as technology and environments change?

That’s why in 2016 we launched the Robotics Automation Centre of Excellence (RACE), a not-for-profit academy which upskills engineers with the up-to-date technological know-how that the industry needs. Tech disrupts so fast that what you learn in school will be three or four years out of date by the time you graduate. What’s important is to keep abreast of the latest advancements in technology and understand where it can best be applied to improve lives—that’s where the winning edge is.

Derrick Yap is CEO of PBA Group, a family-owned, Singapore-based regional company which builds robotics products and offers turnkey automation solutions to help businesses scale up with Industry 4.0 technology.

This piece is part of a collaboration between Tatler Asia and Young Presidents’ Organisation (YPO), a global leadership community of chief executives, which counts more than thirty thousand individuals from 142 countries among its members.

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