Moving Thailand manufacturing up the value chain
Despite accounting for over 6 million jobs and contributing to 34% of the Thai economy earlier in the year, it is no secret that the sector is on a downward spiral. According to the Thai Ministry of Industry (MOI), the nation’s manufacturing production index (MPI) dropped for a ninth consecutive month in June 2023, declining by 5.24% compared to 2022.
This has prompted MOI to predict the nation’s MPI to drop for the entirety of 2023, in contrast to the previously forecasted 0-1% growth rate. Significant impacts to the Thai economy have already been taking effect, with the Finance Ministry already revising outlooks on economic growth down to 3.5% from the initial 3.6%. As manufacturing holds such an important slice of the Thai economy, it is something that needs addressing soon.
While policies and assistance will be trickled down from the government, variety of solutions have been mooted at the organisational level to give an injection of output and efficiency for manufacturers – with the adoption of automation being a prime candidate.
Automation in Manufacturing
Thailand’s manufacturing industry has been driven by a skilled workforce. The downside of a skilled workforce is a higher cost of labour, compared to competing nations which are emerging as alternative low-cost manufacturing options. In addition, Thailand has a high literacy rate with approximately 100,000 engineering, technology and science graduates every year, and as demographics change, the younger workforce increasingly seek jobs that are mentally more rewarding.
To keep up with these changes, automation has been looked at as a solution for more effective and efficient manufacturing, especially in automotive, electrical & electronics (E/E), and food processing. Under the umbrella of automation, collaborative robots (cobots) are one such solution, offering small-sized robot arms that pack a big punch.
Cobots have been growing in popularity in manufacturing industry worldwide and expected to show strong adoption due to the host of benefits they bring, including lowering production costs while improving the quality of products, despite their smaller footprint. Cobots adoption is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 32 percent from 2023 to 2030 globally. Compared to industrial robots, cobots cost less, take up less space, and consume less energy.
Cobots and Their Benefits
Firstly, cobots offer businesses a flexible solution for their manufacturing floor. In cobots, manufacturers get an automated solution that can be scaled according to market demands, giving an all-in-one solution for the needs of the sector. “If necessary, a single cobot can be programmed and redeployed to perform multiple tasks,” said Thanakrit Thaneerat, Country Manager Thailand at Universal Robots. “They are compact and light and can switch tasks without major disruption to floor space or existing cells.” Cobots can perform any task from metal stamping and testing, to quality inspection and machine tending. Heavy-duty and multi-part material handling can be performed by cobots as well, all without compromising on precision.
Cobots also help increase manufacturing efficiency by maximising the potential of human workers. Workers constantly must juggle work responsibilities and ensure that all tasks – from mundane to complex and at times dangerous ones such as shifting heavy loads in palletising and high heat in welding, or exposure to hazardous chemicals – are fulfilled. The introduction of cobots help alleviate the burden, offering humans a helping hand in completing mundane, hazardous and repetitive tasks. “On the manufacturing floor, cobots are designed to collaborate with us – the human workers,” said Thanakrit. “They free us to focus on the more complex and cognitive responsibilities at work, and at the same time, provide a safer environment for workers.” This is one of the most appealing features of collaborative automation, as completing certain mundane and repetitive tasks are increasingly hard to find workers for.
In turn, the introduction of cobots can significantly improve job satisfaction for employees, relieving them from dull and dangerous work, while allowing them to focus on more rewarding and meaningful tasks which previously was hard to complete due to the workload. With the added help, efficiency and manufacturing output is increased.
Another key benefit of cobots is their ability to improve product quality. Cobots eliminate human errors while ensuring consistency and accuracy and can handle more complex manufacturing processes. This results in higher-quality products being produced, which are demanded by consumers at lower costs. “With the help of cobot precision, manufacturers can meet these demands and continue output at great efficiency,” added Thanakrit.
Locally, Benchmark Thailand determined that an automated assembly and testing production line with cobots can improve production efficiency, output quality, customer satisfaction, and future proofing. Through this implementation, Benchmark deployed four UR5 and two UR10e cobots in its line, which translated to them upping their operational efficiency by 25%.
The Future of Thailand's Manufacturing Sector
Cobots have the potential to transform Thailand's manufacturing sector by improving output, product quality, and employee satisfaction. As the adoption of cobots increases, Thailand can position itself as a leader in advanced manufacturing and attract more foreign investments.
“The use of cobots will not replace human workers but rather enhance their capabilities,” said Tharnakrit. “Cobots allow humans to focus on tasks that require creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills while upping efficiency and manufacturing output with robotic precision.”
Cobots’ flexible ability to collaborate with human workers, improve product quality, and enhance productivity undoubtably makes them an asset for the Thai manufacturing sector.
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