Once associated with a dystopian future, robots were feared to be a replacement for man and even an existential threat to mankind. Enter cobots, or collaborative robots: machines that are meant to work alongside humans and augment our capabilities.

Cobots have become part of our everyday life, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic. They are keeping employees safe from Covid-19 by taking over work that may involve high human interaction and exposure to the virus. Singapore, for instance, has deployed a four-legged robot, Spot, as part of a trial to encourage safe distancing at parks. Traditional chinese medicine clinics have also deployed Emma – a cobot that can carry out highly articulated massage movements that mimic the human touch, freeing up time for the physicians to focus on consultation and treatment planning during the peak periods.

“Cobots will become part of the new norm as Singapore heads towards achieving Smart Nation status,” says Tay Ee Learn, Director of Technical Skills Product Division, NTUC LearningHub (NTUC LHUB).He shares the company’s plans to upskill Singapore’s workforce for the future of cobots.

The rise of cobots

Singapore is second to South Korea in terms of its installation of industrial robots – it has installed 488 robots per 10,000 employees, according to the International Federation of Robotics. SGD3.2 billion has also been set aside for advanced manufacturing and engineering under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 plan, to spur digital adoption and transformation for manufacturers to become globally competitive.

In September, several robots that clean floors, inspect false ceilings, disinfect lift panels and map the density of mosquitoes are being test-bedded at the Tampines Round Market and Food Centre.

“These robots will alleviate humans from repetitive and strenuous tasks, complementing humans to ease their workload while achieving higher productivity. Workers can then be freed up to focus on more advanced tasks that require human cognition,” says Ee Learn.

“Ultimately, we hope that workers can see robots as partners to help them in their daily work, and there may need to be a mindset shift to achieve this,” he adds.

What would that mean for skills?

Employers need to chart a strategic vision of their future workplace and upskill their workers to build closer collaborations with cobots and leverage their potential.

“NTUC LHUB has partnered with SoftBank Robotics Japan to train Singapore’s cleaners on the proper deployment of cobots such that these technological implementations become a complement instead of detriment in routine and repetitive tasks, allowing cleaners to free up their time for more complex tasks,” Ee Learn says.

“Operation managers and cleaning supervisors will be trained on how to manage vacuum cleaning robots, such as SoftBank Robotics’ AI cleaning robot, Whiz. Employees will be able to troubleshoot issues and pass on the knowledge to their colleagues,” he adds.

“Managers and supervisors will also be taught how to analyse the data collected by the cobots, to plan their operations and deploy their teams and enhance overall productivity,” says Ee Learn.

The training will enable workers to independently deploy robots, bringing greater efficiency, higher utilisation rates and faster turnaround times for service buyers.

“Robots are optimal for repetitive tasks, whereas the human mind is far more superior for creative tasks. Soft skills such as communication, leadership, and change management will be required,” says Ee Learn.

NTUC LHUB is working with training providers such as the John Maxwell Company and Kotter International to equip employees with these skills. This will deliver the best of both worlds as humans partner with robots.

Through this training initiative, we hope that it can elevate Singapore’s hygiene and cleanliness standards as well as prepare the workforce in embracing Singapore’s Smart Nation plan,” says Ee Learn.

Shaping a post-Covid workforce

The pandemic has altered companies’ calculations on digitalisation investments, and new capabilities such as voice and language recognition are encouraging the adoption of cobots. As such, employees’ skill sets must adapt to leverage the possibilities of cobots. “The future of business will be more digitally-driven than before,” says Ee Learn.

According to NTUC LHUB’s recent Employer Skills report, digital marketing, project management skills, data analysis, basic IT support, and data-driven decision-making skills are the top five skills coveted by employers.

Apart from digital skills, adaptive skills are also important for both workers and businesses to overcome the current crisis and be prepared for the future. Soft skills such as adaptability and resilience, and teamwork and collaboration are essential in helping organisations transform and thrive amid an uncertain future.

NTUC LHUB has transitioned to online learning for employees to better balance learning and work, Ee Learn says. Hundreds of in-person courses have been redeveloped into virtual live classes, with over 400 instructors trained for these classes, he adds. NTUC LHUB has also partnered with IBM, DuPont Sustainable Solutions, and Go1 to offer bite-sized online courses.

“We will continue to bring in world-class knowledge to help companies and workers adapt in this new world order,” he adds

As more companies adopt the use of cobots, skills upgrading will be key to ensure our workforce are ready to work with these machines and face the challenges of tomorrow.

Ee Learn heads the Technical Skills Product Division, one of the largest provider of Workplace Safety and Health training in Singapore. The division works with the regulators, unions and industry to provide a comprehensive range of learning services and solutions for the advanced manufacturing, built environmental and trade & connectivity clusters.