The government has set an ambitious goal to raise the contribution of SMEs to 50 per cent of GDP from 36 per cent, under the 13th national social and economic development plan (2021-25). Currently there are three million SMEs comprising 99.7 per cent of Thai businesses, employing 10 million people. However SMEs face challenges in regional and international competitiveness largely due to a lack of knowledge of how to use advanced technology to increase productivity, efficiency and scalability. Those with some knowledge are in the dark on how to begin automating their businesses. Recognising a need to strengthen the country’s competitiveness, the government has identified automation and robotics as key players in its national Thailand 4.0 strategy, allocating significant investment to help SMEs apply advanced technology and upgrade their capabilities to compete globally.
Progressing Towards Thailand 4.0
Thailand 4.0 aims to future proof the local workforce and industries with the goal of becoming a high-income nation. The strategy is centered on nurturing innovation for 10 key future-focused industries, improving existing areas of strength like automotive and electronics as well as next generation industries like aerospace and robotics. This has led to the development of the USD 45 billion (1.5 trillion baht) Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) encouraging greater investment from foreign companies with expertise in hi-tech industries. Adoption of advanced technologies and know-how of foreign firms could help Thailand overcome its skills shortage.
The Thailand Board of Investment (BOI) also announced incentives for business activities related to the robotics and automation industries and technologies. Incentives are also available for new and existing investments aimed at increasing current production efficiencies. Among these robotics technologies include collaborative robots (cobots) – robots designed to work side-by-side with people. Cobots are valuable automation tools, helping businesses increase productivity and product quality without high integration costs. Unlike traditional robots, cobots have enhanced inbuilt safety features, making it safe for people to work in close proximity with the cobots, even without a fencing (subject to risk assessments). Their ergonomic design also makes them lightweight and compact, and enable cobots to operate even within small and confined spaces.
Cobots are user-friendly, easy to program and easy to use. Cobot’s intuitive interface simplifies programming so that even low-skilled employees can easily use them.
There are also many policies to assist SMEs, including a wide range of tax privileges and financial support. For instance, the state-owned SME Bank is offering 8 billion baht in cheap loans for SMEs planning to adopt automation, robotics and online systems to boost capability.
Nurturing a High-Skilled Workforce
In order to support wide-scale adoption of automation technologies across the nation, several parties have come forward to nurture relevant skills and capacities. The government has partnered with the Federation of Thai Industries to set up a Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Academy (MARA). Implemented in three phases over ten years, MARA will focus on workforce development, skills advancement and vocational training to implement robotics and automation in manufacturing.
At the tertiary level, the Institute of Field Robotics (FIBO) at King Mongkut’s University of Technology, in Thonburi, has been offering courses on industrial robotics and automation systems. There are also several local associations and communities, comprising suppliers and developers of industrial robots and automation systems such as TARA and the Thai Robotics Society to foster knowledge sharing. The private sector is also doing its part by providing innovative solutions that benefit manufacturers. For instance, to aid businesses in cobot training and adoption, Universal Robots (UR) offers free online learning modules that are available to everyone. The company will also begin a UR Collaborative Robotics Course in Singapore this August aimed at empowering the public with knowledge and skills to self-deploy and maintain robotics solutions.
Building Smart SMEs
The public and private sectors have made a concerted effort to accelerate the growth and development of automation as the country journeys towards an advanced economy under the Thailand 4.0 vision. Advanced technology, like cobots, can help SMEs grow despite economic challenges, reducing costs, enhancing workers’ skills and increasing revenues. This creates future-ready businesses who are able to play a key role in generating income for the economy.