HP’s Singapore lab is a training ground for the next-gen workforce

HP and Nanyang Technological University are upskilling students and workers, and helping build the future of digital manufacturing.

By Sanjay Surana — April 7, 2020

In the western part of Singapore, near army training camps and dense jungle, sits Nanyang Technological University. One of the top colleges in the world, the 500-acre campus is populated with pastel-colored residence halls, glass-walled classrooms, a Chinese garden, and an ornate entry gate. And as of January, it’s also home to the HP-NTU Digital Manufacturing Corporate Lab, a tie-up between the Silicon Valley giant, the university, and the Singapore government.

HP’s first corporate laboratory in Asia, it will play a key role retraining and upskilling the Singapore workforce with an integrated focus on 3D printing, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and cybersecurity, all part of a larger push by the Singapore government to prepare the workforce for the advent of digital manufacturing and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as known as Industry 4.0.

“This is HP’s largest university collaboration worldwide,” notes Dr. Mike Regan, director of research at the lab who moved to Singapore from Oregon to run the facility. “It’s our first holistic lab at a university where we can set up projects and recruit talent. Having a presence in a university allows us to work across different departments.” 

NTU was a natural choice given its preeminent research labs, strong engineering departments, well-respected faculty, many multidisciplinary fields, and student pool of more than 30,000. HP has had a Singapore office since 1970 allowing the lab to leverage the HP site infrastructure, talent pipeline, and business teams, and views Singapore as a key location in the Asia-Pacific region. “We have 50 years’ experience working with the Singapore government,” Regan notes. “The growth of digital manufacturing is in Asia, it’s the hub of the world.”

Scott Woodward

Removing excess powder from 3D-printed parts using the bead blaster (left). Digital manufacturing engineer Vishnu Rajeev Nair readies newly printed HP Multi Jet Fusion parts (right).

Inside the lab

The lab will focus on 15 projects, exploring sectors such as advanced polymers for manufacturing, predictive diagnostics for manufacturing test and quality assessment, and optimization of end-to-end supply chain operations. Just inside large plate-glass doors, cabinets contain cases for tools and phones, shaver housings, prosthetic appendages, all made with HP 3D printing technology. Just beyond, a spacious room lined with desks is where researchers — masters and doctorate students from NTU, lab staff, and HP employees — work on projects, discuss ideas, and tap out code.

In the heart of the lab is the printing room, a broad space with the same sky-blue floor  as the rest of the office. A pair of HP Multi Jet Fusion 5200 monochrome printer clusters and one HP Multi Jet Fusion 580 color printer stand under silvery ducts that snake up to the ceiling. Regan demonstrates the process, from the powder that’s loaded into trolleys that are pushed into the printer housing, to the processing station, to a sealed bead-blaster cleaning unit whose interior is only accessible via built-in rubber gloves. Nylon powder is laid down in thin layers just 100 microns thick to create a product.  Down a narrow corridor, a malware lab is also under construction, a satellite facility to HP’s main cyber security site in Bristol, England, where research will be conducted into how malware can disrupt the security of digital manufacturing environments.

About 85 people, including HP staffers, researchers, professors and students, work at the lab. Most projects start with scope that comes from HP, and then an NTU professor works with an HP employee to develop a research plan, staffing, and project tactics. “The projects must make sense to both HP and NTU,” adds Regan, noting that the manufacturing solutions HP is working on are aimed at affordable, scalable, and customizable manufacturing outfits in areas like dental, footwear, eyewear, and automotive and industrial parts.

Jianmin Zheng, associate professor at the School of Computer Engineering and co-director of the Institute for Media Innovation at NTU, is working on a few different proposals for HP based on geometric processing for 3D-part design, elastic-material design, and geometry control of lattice structures for 3D printing. “The lab provides an excellent base for NTU professors, researchers and students to conduct cutting-edge technologies in close collaboration with HP researchers,” he says. “This also provides a great opportunity to train manpower in this field in Singapore and beyond.”

Scott Woodward

The colorful casing for a sensor-based desk lamp, printed with a HP Multi Jet Fusion 580 printer (left). A 3D-printed hand splint (right).

Skills for the future

The need to upskill workforces is imperative. According to 2018 research by consulting firm Korn Ferry, there will be a global shortfall of 85 million high-skilled workers by 2030, so as technology moves forward, retraining is critical to ensure the workforce remains current. The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs 2018 report states that “workers will see an average shift of 42% in required workplace skills in the period leading up to 2022,” and on average will need 101 days of retraining and upskilling.

For Singapore, projections suggest a staggering labor shortage of 1.1 million out of a workforce of 4 million. Manufacturing has played a key role in the Lion City’s success as it transitioned from a labor-intensive economy to one fueled by innovation, so much so that in 2015 manufacturing accounted for almost one-fifth of GDP. HP’s new lab’s focus on additive, digital, advanced materials manufacturing, as well as robotics and automation, are all core components of Singapore’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan.

“The growth of digital manufacturing is in Asia, it’s the hub of the world.”

— Dr. Mike Regan, Director, HP-NTU Digital Manufacturing Corporate Lab

“The onset of industry 4.0 is unleashing disruptive technologies not only in manufacturing but also in services sectors,” explains Shanti Jagannathan, principal education specialist, Sustainable Development and Climate Change at the Asian Development Bank. “Millions of jobs are likely to be displaced from automation, but the good news is that adoption of Industry 4.0 will also lead to additional labor demand arising from productivity increases.” Skills development, she adds, is critical to mitigate the negative effects of job displacement. As factories adopt technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, and additive manufacturing, there is a great need for re-skilling existing employees for new jobs and up-skilling those whose tasks may dramatically transform with these technologies.

In the first half of this year the lab will start courses taught by HP staff and NTU professors, aimed at retraining the Singaporean workforce. Offered through the government’s SkillsFuture program, the courses range from two to five days and will be focused on 3D printing of advanced polymer products, medical devices and tissues, and for building and construction. Up to 200 continuing education students in the fields of engineering and design are expected to sign up this year. “We are seeing there is a clear need for more people to be trained for the future of manufacturing,” states Regan, adding that giving people exposure to these subjects is critical.  The course modules will eventually become units of specialization for undergraduate and postgraduate students at NTU.

Jagannathan believes that the HP-NTU partnership is a model that developing countries should closely follow. “A tripartite collaboration between industry, a leading academic institution, and the government redefines the triple-helix model for the world of Industry 4.0,” she says.

Vishnu Rajeev, a fresh-faced recent postgraduate from NTU, has benefited from this combined approach. Rajeev was an intern with HP at its first ever Smart Manufacturing Applied Research Center that opened in Singapore three years ago. He joined the new corporate lab as a full-time employee, helping researchers in 3D printing and digital manufacturing. He says the AI and data analytics he is learning with HP are vital new skill sets that will benefit anyone with an interest, even passing, in the field. “You have to be multidisciplinary now, the days of going into one stream are long gone.”


Read how Singapore transforming itself into a living laboratory for smart technology.