Rare materials for industrial revolution


NOWADAYS, everyone seems to be talking about Industry 4.0 or the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4.0). Even politicians are now harping on the need for the nation to seriously embrace Industry 4.0, which involves artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things and data science, just to name a few.

I was in Munich recently to attend a forum on the current global interests in research and development (R&D). As expected, the deliberations were focused on the growing research investments in Industry 4.0, specifically applied research that are nearest to the market place.

The forum was hosted by the Fraunhofer Research Network of Germany, also known as the Fraunhofer Gesselschaft, which many in the applied research circle recognise as the leading applied research network in Germany, if not the world. There are now 70 institutes under the grouping, and the recent event also celebrated the group’s 70 years of establishment.

Their model of industry-centred R&D has been hailed as the most effective in translating the findings of R&D for deployment in business. No wonder Germany is often recognised as a country which leads in many areas of technology. In fact, industry 4.0 was coined in Germany.

In Malaysia, we have also taken the first steps in embracing Industry 4.0. There is now a blueprint on it for the nation. Hosted by the International Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti), the blueprint aims to motivate the business community to incorporate the relevant Industry 4.0 elements in their operations.

But contrary to popular belief, Industry 4.0 is not just about automation and robotics. Essentially, it is about integrating all the elements in business, allowing for a seamless flow of information and data.

It is this integration which effectively empowers the introduction of process automation and the consequent deployment of robotics and AI technologies into the system. The end game is more efficient business operation and improvement in productivity, which many businesses crave.

We are now just talking about the application of Industry 4.0 in business and manufacturing. We must not forget that there are many other business opportunities associated with the global expansion in the use of Industry 4.0 technologies.

I am talking here about the key components driving those techno­logies. These include highly sensitive sensors, super magnets, new generation software and advanced microelectronics that need to be supplied to enable Industry 4.0.

Most of the companies which manufacture such items are in the developed West where the demand for Industry 4.0 practices is already high. As we and our neighbouring countries move into Industry 4.0, the demand for such items is also expected to grow.

It is therefore timely for us to start planning to attract such investments to the country.

One common input material is the rare earths group (pic), which is a critical material in super magnets and sensitive sensors. This explains why China, the world’s leading producer of rare earths, is very excited about the prospect that rare earths will soon replace oil as the most coveted resource in industry.

We are fortunate that we have Lynas, which produces rare earths at our doorstep. Instead of harassing Lynas, we would be better advised to use them as our trump card to attract such Industry 4.0 businesses to our country. Think about that!

PROFESSOR DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM

Fellow

Asean Academy of Engineering and Technology

UCSI University