Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers: Andrew Nee

Over the course of his career, Professor Andrew Nee has been at the forefront of both computer-aided precision engineering and augmented reality.

Andrew Yeh-Ching Nee
Professor of Manufacturing Engineering, National University of Singapore
Chairman of Manusoft Technologies Pte Ltd.

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AsianScientist (Sep. 16, 2015) – This month’s interviewee for Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers is Professor Andrew Nee, an expert on the use of computer-aided design in precision engineering as well as an augmented reality pioneer. He was the dean of engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS) from 1995 to 1998, going on to serve in various other capacities such as the co-director of the Singapore-MIT Alliance (2002-2005) and the director of the NUS Office of Research (2005-2008).

Nee’s research on computer-aided plastic injection mold design led to a spin-off company, Manusoft Technologies, in 1997. It’s flagship product, a powerful and easy-to-use 3D computer-aided mold design (CAMD) software called IMOLD, has been sold worldwide to customers such as Gillette, Hitachi and Foxconn.

In 2001, Nee was elected President of the Paris-based International Academy for Production Engineering (CIRP), the foremost international academy dedicated to production engineering research. Nee is also a Founding Fellow of the Singapore Academy of Engineering. Last year, he was awarded the US Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Gold Medal, becoming the first Asian outside of Japan to win the honor.

You are widely recognized for your work in precision engineering. Could you share with us some of the achievements in this field that you are most proud of?

I started my research on surface grinding with diamond and cubic boron nitride (cBN) abrasives as a PhD research topic. Grinding is a precision engineering process for finishing products to high surface finish and tolerance. Over the next 20 years, I continued to work on precision engineering in three major areas, namely computer-aided plastic injection mold design, progressive sheet metal stamping dies and computer-aided design of machining fixtures.

Andrew Nee, Professor of Manufacturing Engineering at the National University of Singapore and Chairman of Manusoft Technologies Pte Ltd. Credit: Andrew Nee.
Andrew Nee, Professor of Manufacturing Engineering at the National University of Singapore and Chairman of Manusoft Technologies Pte Ltd. Credit: Andrew Nee.

How has the popularity of 3D printing changed precision manufacturing, if at all?

3D printing is not a new technology, it was developed 30 years ago by Charles Hull in the form of stereolithography, where a UV laser is used to cure UV-sensitive polymer layer by layer to form a part and it was known as rapid prototyping.

3D printing has been useful in making tools and molds for mass production of plastic and metal parts and it is an exciting tool for creative design-and-build type of work where accuracy is not paramount. It has already seen useful applications in the medical field, in making prostheses, bone tissues, organ parts, etc.

But in real engineering applications, it is still some years away as the surface finish, tolerance level, material properties, etc. cannot be compared to traditional machining processes. Some people have claimed that you can 3D print an entire car, but you can only print the casing. If you want to print the engine, its insides and all the electrical connections, it’s impossible at this moment. It is also an expensive and slow process, not suitable for high-volume production.

My conclusion is that it complements the traditional manufacturing processes but does not replace them, at least not at this moment and maybe for quite some years to come.

In the early decades after independence, much of Singapore’s economic growth was driven by manufacturing. How do you think manufacturing will play a role in Singapore’s economy in the decades to come?

Manufacturing will continue to be one of the pillars of economic growth for Singapore. However, the scenario has changed rapidly as the region is catching up with the more basic manufacturing technologies and processes.

Singapore therefore has to move into more complex and higher value-added products such as advanced medical devices, micro and nanoelectronic and optical products, etc., utilizing advanced technologies comprising of both software and hardware.

I expected that future manufacturing systems will make substantial use of information and communications technologies (ICT) such as Internet of Things (IoT), cloud data storage, smart factories, intelligent machines and robots, sensors, etc. The keywords for future manufacturing are: sustainability, efficiency, autonomy, data integrity and security. A convergence of man, machine and information will see this happening.

Professor Andrew Nee (right) discussing a project with students. Credit: Andrew Nee.
Professor Andrew Nee (right) discussing a project with students. Credit: Andrew Nee.

What can Singapore do to ensure that the manufacturing sector remains competitive?

Singapore is actually a unique situation because most of the big players are multi-national companies (MNCs). Very often, they use whatever technology their headquarters provides and deploy this in Singapore. But we have a responsibility to develop such technology for our own local companies. If our local companies are not at the same level, they cannot be partners with the MNCs.

About 30 years ago, there was a government effort to train the local companies to use computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD-CAM). This actually has been very successful because most of the big companies at that time no longer used the drawing board; they always used computer-aided design. If the local company wanted to work with them, all their designs had to be computer-based. So that was successful 30 years ago. So now we have to look at the new scenario of Industry 4.0, IoT and how can we hook up very quickly to the MNCs.

I think that manpower training is still the most important. The polytechnics, universities and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) will continue to play an important role at the different levels of manufacturing scenarios, the latest technologies and how they can be applied through training them to be more familiar with the tools and the development.

In Singapore, we have universities, ST Engineering–those institutes can actually do a lot of useful work. We should develop our own technology as well as see what is available overseas. We should not reinvent the wheel; we should leapfrog on those technologies and customize them to our own use, developing our own interface to suit our applications–I think that is most important.

What would you say to encourage more young people to take up engineering careers?

Engineering is generally considered to be tough and challenging as it is a professional degree and there is a high responsibility of the work carried out by engineers.

Although younger people are now drawn to other seemingly more attractive fields such as business and finance, engineering has not lost its bite or shine and it never will. Engineering is versatile, and it is also a training of the mind to be more analytical and better organized, doing things in a more logical and systematic way.

A good number of engineering graduates have ventured out into other non-engineering fields and they are mostly successful. When asked whether they should have chosen a different discipline to begin with, most of them said engineering has given them the fundamental training to think logically, the ability to analyze situations with scientific and mathematical tools, and also if their new venture does not work out, they have their basic engineering training to fall back on.

Professor Andrew Nee (right) receiving a commemorative plaque on the occasion of his appointment as honorary professor at Tianjin University in 2012. Presenting the gift is Professor Zhong Denghua (left), Vice President of Tianjin University. Credit: Tianjin University.
Professor Andrew Nee (right) receiving a commemorative plaque on the occasion of his appointment as honorary professor at Tianjin University in 2012. Presenting the gift is Professor Zhong Denghua (left), Vice President of Tianjin University. Credit: Tianjin University.

At which point did you become interested in augmented reality (AR) and why?

About 20 years ago, I was attracted to manufacturing simulation using tools such as virtual reality (VR). VR is effective for learning and training, where one can be immersed in a computer-generated virtual world.

Augmented reality has emerged and it has, to a large extent, replaced VR in terms of higher intuition and immersive feeling for the users. With AR, it is also not necessary to create the entire virtual environment, which is costly and time-consuming. AR simply augments computer graphics, animation and text on the real scene. I started to work on this field 12 years ago. At that time, augmented reality was still quite basic. We thought that this was an opportunity we should make a head start in.

What are some applications of augmented reality that we will see in the next five to ten years? What do you hope the field will achieve during your lifetime?

The biggest advantage of augmented reality is providing a bridge between the digital and real worlds. Augmented reality will continue to see many applications in our daily living. The number of areas is actually getting larger and larger; they are able to cover many areas now. These include gaming, sports, medical and military applications.

In the manufacturing side, it can provide training. For example, in machining, we can have a simulation to see how a machine is being cut before being used on the real work-piece. In assembly operations, we can train an operator to assemble parts using augmented reality. In robotic applications, we can plan the path for the robot.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: National University of Singapore.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Rebecca did her PhD at the National University of Singapore where she studied how macrophages integrate multiple signals from the toll-like receptor system. She was formerly the editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine.

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