Battling COVID-19 with Technology

Taiwan’s technical strengths will also benefit its economic recovery.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan was already investing heavily in advanced manufacturing and networking technologies. It’s recent success in containing the spread of COVID-19 at home puts it in good standing to become a leader in a variety of next-generation platforms that can be employed to fight the virus globally. While both local Taiwanese and multinational firms are busy developing new COVID-19-focused solutions, others are quickly repurposing existing systems to help countries manage the pandemic.

A major driver in the deployment of COVID-19 detection and mitigation technologies will be Edge Computing. The edge is a computing architecture that provides real-time processing close to the source of the data. It is largely driven by the emergence of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which often involves remote monitoring of industrial and commercial applications and typically requires low-latency and high-bandwidth networks. These systems can be deployed in both remote regions and in distributed networks where cloud or hyperscale data centers may be too slow or unable to support the local bandwidth, especially where high-resolution video processing is required. 

Edge Computing systems were generally not expected to become mainstream until global 5G cellular networks were implemented. However, the urgency of fighting the pandemic in both mature and emerging markets is pulling forward the demand for remote monitoring applications by two to three years. This will require that many countries invest in edge technologies that can be weaved into their existing 3G and 4G networks, even in rural or remote areas. 

Taiwan has some major technological advantages. It is renowned for its technical expertise in hardware systems such as edge networking devices, advanced semiconductors, and robotics. Recently, the government has been making investments in artificial intelligence, smart manufacturing (commonly referred to as Industry 4.0) and 5G. These next-generation technologies will provide the backbone for innovations in COVID-19 detection and management while also delivering new revenue streams for Taiwanese companies seeking new markets and applications. 

Artificial Intelligence & Edge-Computing

Taiwan is making some big strides in AI development, both in terms of the software applications and the hardware needed for AI computing. It has shown strength in two areas in particular:

  • Advanced GPUs: These will support new applications requiring high-processing GPU speeds. NVIDIA has developed a new Edge-AI GPU card (EGX A100), which uses TSMC’s advanced processor.  Data can be real-time processed at the edge and then sent back to the cloud for deep learning.
  • Computer Vision: Technologies include mask identification, temperature monitoring, facial recognition, and social distancing management. Early examples include retail solutions developed by the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) for Family Mart. They monitor consumer pathways, automate in-store purchases, and eliminate the need for in-store clerks with automated point of sale checkouts.
Taiwan currently has an advantage in producing technology to combat COVID-19 – such as mask-detection and temperature screening platforms – that can be used around the world. Photo: Martti Chen

Industry 4.0 & IIoT

The highest-impact COVID-19 mitigation technologies involve remote management of systems in high-traffic areas. These devices need to work in outdoor or harsh environments and their use can range from retail and commercial office to manufacturing and smart cities. Examples of Taiwan’s progress in this area include:

  • Augmented Reality: Factory workers can use enhanced vision systems in the form of smart glasses that convey, via RFID monitoring, real-time floor-level information such as work instructions, worker-proximity alerts, and WIP information. Effectively managed, this can eliminate the need for human-to-human contact on the shop floor.
  • Material Handling and Process Automation: Robotic systems for warehouse management and factory floor automation remove human interaction from inventory and material management.
  • IIoT Devices: Taiwan specializes in smart sensors and industrial gateways which provide factories, data centers, and smart cities with remote monitoring in applications where human-to-human contact is typically required.

5G & Edge-Networks

Taiwan is currently launching 5G cellular networks but will have a more significant role in developing network devices that can be used in Edge Computing. It is home to a wide range of vendors who specialize in network switches and servers that can be used to build out high-performance solutions on the edge such as:

  • Remote Healthcare Solutions: High-speed audio and video devices can allow doctors to diagnose and work with patients from their home, minimizing high-risk traffic in hospitals and clinics. In addition, advanced networks can allow surgeons to operate via robotics to minimize infection risk. 
  • Work-from-Home (WFH) Technologies: Service providers can upgrade their last-mile networks (the final leg of a telecommunications network that delivers services to end-users) with high-bandwidth edge-network devices that are often overloaded by live video-streaming. Such a setup would allow WFH to become a seamless part of business operations. This is especially critical in emerging markets, where high infection rates and poor network performance have caused significant economic disruption. 
  • Mobile Technologies: Taiwan is home to some major 5G mobile phone manufacturers such as Foxconn and Asus. These firms can be employed to manage mobile IoT devices in automotive and smart city applications. Mobile technologies will allow for on-the-go transactions, reducing the need for cash, while also providing advanced health monitoring for early virus detection. 
Remote healthcare solutions may become more widespread due to COVID-19.

Taiwan’s Market Advantages

Given Taiwan’s effective virus management, including strict quarantine procedures for all citizens and foreign residents returning from overseas, no new locally generated cases of COVID-19 have been reported on the island since April. Taiwan’s local businesses have thus been able to remain fully operational throughout the pandemic. As a result, many multinationals seeking new supply chain options can find a safe place to purchase high-tech products in Taiwan and leverage the following advantages:

  • Vertical integration of engineering, test labs, and manufacturing for rapid development.
  • Local component supply base, allowing for low lead times and minimal risk.
  • Highly skilled product and manufacturing engineering resources.
  • Government support for the research and development of advanced manufacturing and AI.
  • Enforced IP protection laws, which provide for safe partnerships in contract manufacturing.
  • Repatriation of top-level engineering talent seeking safety during the pandemic.
  • Repatriation of manufacturing capital from local companies seeking to avoid trade barriers.
  • Emerging start-up ecosystem for new tech companies with government sponsorship.
  • Safe, local environment for visiting suppliers testing and implementing new systems.
  • Trustworthy networking systems approved for international use in critical applications.

Challenges to Overcome

Over 70% of Taiwan’s exports are to Asia-Pacific countries, with approximately 40% exclusively to China, and electronics account for more than of half of these. As countries begin reconsidering the makeup of their global supply chains, Taiwan is faced with both opportunities and risks. It will therefore need to identify the most attractive regions and technologies as tech companies pivot into new markets.

Current headwinds to promoting international investment in Taiwan include travel restrictions, higher manufacturing costs, and geopolitical risks. However, the opportunities for Taiwanese manufacturers and AI or software development firms to partner with both multinationals and regional channel partners are quickly expanding. OEM and branded companies alike are now investing in commercial resources to help globally promote their technologies, which is often the biggest challenge for engineering-focused manufacturers.

Conclusions

Bolstered by government support for the development of AI and smart manufacturing, Taiwan is positioned to quickly emerge as a global leader in next-generation technologies that can help the world make its way through the COVID-19 pandemic. With the surplus of talent currently repatriated to the island, many multinationals are looking to Taiwan for its advanced R&D capabilities, as well as to use the local market as a safe testing hub to pilot-launch new systems. 

In addition, local tech companies have been reinvesting a significant amount of production back to Taiwan, creating an industrial base to support contract manufacturing, rapid prototyping, and development. These companies are also using the current environment to promote their “Made in Taiwan” brand, viewed internationally as both high-value and trustworthy. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *