Thailand: State banking on EECi to overcome middle-income trap

The government has high hopes the Eastern Economic Corridor of Innovation (EECi) will play a key role in helping Thailand develop its own technology to escape the middle-income trap.

The middle-income trap is defined as a situation in which a country lifts its economy from a least-developed or low-income nation to a middle-income one, but remains at that level without much prospect of becoming an advanced, rich country.

According to Kanit Sangsubhan, secretary-general of the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) Office, the EECi is instrumental in driving targeted industries that are meant to support Thailand in overcoming the middle-income trap within seven years.

This goal is expected to be achieved with average economic growth of 5% a year and an income of 495,000 baht per person per year, he said.

In 2021, Thai per capita income was 232,176 baht, according to the National Economic and Social Development Council.

The EECi is an innovation hub located in the heart of the EEC in Wangchan district, Rayong province, spanning 3,454 rai under the management of the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA).

Its main mission is building a comprehensive innovation ecosystem to support the scaling up of local research for industrial use as well as to support the localisation of advanced technologies from abroad for industrial development.

The government has provided 5.7 billion baht worth of initial integrated budget between 2019 and 2024 to support the EECi.

“The government aims to develop the EECi to drive Thailand’s technology and conduct R&D to help upgrade targeted industries as well as technology transfers,” said Mr Kanit. “It is designed to become a pilot plant for R&D that can be further developed on a commercial scale.”

One significant project in the EECi is a biorefinery pilot plant using raw materials from agriculture with a total budget of 3 billion baht. The project aims to support Thailand developing a bio-, circular and green (BCG) economy.

The refinery, which was developed in 2019, is scheduled for completion in 2023. The project is expected to transfer technology to 12 communities within the EEC.

The EECi is scheduled to soon sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with an unnamed Belgian company to support the biorefinery plant, he said.

The Sustainable Manufacturing Center (SMC) worth 5.4 billion baht is another vital project to support Thailand’s move towards Industry 4.0, said the centre. The SMC is a flagship EECi project focusing on supporting the manufacturing sector in its journey to Industry 4.0 through the application of automation, robotics and intelligent systems.

The government provided 1 billion baht worth of integrated budget to support the SMC between 2019 and 2024. The first phase is scheduled to operate this year.

On Feb 10, 2021, NSTDA and SIASUN, China’s leading robotics and automation company in Asia-Pacific headquartered in Singapore, signed an MoU to jointly develop the SMC-SIASUN Innovation Center at EECi. The centre is expected to focus on developing an innovation ecosystem supporting automation, robotics and intelligent system adoption in Thailand’s industrial sector.

“The collaboration will strengthen the position of the SMC to support Thai industries transforming their manufacturing to industry 4.0,” said Mr Kanit.

NSTDA plans to equip the SMC with all necessary service components, specially designed to match Thai manufacturers. These services range from Industry 4.0 readiness assessment, business and technical consultation, advanced manufacturing training aimed at reskilling and upskilling human resources, technology demonstration and an Industry 4.0 testbed for R&D.

The investment is in advanced infrastructure supporting Industry 4.0 adaptation in Thailand, he said.

The SMC, in collaboration with local enterprises and partners from the public and private sectors, initiated a strategic Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) and data analytics platform, applying IoT technology to connect shop floor machines to enterprise IT systems.

The project aims to increase overall productivity, boost the development of the automation and robotics industry, and enhance industrial competitiveness. The platform is being installed in 15 factories with a plan to reach 500 factories within three years.

Another three projects that support BCG economic development are a smart greenhouse conducting research on growing herbs in a control room; a phenomics greenhouse conducting research on growing plants in various environments; and a plant factory researching growing crops. These projects are projected to start operating in 2023.

Other significant projects include a pilot plant for alternative batteries to support the electric vehicle trend and a synchrotron facility slated for operation in 2030. The latter project supports the design of materials for aircraft parts.

Mr Kanit said PTT Plc is responsible for EECi’s infrastructure development, while the remainder of investment is from the private sector for each significant pilot project.