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To remain competitive and relevant, companies have to constantly innovate and capitalise on key trends to develop new growth areas that bring in commercial value.
Navigating the sea of technological innovations can be challenging in an era of digital disruptions, and smaller firms may lack the expertise to identify the right technologies relevant to their businesses.
What are some solutions that can help enterprises, including SMEs, automate, and innovate, to achieve productivity improvement, and ultimately, transform to sustain their businesses for the long term?
A*STAR suggests solutions and avenues that may help companies ride the wave of innovation-led success and emerge victorious.
Leveraging digital technologies for new opportunities
Digital technologies such as additive manufacturing, robotics, data analytics and Internet-of-Things (IoT) will form the base of technologies that companies can leverage to remain competitive regionally and globally. In some instances, they may even be disruptive and a complete game-changer to shake up whole industries or create new ones.
Take the manufacturing industry for example. Technological advances are elevating manufacturing to a new level where factories of the future are envisioned to operate autonomously, with minimal supervision. Advanced manufacturing and remanufacturing require the use of technologies such as large volume data scanning systems, robotics, and additive manufacturing, as well as a high degree of intelligence to be embedded into these systems to allow communication across the equipment and decisions to be made autonomously. This future factory concept allows for greater information flow across the shop-floor resulting in more informed production decisions to be made, realising a more efficient use of resources and increased competitiveness.
Pushing the frontiers of Industry 4.0
Firms can tap on the expertise and infrastructure offered by research institutes to push the frontiers of manufacturing technology and become innovation enablers.
A*STAR’s automation capabilities can help to address existing needs as well as prepare companies for the Future of Manufacturing (FoM). Our Ready-To-Go (RTG) technologies can be adopted by companies to help them automate and fulfill repetitive and tedious job functions such as stocktaking and packing, among others. We are also working to implement and co-create robotics technologies as part of Singapore’s Future of Manufacturing initiative.
Companies considering incorporating automation or robotics into their company’s operations can start by auditing current manufacturing processes to identify repetitive or dangerous tasks that can be done better by robots or machines. They can then identify areas for waste reduction and consider adopting technologies to increase productivity and efficiency through use of automation. Finally, they will need to prudently assess the return-on-investment and time needed to recover costs, to decide if it makes financial sense to automate.
Another important component of FoM is Industrial 3D printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing (AM). This approach uses precise addition of material and is able to minimise waste for a reduced environmental footprint, resulting in sustainable manufacturing. A*STAR’s AM Collaborative Industry Project (CIP) was launched in May 2016 to grow AM capabilities among SMEs, and has helped 9 participating SMEs tap into A*STAR’s AM expertise to accelerate their adoption of the technology in their business operations. Among these companies, two have plans to upgrade their capabilities by investing into the purchase of 3D printing equipment and another plans to design their own footwear products by using 3D printing technology.
Through these collaborations, SMEs can be better equipped with capabilities which increase their productivity, grow their existing business or even enable them to venture into new manufacturing sectors and become qualified suppliers. This also creates a healthy local ecosystem for high-value manufacturing which benefits our economy at large.
Innovating for Sustainable Growth
A*STAR actively promotes innovation among enterprises, and has helped over 360 SMEs upgrade their operations through the Technology for Enterprise Capability Upgrading (T-Up) programme, which involves the secondment of A*STAR scientists to help companies drive innovation projects.
Moveon Technologies is a plastic optics manufacturer, which counts Amazon and Google among its clients. The company focuses on building “cutting-edge” capabilities in optical component fabrication with the goal to be a “one-stop solution” provider in this niche industry. With improved processes and solutions, A*STAR helped the company further optimise its production processes and expand its technical capabilities to provide innovative solutions to its customers and propel it up the value chain.
The CEO of Moveon Technologies Mr Chee Teck Lee noted that through its collaborations with A*STAR, the company was able to tap on R&D talent seconded from A*STAR to help drive research activities, leading to new and breakthrough solutions further down the road.
For other companies, such as industrial surface specialist PJI Contract, a collaboration with A*STAR resulted in the development of new products and technologies. PJI has a new range of coating solutions utilising nanotechnology licensed from A*STAR. Through close collaborations with technology providers, the company was able to customise solutions to cater to its suite of multinational clients requiring different processes.
Increasingly, companies like Moveon and PJI are recognising the critical need for continuous R&D to achieve sustainable growth. These companies typically set aside 5 to 10 per cent of revenue for R&D.
Breaking into International Markets
Start-ups and SMEs often find it an uphill task trying to break into markets beyond Singapore despite having good products and services as they lack a strong expansion business plan, and the much-needed access to key stakeholders.
Curiox BioSystems, an A*STAR spin-off from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) is an example of how a tech startup in the biomedical industry was able to successfully expand into global markets with an innovative product, the DropArray™ technology.
Curiox is a bioinstrumentation company enabling the miniaturisation and improved automation of bioassays for researchers working in life sciences, drug discovery, and diagnostics. Back when the technology was still in its nascent stage, ETPL, A*STAR’s commercialisation arm incubated the development of the technology to make it more market-ready, including improving the sensitivity of the platform, developing a prototype and taking it to clinical testing.
However, as a start-up, the company did not have the financial means to hire the best talent, and to expand successfully nor did they have the necessary track record to break into competitive key markets, like the U.S. and Europe, where the bulk of their potential customers were.
In 2012, International Enterprise (IE) Singapore recognised the potential of the company’s innovative product and began working closely with Curiox to support its global growth. In addition to funding, the start-up now has access to top-notch employees, a critical element of the company’s growth. IE has also helped opened doors to connect Curiox to potential distributors in the U.S. and Europe.
Today, nine out of 15 of the world’s top pharmaceutical companies have already adopted Curiox’s technology and business continues to grow.
Working Together for Transformation
Companies need not go through the process of innovation for transformation alone. SMEs are encouraged to continually engage the relevant government agencies, such as A*STAR, SPRING Singapore, and IE Singapore in their journey towards innovation-led growth. Through public-private partnerships, SMEs can have access to a wide spectrum of capabilities and technology infrastructure to co-innovate their product pipelines and grow competitiveness in their own sectors.
A*STAR has various programmes that provide support to the industry, helping companies to automate, innovate and transform to achieve sustainable growth for their businesses in the long-term.
To find out how you can work with A*STAR to sustain your business through innovation, contact us at A-STAR_SME@a-star.edu.sg.
By Liau Eng Soon
Director, ASTAR's Industry Development Office, SME Office