Published on 27 October 2022 | By Tan Sze Wee | Source: The Business Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission is required for reproduction.
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Singapore's research, innovation and enterprise ecosystem has many offerings to support small and medium-sized enterprises, from the Centres of Innovation in polyclinics to government funding.
On the packing line for Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) prestige skincare products in Japan, trained staff examine empty bottles for defects, getting through 30 to 50 bottles per minute.
A new automated “machine vision” system will raise this rate to 150 bottles per minute – and also raise the bar for quality, by providing more consistent and efficient inspection.
Powered by artificial intelligence, this high-speed bottle inspection technology was developed by Singapore SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) JM VisTec, which has itself gone through changes that are not merely cosmetic.
This shift started in 2014, when two multinational surveillance companies muscled into the market for machine vision solutions, in which JM VisTec was a distributor.
Managing director Eugene Goh’s solution for survival: innovation. The company began to think hard about evolving from a distributor to a technology provider.
JM Vistec became a member of A*STAR’s Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre consortium in 2014. In 2017, the company learnt about a problem that P&G was looking to solve: how to improve product quality by detecting smaller bottle defects, which are difficult to identify by manual visual inspection.
JM Vistec worked with A*STAR to co-develop a solution. By 2018, it developed an automated machine vision system for P&G, which is being rolled out this month after years of testing.
Since then, JM Vistec’s business has grown even more. Its technology was a lifeline for many manufacturers when COVID-19 made manual inspections either impossible or inefficient.
While SMEs like JM VisTec have chosen to innovate to stay relevant and competitive, some have done otherwise, putting innovation on hold in the hope of cutting costs.
But the reality is that the business landscape is changing rapidly. To stay competitive and seize emerging growth opportunities, businesses big and small must continuously evolve.
Taking the innovation plunge
In the Singapore Business Federation’s last National Business Survey in 2021, 65 per cent of organisations considered business transformation – through the adoption of technology, for example – to be “very important”.
However, only 42 per cent said they had increased or would increase their investment in new technology and digitalisation for 2022.
Some organisations believe that innovation is a costly and risky journey, from initial ideas through the various stages of development, testing and training. For a small business with many competing priorities, innovation can understandably be daunting.
Those who find themselves in this dilemma can draw inspiration from companies such as JM Vistec or Flexmech Engineering, a local SME that supplies additive manufacturing machines and tools to other companies.
Within six months of collaborating with A*STAR’s SIMTech Innovation Factory (SIF), Flexmech began selling Industry 4.0 solutions to other enterprises, and helping other local companies digitalise their production processes.
Flexmech worked with SIF on industrial Internet of Things products and solutions, such as wireless sensors that can monitor machines and optimise performance. As a result, the SME has improved its forecast bottom line for 2023 by more than 20 per cent.
Set up in partnership with Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG), the SIF is a co-creation space that supports SMEs which are keen to design and create new products. It helps companies go through strategic technology road mapping; gives them access to leading scientists and engineers to assist with research and development; and licenses out proven technology so SMEs do not have to reinvent the wheel.
With such transfers of technical know-how, a company’s innovation journey is fast-tracked, allowing it to break more quickly into lucrative and growing sectors, and get a place in the value chain.
Both JM Vistec and Flexmech took the plunge with the support of the local research, innovation and enterprise (RIE) ecosystem, and are the better for it.
Singapore’s RIE ecosystem has many offerings to support SMEs. For instance, there are Centres of Innovation established by EnterpriseSG at polytechnics. There, SMEs are supported in product and process innovation, gaining access to speciality equipment and laboratory facilities as well as training services.
For funding, there is EnterpriseSG’s Enterprise Development Grant, which supports projects in which SMEs upgrade their business, innovate or venture overseas. SMEs can also tap the Technology for Enterprise Capability Upgrading (T-Up) programme, under which A*STAR scientists and research engineers are seconded to companies to help them with innovation.
To further fast-track the process of getting from the lab bench to the market, a range of national platforms have been set up to support SMEs.
There is the Diagnostics Development (DxD) Hub, hosted in A*STAR. Since the start of the pandemic, DxD Hub has collaborated with public sector partners to help companies develop COVID-19 diagnostic tests for different use cases. It has also transferred technology know-how to biotech companies, which have manufactured test kits used here and abroad.
The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster (NAMIC), a national platform previously hosted by Nanyang Technological University, connects industry players, researchers and the government to identify promising additive manufacturing technologies.
Since its inception, NAMIC has raised more than S$50 million in private-public funding, supporting around 245 projects and companies to drive development and adoption of additive manufacturing. For example, it supported National University of Singapore spin-off KosmodeHealth to develop plant-based bio-inks for its 3D bio-printing platform. This enabled KosmodeHealth to launch its proprietary plant protein composite scaffold, which its customers now use for 3D cell cultures.
Integrating into global supply chains
Borders are gradually reopening as the world adapts to living with COVID-19. This means new opportunities for SMEs as trade flows get a boost.
To expand into the region, SMEs can consider leveraging Singapore’s Global Innovation Alliance (GIA), a network of local and overseas partners in key markets.
A joint initiative by EnterpriseSG and the Economic Development Board, the GIA connects local companies to overseas business and tech communities. EnterpriseSG’s Market Readiness Assistance Grant also supports companies in taking their business overseas.
Innovation is by no means easy. However, by leveraging the RIE ecosystem for science and tech support and finding the right partners, SMEs can position themselves to seize new opportunities, and thrive amid a changing landscape and intensifying global competition.
As Flexmech’s managing director Tan Ru-Jin says: “It is important to enhance the efficiency and capabilities of local SMEs, while lowering their production capital with innovation, so that home-grown manufacturers can remain competitive in the global arena. A supportive local R&D ecosystem is critical for our success.”