Small firms take flight in aerospace industry

Small firms take flight in aerospace industry

The heavily regulated aerospace industry has traditionally been dominated by big players, but some smaller local firms are now getting into the game.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) here have started supplying aerospace components to major companies like SIA Engineering. These components - such as seat armrests and food trays installed in plane cabins - are made to stringent specifications and have typically been supplied by manufacturers abroad.

But the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) aims to help SMEs build a track record in aerospace and open more doors for them, both here and overseas.

The agency's Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) acts as a liaison between SMEs and large local enterprises like SIA Engineering.

It also works with SMEs to improve their manufacturing processes and obtain the documentation required of aerospace component suppliers.

"The aerospace sector has one of the most stringent requirements in the precision engineering industry," said Mr Philip Leow, managing director of Fong Shen Mould And Precision Engineering.

"(The requirements are stricter than) those for the automotive and medical sectors... When you machine a part and deliver it to the aerospace company, they can still come back to you 10 years later and ask you to solve any issues."

The company was part of a consortium of firms which worked with SIMTech to make economy-class armrests for SIA Engineering, a project which started in 2014 and has since been completed.

Fong Shen's role involved inserting metal parts into the plastic armrests to make them sturdier.

The firm, which previously largely did work for industries such as medical, and oil and gas, is now planning to ramp up its involvement in aerospace.

As part of this effort, Fong Shen spent $4 million to fully automate its toolroom, and aims to have revenue from aerospace projects make up 15 per cent of sales in two years' time.

"We have to go in aggressively, not half-heartedly," said Mr Leow, adding that the company is also looking farther afield for aerospace opportunities in countries such as the United States and France.

Another member of the consortium, precision engineering firm LNE Holdings, also has high hopes for its prospects in a sector traditionally dominated by big players and original equipment manufacturers. Business director Lock Wai Meng said the company "jumped at the chance" to take on aerospace projects. "It's a good diversification strategy that's going to last for a long time," he added.

The firm has taken part in three projects with SIMTech so far, including working on cocktail trays for business-class seats, as well as economy-class armrests. All its projects involved plastic injection moulding.

Aerospace contributed about 3 per cent of the company's revenue last year, a share it hopes to raise to 15 per cent this year.

Meanwhile, Surface decoration services firm Maxservo Technology has already embarked on aerospace projects outside Singapore.

The company - which previously mainly served the automotive industry - spray-coated plane cabin components as part of SIMTech's aerospace consortium.

"We managed to secure (other aerospace clients) in Malaysia, and are looking at Thailand as well. Before this, we had been in the automotive sector for the past 15 years," said executive director Yeo Cheng Heong.

This article was first published on Feb 10, 2016.
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