Tech gives Tiong Seng the edge over bigger players abroad

Tech gives Tiong Seng the edge over bigger players abroad

Mention construction and images of foreign workers sweating under hot and dusty conditions immediately spring to mind, not cutting-edge European technology and research.

A visit to home-grown construction and civil engineering contractor Tiong Seng Holdings would change that notion.

The firm has carved out a niche by acquiring international technology and applying it to construction projects, a process that delivers savings on labour and environmentally friendly solutions.

This strategy has enabled the company to compete overseas more effectively despite not having the labour or financial firepower of the big boys in the international arena.

Chief executive Pek Lian Guan said: "We don't have workers to export. I won't be able to offer (clients) cheap labour. In terms of finance, we also have limited capabilities in the international scene.

"Thus, we needed to build certain niche capabilities."

Tiong Seng has invested heavily in construction techniques such as prefabrication and precasting.

Precast concrete is made off-site by casting cement in reusable moulds before being sent to the site to be assembled. Prefabrication involves assembling components of a structure off-site.

For instance, phase one of Resorts World Sentosa, built by Tiong Seng in a joint venture with Japanese firm Kajima, was completed with an estimated 20 per cent to 30 per cent fewer workers than would have been required using older practices.

In May last year, Tiong Seng made headlines when it opened Singapore's first integrated factory producing pre-made parts for construction projects, using German technology for formwork assembly.

Its $36 million facility in Tuas is more than just a conventional prefabrication plant. It also features a workers' dormitory, office space, training centres and a research lab.

Mr Pek said: "If you want to go international, you've got to find a niche which you can offer. Adopting these technologies is one of the ways of getting ourselves ready when the opportunities arise."

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said last year that the Tiong Seng Prefab Hub was an example of how greater automation can help to cut labour costs and land use.

Having its own precasting capabilities enables Tiong Seng to boost productivity by doubling production output to more than 100,000 cubic metres of precast components a year.

It also reduces the labour for precast production by 50 to 70 per cent.

Mr Pek said: "China is growing more wealthy. They are going to face more labour problems.

"Thus, prefabrication is one potential technology that they will adopt. It's an opportunity."

Tiong Seng also sets itself apart in the industry with its emphasis on green building technology.

In 2010, it acquired Swiss green construction technology firm Cobiax - a company known for being able to slash up to 30 per cent of the weight of concrete slabs, thus lowering carbon emissions by about 210kg per cubic metre of concrete.

The use of this technology enables Tiong Seng to reduce the weight of a building's structure by 15 per cent and lower the use of concrete, thereby decreasing carbon dioxide emissions.

The technology also ensures that productivity is boosted during construction as it enables architects to design larger and clearer span structures, optimises the foundation works and removes unnecessary beams in the structure.

Mr Pek said: "Green solution is one great opportunity in China. The Chinese are quite serious in addressing these environmental issues."

Tiong Seng's journey overseas began in the mid-1980s when founder Pek Ah Tuan visited Xiamen to explore fresh business opportunities.

That led to the firm seizing opportunities in the early 1990s when Singapore and China began a joint venture to develop the Suzhou Industrial Park.

In 1993, Tiong Seng became a shareholder of Suzhou Huisheng Construction Development, a company set up to bid for projects at the park. Its overseas reach has also stretched to Papua New Guinea, India and the Middle East.

For now, its foreign efforts are largely focused in China, where it is a niche player specialising in commercial, residential and mixed-use projects in the second and third-tier cities.

alfoo@sph.com.sg


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