To grow in an increasingly competitive global market, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) need to stand out. In this new six-part, fortnightly series sponsored by Spring Singapore, FRANCIS CHAN takes a closer look at the local food manufacturing scene and how leading SMEs in the sector succeed by making the most of their resources.
GOURMET coffee manufacturer Boncafe International has been in business for almost 50 years.
But far from becoming complacent, its management has always been willing to wake up and smell the coffee, so to speak, when it comes to fresh ideas.
Despite establishing a global reputation as a quality coffee roaster, the family-run firm still consistently looks to new and innovative ideas to boost production.
One such innovation, a turnkey packaging system developed in 2006, has helped to lift output by about 700 per cent.
Boncafe managing director Christian Wilhelm Huber said the success of the innovations was down to the willingness of the company to listen to its staff, especially those working on the factory floor.
"We always felt that we had to hear what the people doing the job (on the ground) were saying," said Mr Huber.
Boncafe was founded in 1962 by his father, Mr Werner Ernst Huber, a Swiss national who was working in Singapore as a commodities trader at the time.
Since then, it has grown from a small coffee-roasting outfit with just four employees into a multimillion-dollar global firm, well known for its line of gourmet coffee and other food and beverages.
Today, the Singapore-based firm employs more than 400 staff, and its subsidiaries can be found in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, Thailand, Cambodia, China and the United Arab Emirates.
Despite its success, the company still did not have a fully automated production line by 2006, said Mr Huber.
"Our roasting operation was already there, but we never had 100 per cent automation in our packing process. So we felt that, in time, we needed to improve the downline," he said.
Mr Huber took over the business after his father went into semi-retirement six years ago.
Two years into the job - and after spending time in various departments of Boncafe learning the trade from bottom up - Mr Huber concluded that more had to be done to improve the packing process at Boncafe's Pandan Loop plant.
"The question was how we could improve it without compromising quality for our customers, while at the same time cutting short the lead time for orders," he said.
Brainstorming sessions were immediately organised between management and production staff to find a more efficient way to package coffee.
"We worked on it together with our team from the factory floor, because we felt that the best people to talk to were those who were actually doing it, and find out how we could improve."
First, the team assessed the existing production arrangements.
"There was a lot of manual labour involved at that stage," Mr Huber recounted.
"Manual labour is intensive work. It's very tiring and very stressful. Plus we also had limited space and limited expenses at that time."
However, Boncafe managed to score some funding support through the Technology Innovation Programme offered by enterprise development agency Spring Singapore.
"At the time, Spring was just starting to introduce the programme and our staff felt that it could help, so we applied for it," said Mr Huber.
The project to design, build and install the new packaging system within Boncafe's production line at its Singapore plant took more than eight months to complete.
To preserve the firm's competitiveness, Mr Huber did not want to disclose how it worked or allow any photographs of the proprietary system to be taken when The Straits Times visited his plant last week.
He did, however, say that it used to take eight people to produce about 96 packages a day, but the new system allows just two people to produce 720 packages daily.
"With that, we were able to redeploy staff, decrease our production lead time from what might have taken seven days, to half of that."
Aside from the tangible benefits of improving its production process, Mr Huber said the teamwork that led to the successful integration of the device also helped boost staff morale.
"The fact that we got them to contribute by sharing their thoughts, gave them a sense of ownership in the company and they now feel a part of the company's success," said Mr Huber.
The next step for Boncafe: replicating the packaging system at its two other coffee-roasting plants in Thailand and Hong Kong.
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