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Wed, May 19, 2010
The Straits Times
   

Keeping it clean with made-in-S'pore tools

By Dickson Li
 

Precision engineering firms are a key driver of the manufacturing sector, providing high-quality products and services mainly for an international clientele. The sector could generate total output of about $28 billion by 2018. But to be globally competitive, local firms need to find new ways to add value. In the third of a six-part, fortnightly series sponsored by Spring Singapore, Francis Chan and Dickson Li look at how two leading companies engineered breakthroughs to achieve that competitive edge.

Precision engineering firms are a key driver of the manufacturing sector, providing high-quality products and services mainly for an international clientele. The sector could generate total output of about $28 billion by 2018. But to be globally competitive, local firms need to find new ways to add value. In the third of a six-part, fortnightly series sponsored by Spring Singapore, Francis Chan and Dickson Li look at how two leading companies engineered breakthroughs to achieve that competitive edge.

FOR anyone who has ever anxiously wondered if a plate at a hawker centre is completely clean, precision engineering company JCS Group is on the case.

Its creative team is developing a machine to measure the cleanliness of plates, said chief executive Jason Yeo.

"This is targeted at the hawker industry. Today, there is nothing to check how clean a plate is, especially after it's gone through detergent, which might not be washed off properly," he said.

This product is just the latest example of the company's innovative approach.

JCS could have chosen the easy, oft-trodden route of manufacturing products from the clients' blueprints, but Mr Yeo had bigger plans.

A 10-year plan for JCS to create its very own precision engineering products from scratch has paid off handsomely today, the company pulls in about $40 million in revenue every year.

The company, which opened for business in 1990, managed to generate turnover of just $180,000 in its first year.

Currently, the group comprises three branches - JCS Vanilla, which manufactures turbine vanes for the aerospace industry; JCS Echigo, which designs and manufactures precision cleaning equipment; and Mclean Technology, which provides cleanroom and cleaning services.

Mr Yeo proudly touts the made-in-Singapore "industry cleaning tool" as a wholly JCS-conceived and designed product.

"It's the first product we developed. Before, whatever fixtures or tools we made, it was according to customers' specifications or made from their blueprints," said Mr Yeo.

"After developing our own cleaning tools, we continued to expand the range. Today, we have about 10 models of tools, each serving different purposes."

These tools can be used for cleaning components in various industries - the disk drive, aerospace, medical, the food and beverage industries and more.

Although the company started off by making cleaning tools specifically for use in cleanroom environments and in the cleaning of electronics components, it is constantly conquering new frontiers.

"We have stepped into making machines for utensil cleaning for airliners - the forks and spoons used by passengers, for instance," he explained.

Over the next three years, he intends to bring the utensil cleaning product and eventually, the plate cleanliness measuring device, into the "hospital, hotel, and hawker industries".

He says most precision engineering companies do not design their own products, but instead manufacture from blueprints made by others.

"It takes too long to (design your own product). If you manufacture from blueprints, you can see the returns within one year," he said.

"And even if you do manage to design your own product, it is very difficult to (sell it) because people don't think that we are capable of making the product in Singapore."

Moreover, it is much easier to assemble a team which can manufacture based on a blueprint, as opposed to assembling a team to design their own products.

In the case of the latter, Mr Yeo says, "these people really must stay with you".

"They cannot say they want to leave you in two, three years because it takes many years to understand the concept of designing the product."

JCS, which started as a one man show, now has about 250 employees in Singapore, and over 600 worldwide. More than 90 per cent of its customers are international companies.

Often, the type of product the company designs depends on the direction taken by the available talent, and this is in itself problematic.

"As engineers, we design from imagination. But people at the top management need to size it up and consider whether it is something with market value and that we can sell for the next 10 to 20 years, not just something that they like. But good designers tend to do only what they like."

So why did he choose to go down the road of designing his own products? Mr Yeo puts it down to his "passion for creating something".

And there is a social dimension to it, he adds.

"It's not right to just do something simple, such as manufacture from the blueprints. If we don't have these products made in Singapore, in future, the original equipment manufacturers will bring their designs to lower-cost places to make. At the end of the day, we won't own anything," he said.

"It's best that you push your own product through for the long term and, at the same time, you can pick up some blueprints to manufacture, so that you can keep the cash flow rolling."

Mr Yeo has plans in the pipeline to continue churning out new products, but these will rely on a good team.

"During the five years when we are getting the product out, we have to form the engineering design team. You need people from mechanicals, electronic, electricals, and at the same time you need to establish your market strategy," he said.

"In order to design all these products correctly, we have to create a team around these products," he said. "The team is the core strength of the JCS Group."

IT'S ABOUT OWNERSHIP AND CREATIVITY

It's not right to just do something simple, such as manufacture from the blueprints. If we don't have these products made in Singapore, in future, the original equipment manufacturers will bring their designs to lower-cost places to make. At the end of the day, we won't own anything."

Mr Jason Yeo, on choosing to go down the road of designing his own products and feeding his "passion for creating something".


For more information on how to grow your companies, visit http://www.spring.gov.sg or call 6278-6666.

 
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