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Tomorrow's companies, today
WANT to know what the face of the future economy looks like? Search no further than three data analytics companies - Arcstone, EverComm and Tableau Software - which represent what Singapore's future could very well be.
By helping firms leverage big data - to maximise efficiency, eliminate resource wastage and spot growth opportunities - the trio are pertinent examples of what the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) (and, in particular, its sub-committee on future corporate capabilities and innovation) is trying to achieve.
Indeed, calls for more data-driven work have already begun. Recently, Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat - who chairs the 30-member CFE - acknowledged that Singapore as a society "needs to be better at using data".
That's no surprise given the undeniable advantage that data-driven firms have. According to market research firm IDC, Asia-Pacific organisations that are able to analyse data and deliver actionable results stand to achieve an extra US$65 billion in productivity benefits over their less analytically oriented peers by 2020.
Compelling as the figures may be, the reality is that many Singapore companies - especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs) - have no clue where to start. That's where firms such as Arcstone, EverComm and Tableau come in.
The first two firms are homegrown startups that provide manufacturing solutions to the industrial sector - Arcstone in the realm of process and equipment monitoring, and EverComm in the area of energy efficiency.
Founded in 2013, Arcstone helps manufacturers keep track of how their products are moving from the raw material stage to the finished goods stage.
Willson Deng, founder and CEO of Arcstone, tells The Business Times: "It's about being able to pull data from all your facility floors very rapidly, so that you have full visibility at all times. And then with all that data coming in, being able to analyse it and say: 'How do we start improving? What are the areas that have the highest variability that are causing us the most issues? Where are the most bottlenecks occurring? How do we deal with production scheduling better?"
To capture all that information, Arcstone uses a mix of inexpensive sensors - ones that measure temperature, vibration or speed, for instance - to monitor goods as they pass through the factory line. The data is then aggregated and managed via Arcstone's software platform, where production anomalies can be spotted quickly and addressed.
This is especially useful for long-drawn processes that have to be run overnight, making it unfeasible for personnel to be stationed there the whole time. "So it's often not until the entire batch is done before you realise that 10 out of 20 drillheads you just milled have something funny going on. . . And while your system probably knew that something was funny, it's not connected so it doesn't send you an SMS message or an email alert. So no one knows until the next morning when they see that oh, actually these 10 are not good. And now their entire order is delayed," says Mr Deng.
Beyond such operational improvements, however, he says the real magic begins after months of data is collected and available for analysis.
"We can then start making a lot of interesting observations. For example, maybe we'll notice that whenever we source from Vendor A, there tends to be a higher fault rate. If we didn't record it, we'd just bypass this as, ah, it's the machine acting up again. But now we know that this actually doesn't happen when we source from Vendor B. So instantly we're able to make a decision and decrease our scrap rate," says Mr Deng.
Arcstone's client base now includes Fortune 500 companies alongside local SMEs, spanning a variety of manufacturing clusters - pharmaceuticals, precision engineering and even firearms control. That's because its software platform is highly flexible and scalable, allowing for endless rejigging to fit a specific manufacturer's needs.
While EverComm also helps industrial firms run more efficiently, it zooms in only on one factor - energy use.
"When you talk to companies about how they can reduce their energy waste, their immediate reaction is always: 'Okay,we'll change to the latest equipment, we'll update to the newest machine.' But it's not really the machine that's the problem - it's the way they use it," says EverComm founder Ted Chen.
He believes no one realises this because energy is an "invisible resource"; it's hard to see in real-time how much is being depleted. As such, companies - even households - are clueless about their energy consumption on a micro level. While they may know how much their electricity bill costs in total, they have no idea how much each process or department contributes to that final figure.
And because no one knows how much energy each task requires, there is little incentive to reduce waste. For large industrial companies, this can translate into massive and unnecessary costs.
"One key thing we find is that electricity consumption is always constant at factories - meaning whether or not they're manufacturing stuff, they consume the same amount of energy. That is so bizarre because your consumption shouldn't be the same (during down time)," says Mr Chen.
To combat this, EverComm uses both sensors and software to calculate and assign "energy ownership" to individual people, tasks, processes and departments. The data is then analysed to see where efficiency gains can be realised.
"After that, it's just a matter of finetuning," says Mr Chen. This involves knowing when to run machines at full capacity based on incoming orders, and what to do during idle time.
As Arcstone and EverComm's founders make clear, capturing data is merely the starting point for bigger things - companies must then be able to analyse the data to deliver actionable results.
In 2014, Singapore celebrated when recruitment firm Robert Half found that 96 per cent of companies here were capturing customer details for data mining purposes - the highest showing of any country polled. But a closer look at the figures revealed that more than half of these firms failed to consistently use such data when making business decisions. In fact, 20 per cent were capturing the data but not making use of it.
Part of the trouble is the lack of know-how - data mining and analytics skill sets continue to remain high in demand, but short in supply.
Tableau Software is seeking to address this very issue, with its simple yet grand mission of helping everyone see and understand data. Listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2013, the US software company has been helping governments, corporates, schools and even the general public visualise data better - without the need for a data science or coding background.
JY Pook, Tableau's APAC vice-president, tells BT: "The question is, once you're able to access data, can you analyse it in a very fast way? We're not talking about months and quarters here. You should be able to analyse it very quickly and get insights almost immediately."
To do so, Tableau's visual analytics software uses a simple drag-and-drop interface, which helps companies analyse large data sets in just a few clicks - creating charts, maps and innumerable customisable visualisations from which business decisions can be made.
For example, on the public-sector front, the Land Transport Authority used Tableau to analyse 3.7 million data sets - including bus routes and commuter patterns - to locate routes with mismatches in demand and supply. This allowed the government to optimise the allocation of resources.
Game and app developer Playlab, too, has used Tableau to analyse over 10 million records daily. By tracking gaming behaviour and monitoring purchases and payment, the company has been able to improve its app designs and plan game levels better.
With Singapore's push to become a Smart Nation, it's conceivable - and surely, the hope - that more firms such as Arcstone, EverComm and Tableau arise. Indeed, looking at the three, its hard not to think that the future is already here.
- This story is part of an ongoing BT series on Singapore's future economy