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Aiming to be one of the big boys
A DEBATE has been raging over the need to make engineering cool ever since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talked about its importance to Singapore's smart nation ambitions during his recent trip to Silicon Valley.
One local company that has unwittingly emerged as the poster boy for this campaign is HOPE Technik, which has been in the news lately for its groundbreaking projects. These include planes designed to reach the edge of space and powered exoskeletons that can lift very heavy loads. The firm specialises in high-performance engineering for the military, motorsport and biomedical industries.
"The four co-founders started HOPE Technik as all of us have a strong passion for designing and engineering. We wanted to use our knowledge to help our clients tackle their problems and be the best engineers in town," said Peter Ho, the company's chief executive officer. He added: "We started with motorsports engineering and over time, as demand for robotics picked up, the company steered towards that direction to be where it is today."
In 2006, Mr Ho and three former National University of Singapore classmates - Michael Leong, Ng Kiang Loong and Jeff Tang - founded the company with S$10,000 of their own money. After a tough slog to get their enterprise off the ground, the business has grown to around 100 staff today. It has bagged 350 projects from 18 countries so far and counts global corporations such as Airbus among its clients.
In 2012, HOPE Technik signed a multimillion-dollar deal with the European aircraft maker to build a research prototype of a "space plane" that can take travellers to the edge of space, 100km above earth. Tests on the plane were successfully conducted in 2014. Closer to home, it has produced more than 60 Red Rhino emergency vehicles for the Singapore Civil Defence Force, and is now looking to export the vehicle's designs abroad.
One of company's turning points came in 2013 when it decided to expand beyond just being a maker of prototypes to one that manufactured full-blown products. To start its new products division, it had to scale down its existing business by 30 per cent to support the new venture, revealed Mr Ho. "The process was difficult but today, we have successfully created products such as the SESTO automated guided vehicle and exported them overseas," he said.
SESTO is a technology that allows heavy objects to be moved easily in confined spaces. It can be placed under an object such as a hospital bed or a trolley to lessen the force needed to move it, making a 200kg object feel like just 2kg.
The firm is also making its mark on the fast-growing area of drones, which are being used for a whole host of military, commercial and public applications. Beyond just making the drones itself, however, the company is also concerned with ensuring that they do not pose a threat to anybody.
"As the use of drones proliferates, especially for commercial or public use, HOPE Technik recognises that there is strong interest in the area of monitoring and countering drones that may pose a threat whether intentionally or unintentionally," said Mr Ho. "We do not just produce drones but focus on a complete system that supports the safe and regulated use of drones. We view it as a responsible step in realising the vision of maximising drone applications for the future."
Unsurprisingly, Mr Ho believes that engineering will play an increasingly important role in a fast-changing global economy - particularly in the area of robotics that is being used in an increasing number of industries. He noted that more companies will adopt robots due to their ability to help reduce costs, increase efficiency and lessen reliance on manpower. "Laborious, labour-intensive tasks will see early adoption as a response to the tight labour market, and 'software robots' will penetrate the market by thinking better and faster than humans can," he said.
However, he is concerned that the pool of engineering talent is shrinking due to a lack of awareness of the profession's potential. To help with this problem, HOPE Technik has engaged with various education institutions in Singapore to put engineering on their students' radar.
Indeed, there might be no better advertisement for the profession if HOPE Technik realises its dream of becoming a competitive player on the global stage. For that to happen, the company is determined to maintain a culture of innovation that accepts failure and encourages all team members to be passionate.
Said Mr Ho: "HOPE Technik's success stems from how we, as a small company, are able to be provide nimble service, a reasonable cost structure and a can-do attitude for our clients while delivering gold standard documentation and certification - things which are hallmarks of the big boys."