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Winning by a hair's breadth
FOR precision motion control specialists Akribis Systems, a hair's breadth is big. Developing and building direct drive motors, stages and precision systems, Akribis has seen its products as components in manufacturing systems that require accuracy in movements down to the nanometre.
"A strand of hair is about 0.08 millimetres, or 80 thousand nanometres thick - our solutions can have movement that is small as 20 nanometres," co-founder and chief executive officer Leow Yong Peng shares. "We can split that strand of hair 4,000 times."
Industries that find use for such fine motor movements include biomedical equipment manufacturers, as well as industrial applications such as semiconductor and chip fabricators. Manufacturing a chip, for instance, requires motion control devices to place individual chip components onto a silicon board. This movement is powered by a motor, and Akribis manufactures two types of drive motors - linear and rotary.
Rotary motors generate motion through rotation and require additional mechanical systems such as gears, belts or couplers to redirect the rotary motion into the required direction, speed or force. This redirection of force results in additional friction and inaccuracy.
In contrast, linear drive motors are direct, as there is no mechanical conversion between the direction of travel and generated force. Electromagnets lined along a guide rail provide the necessary force, as well as control the movement - conceptually similar to maglev trains.
THE RIGHT TOOLS
Akribis provides both component parts as well as whole movement solutions. Their clients are mostly original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that build production machinery for these industries.
Most of the company's senior management are engineers, and continue to provide their technical know-how on ongoing research and development (R&D) projects. "We still very much stick our heads in and see what our engineers are doing, and actively participate in design reviews, and we still talk to customers directly to understand their needs," says Mr Leow. "As a business owner, we have to stay relevant. One way to do so is to really talk to our customers, and understand what your teams are working on."
"Our ability is in our engineering strength and capability. We are able to innovate new products when the market needs it. With new technologies evolving, our customers need to design new processes, and we are able to help in their development," adds co-founder and Senior Vice President Kong Yong Min.
Fortunately, unlike a typical manufacturing firm, Akribis did not require expensive machinery to begin production, with production reliant on expertise. The then-fledging company made do with simple machines and outsourced metal fabrication. Co-founders of the company utilised retained profits and bank loans for financing, and choose to be prudent when drawing salary or issuing dividends.
"We ploughed back our profits into the company, and that's how we grew in the past," says co-founder and Chairman Lim Howe Yuen, who heads the China operations, "it was definitely a challenge in the beginning especially when we were small, and had to grow step by step."
Yet another challenge that Akribis faced during its early years was the small addressable market size in Singapore, which prompted the company to look abroad. "If we didn't make a move to China in 2009, we would have missed the boat," quips Mr Leow.
Their first expansion overseas was to set up a manufacturing facility in Shanghai, which increased their production capabilities.
The company now has close to 800 employees, spanning offices across 10 markets, notably those that have an industrial focus such as Germany, the United States - on both coasts - as well as Taiwan and South Korea. Their most recent expansion was a manufacturing factory in Nantong, China this year.
The satellite offices are mainly staffed by locals of the respective markets, which aids in reaching out to the foreign addressable markets. Yet another surprising boon from having such an extensive overseas presence was the inflow of talent, as Akribis sees many international undergraduates vying for internship opportunities.
Hiring from an international talent pool allows for sustained R&D, and improved localisation efforts to better tap international markets.
Being a relatively small and nimble company, Akribis is able to develop customised motion control solutions for the big players, fulfilling a niche that many companies cannot fill. "In order to compete with the local and overseas companies, we have to offer something different - a system that they want, but can't get. That's why we customise," explains Mr Leow.
These customised solutions can then be co-opted as standard products to be adopted by the market, creating a product line. "We do customise, it is a strength of our company against our competitors, but at the same time we are very selective on which products we customise, "says Mr Lim. "We only do so when there is sufficient potential volume or when it can be re-used for other applications."
THE ROAD AHEAD
Mr Leow charts further opportunities for his company in the near future, with the goal of becoming a strong Singaporean multinational corporation (MNC).
"A new level of operational synchronisation is needed to ensure the consistency in product quality across the multiple manufacturing sites and centres," chief financial officer Loo Eng Yoong shares. "A strong effect with the company is currently taking shape to digitalise as well as automate our manufacturing processes through robotics and automation. This is to prepare for our long term production sustainability and capacity scalability."
R&D is ever important, in order to further improve on the core business of providing customised motion control systems, which will lead to improving current products as well as new applications.
"We want to expand our current product line into more specific, application based machines, instead of something as generic as a target area of interest. We have teams working on machine tools, custom machines and biomedical applications," Mr Leow explains. "Despite the economic downturn in 2019, Akribis has continued to invest in R&D and our production capacity. We are optimistic Akribis will continue to grow in the next five to 10 years."