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Innovating to create high value products and services
AS the future of manufacturing will be driven by disruptive technologies, it is crucial for SMEs to keep up with global innovation trends to grow and remain competitive. To that end, public-private partnerships remain an important platform, says Sam Chee Wah, general manager of Feinmetall Singapore Pte Ltd.
The company is a German-Singapore joint-venture precision engineering SME specialising in the design and manufacture of wafer probe cards for semiconductor wafer tests. Its strategic location in Singapore enables it to provide better support to its regional customers and also to attract new clients from the area.
Mr Sam says that Feinmetall Singapore designs, manufactures and repairs wafer probe cards for the semiconductor industry with competitive pricing and an acceptable delivery cycle time with 24/7 service support. Established in 2007, the company has grown from a five-man team to 55 employees today.
"Feinmetall Singapore's growth strategies are primarily focused on security, broadband and wireless sectors, from the automotive, consumer and communication industries that have high development potential and large demand in the forthcoming years," he says.
Through close collaboration with A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research), the company has consistently adopted new technologies and deepened its capabilities in precision engineering, improving its productivity in the process. A*STAR is Singapore's lead public sector agency that spearheads economic oriented research to advance scientific discovery and develop innovative technology.
"Today, innovation is no longer a 'nice to have' feature. It is instead a survival tool for any company to move forward. Companies must be able to consistently create value in their products, services and people to stay afloat. If you need to beat your competition, then investing in R&D, automation and digitisation is the only path to survive," says Mr Sam.
Feinmetall's flagship product, the vertical probe card ViProbe , is an interconnecting hardware that probes each semiconductor silicon wafer. It is used to screen out non-functional dice on the silicon wafer in semiconductor industries.
Unlike other wafer probe cards, ViProbe employs a proprietary buckling technology that enables users to replace and repair the damaged beam by themselves. This is not possible with competitors' products, he adds.
"To compete as a full turnkey solution service provider, Feinmetall Singapore incorporates design, manufacturing, test and service as a full offer package. Just last year, the company established its printed circuit board design capability to extend the vertical integration service to its customers. Today, the company employs four designers to provide such service. Feinmetall Singapore also provides design and fabrication of test interface boards for advanced test solutions," says Mr Sam.
The firm works closely with semiconductor companies in the automotive, consumer and communication industries, particularly in the security, broadband and wireless sectors, in Singapore and the region.
"Probe card application and maintenance is a highly specialised skillset that requires a high level of precision. We provide on-site technical support to all customers for every probe card that we sell. This is also the rationale behind our mission statement: Feinmetall Singapore is committed to provide superior technology in probe card solutions and professional after sales service and support for our customers," says Mr Sam.
"During the early startup phase, we encountered various challenges like extensive manual processes, limited production capacity and a tight labour market. We are glad to have a partner like A*STAR to help us overcome the challenges. We worked closely with A*STAR's research engineers to enhance our production processes and procedures," says Mr Sam.
The company also tapped A*STAR's Technology for Enterprise Capability Upgrading (T-UP) programme under which A*STAR research scientists were seconded to its factory to help it to improve its R&D processes.
"During our growth phase, we also participated in A*STAR's Operation and Technology Road mapping (OTR) initiative to plan strategically for future business growth. This year, we adopted several technologies under the A*STAR model factory initiative in our new S$6 million, 6,700 sq ft digital manufacturing facility to stay relevant and remain competitive," says Mr Sam.
In the last decade, the SME has invested more than S$1.5 million in R&D, and has seen its revenue grow six fold.
Mr Sam says that in his view, innovation is very important for Singapore as the key manufacturing sector accounts for about a fifth of the country's economy.
Innovation is creating new economic trends which have significant impact on people's lives.
"For instance, the 'share economy' is already disrupting many people's lives. Businesses are now able to unlock the value of low utilisation resources by making them available to other people who need them at a cost," says Mr Sam.
Another example he cites is the gig economy, which seems to be becoming increasingly popular among the younger generation.
"People tend to take on job assignments that match their interest, location and availability, instead of pursuing a full-time employment position. Multiple streams of income can now be achieved instead of the traditional single regular monthly salary. People are starting to be more interested in supporting their income by undertaking small, temporary freelance assignments," he points out.
The new shared marketplace economy will soon be a standard business model for many traditional businesses, says Mr Sam. "The concept of this platform consists of a party providing a service for sale and the other party wanting to buy that service. When both demand and supply are able to meet at a price that both agree to, the transaction is sealed. For example, there is a marketplace of drivers and consumers wanting rides, and Uber leveraged this as a market place platform."
To enhance competitiveness, the on-demand economy allows users to access available services instantly. One can now have access to car-ride services almost instantly by using an app. The waiting time is also relatively shorter now, he adds.
"Many traditional jobs such as routine work operators will soon be replaced by robotic and automated solutions. Going forward, job creation will focus more on humanity related services such as nursing, care for the elderly, and so on. However, technical jobs that require specialised skills such as field service, cloud computing, data management, robotic maintenance, and others, will also still require the human touch."
In Mr Sam's view, entrepreneurship plays a key role in promoting innovation. "Many SMEs are wary of technology adoption or upgrading, and we were once like that too. But now, we have decided to cast away those fears and successfully moved forward with technology adoption, such as investing in our new facility. If an entrepreneur can set aside those fears and take the first step towards innovation through technology adoption, this will inspire fellow SME entrepreneurs to start thinking about innovation seriously and follow in their footsteps," he says.
An entrepreneur can have the bandwidth to incorporate innovation ingredients in his products or services. With this, he can create value in those specific products or services to achieve higher revenue, which in turn provides a higher return of investment and indirectly, creates high value jobs for the people. This chain effect is scalable with a mindset that consistently embraces innovation, he adds.
On how entrepreneurs can benefit by taking to innovation, he says: "By embracing innovation, entrepreneurs will develop an open mindset that is on a constant pursuit of ideas, which can help to differentiate themselves from their competitors. It is similar to intentionally going to the supermarket even when you have nothing in mind to buy, and just to shop around to better understand the current trends and available products, and adopt an open and innovative mindset to think about how best to leverage the situation."
Going forward, Mr Sam says that as a long-time partner of A*STAR, his company will definitely continue to deepen its collaboration with the government agency in the area of smart technology adoption and material science research.
"Smart technology adoption will bring Feinmetall's smart factory to advanced digitisation, whereas material science development will enhance our competitive advantage in technology breakthrough. We will continue to embrace innovation to further create high value jobs, high value products and high value services for our customers," he adds.