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Handing tasks over to robots

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(From left) Tee Yih Jia supervisors Chen Zhang Lin and Hang Kam Hui, with engineer Zhao Meng Wang. They have seen automation improving jobs and keeping manpower needs in check.

PACKAGING roti prata was a numbing task when Chen Zhang Lin joined Tee Yih Jia in 2009, and not just because of the repetition involved.

"The roti prata were frozen and you had to count them by hand," he recalls. For hours on end, workers like himself had to handle frozen discs of dough, picking them up and collating them in the required quantities.

Happily, since 2016, nimble robotic arms - impervious to cold and fatigue - have largely taken over that task. In Tee Yih Jia's factory on Senoko Road, these spindly mechanical limbs lift frozen pratas off one conveyor belt and place them with precision on another, with the assembled stacks heading off to be packaged by another machine.

Mr Chen, 37, now supervises Tee Yih Jia's roti prata production. Though this has expanded from one production line to three, the number of workers has not tripled in tandem, instead rising from about 10 when Mr Chen joined to 22 today - a demonstration of how increased automation has both improved jobs and kept manpower needs in check.

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Tee Yih Jia has constantly aimed to improve its production facilities, says Zhao Meng Wang, 40, who joined the company in 2002.

Since then, he has risen from technician to assistant engineer and then engineer. In the latter two roles, he helped to suggest improvements for the equipment under his care.

This is particularly the case for equipment that is made to Tee Yih Jia's specifications. Engineers such as Mr Zhao work directly with suppliers to make the machines safer, more efficient, and generally more tailored to the food manufacturer's needs.

In that vein of constant improvement, Hang Kam Hui has seen changes at each stage of the spring roll pastry packaging process.

"In the past, a lot more of the work was manual," he recalls.

When he joined in 2000, he had to package the pastry skins by hand, manually place the sealed packets into cardboard cartons, and then carry the cardboard cartons - which weigh up to 15 kilograms - over to pallets.

All these tasks have now been automated, with the most recent change being 2015's introduction of robotic arms to stack cartons onto pallets.

Mr Hang, 37, now supervises some 50 workers in spring roll pastry production. Many are in their 20s, similar to the age at which he started out in Tee Yih Jia.

At times, Mr Hang shares stories from his earlier years on the production line, to the surprise of these newer workers. "They might not be able to imagine what it was like in the past," he says with a laugh.

Brought to you by The Future Economy Council