EMERGING ENTERPRISE 2017

Feeling the labour crunch? Let robots solve the problem

Aitech Robotics and Automation offers solutions for a range of sectors from F&B to heavy industry.

AT First glance, the robotics solutions that Aitech Robotics and Automation Pte Ltd offers might appear simple. Most of their automatons are mobile platforms that transport items from one place to another, or are mechanised consoles with seemingly straightforward functions.

However, Aitech is not a typical robot maker. What sets it apart is that it also writes all the software for its machines, which is why the company describes itself as a complete robotics solutions provider. It neither just manufactures hardware, nor focuses solely on programming software.

Instead, it combines these two segments to offer robots that can react to its environment, communicate with other systems, and even - to a limited extent - think for itself.

The company covers three business areas, CEO Eric Lee Poh Cheong told The Business Times. The first focuses on mobile robots and automated guided vehicle (AGV) systems, the second focuses on smart robotics consoles, while the third looks at the Internet-of-Things for robotics navigations and systems.

Aitech has come a long way since its 2013 inception with two persons, working its way up from Singapore with plans to expand into Malaysia and China already underway. The company plans to double its staff of 18 by 2019. Mr Lee said that while he intends to continue basing the company's R&D efforts in Singapore, he plans to access other markets such as China for manufacturing and sales.

While Aitech CFO Leo Boon Yong did not disclose details of the company's financials, he said that while last year's sales revenue was a "six-figure Singapore dollar sum", revenue for this year would be expected to break the million dollar mark. He added: "Hopefully, by the end of 2018 our sales revenue would hit an eight digit figure."

Mr Leo also said that Aitech has the intention of becoming a listed company in the years ahead when it becomes viable.

Mr Lee explained that the current expansion into the China market via a joint venture made sense as there was a far greater level of demand there compared to the domestic market.

"In China, we are working with our joint venture partner to set up a new robotic production line to produce a completely new design for the autonomous forklift for the logistics and warehouse industry," said Mr Lee. "At Aitech, we focus on two areas: heavy duty robots able to move payloads of one tonne and above, and service robots able to carry a payload of 500 kg or below."

Aitech has already produced robotics solutions including an autonomous painting robot for painting buildings, a service robot for food delivery purposes in the food and beverage (F&B) industry, autonomous forklifts to be used for logistics and warehouse management purposes, and a 10-tonne payload robot for industrial uses.

One of the first robots the team completed was a painting robot, developed with funding from the National Research Fund (NRF). The Picto-bot, as it is called, was launched in October last year. As the Picto-bot is designed with a raised platform, it is able to access hard-to-reach areas for tall buildings.

It is able to paint in total darkness - something which humans cannot do well - as the robot would have the building configuration and design stored within its memory.

Another one of its solutions is the service robot, called the e-bot, that was built for F&B businesses. Developed in December last year, it automates the delivery and payment of food items in restaurants, cafes, and other dining establishments.

The robot is at present leased to the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) to enable its ground floor cafe to take orders and deliver food to anywhere in the building.

It can do this as it has the technology to know its position, plan its route to another place, and navigate to that location on its own. The robot can traverse slopes, knows how to take the lift by itself, and can automatically recharges its own battery.

Aitech touts its automative capabilities and that it performs simple and repetitive tasks - in this case, food delivery services - better than people can even in a dynamic environment.

This year, Aitech has developed two solutions for the industrial sector. The robots - an autonomous forklift and a 10-tonne payload robot - are designed to transport heavy industrial goods around warehouses, and around factory compounds respectively.

The autonomous forklift, called the Smart Autonomous Vehicle, has had two units leased to ground handling firm SATS for trial testing. It has the functions of an ordinary forklift in that it moves palletised goods around warehouses.

However, its prongs automatically adjust to whatever size the pallets are, and it can be programmed to operate entirely on its own - needing no human driver at all, not even requiring a person remotely steering it.

All that a person needs to do is to programme work schedules into it. Like the e-bot, it can charge its battery on its own so, according to Aitech, it faces "no disruption to operation due to human needs."

Aitech was awarded a contract in February this year to supply two units of the 10-tonne payload robot to a factory at a pre-cast company to move heavy pre-cast structures. This project was also partly funded by the NRF, and it expects to deliver these solutions by December this year.

Aitech Robotics sets itself apart because it does not focus solely on either hardware of software, or on a single type of robotic application.

When asked about the viability of not focusing on any single robotic function, especially compared to other firms which offer more specialised robotics services, Mr Lee said his team had the necessary knowhow to do both hardware and software well.

He said: "Aitech's team has the necessary technical know-how to do both the electronics hardware, that is the brain of the robots, and software which is essential in interfacing with the client's existing in-house system."

Furthermore, he added that offering complete and comprehensive robotics solutions provides more value than just offering robotic equipment.

A strong focus on research and development (R&D) is one way that the firm stays ahead of its competition, said the firm's R&D director Jacky Tan Boon Kiat. "R&D is the life-blood of the company. The knowhow developed enables Aitech to produce new products and solutions for the targeted industries.

"Our R&D philosophy is very focused on the scalability of our robotic products and solutions."

Aitech marketing director Thomas Tan added: "The adaptability of our software solution modules enables us to tailor to our robots to operate effectively within the client's warehouse premises. The added value we bring to our clients is that we can share with them the best practices in their industry for robotic solutions which they in turn can tweak to suit their own requirements."