Doing more at work with help of machines

One worker is as good as two at local component maker Forefront Additive Manufacturing, which makes orthotic devices for the medical technology market.

The company's Tampines factory, which opened in May after more than a year of preparation, depends on technological advances such as 3D printing to meet orders.

And its three advanced manufacturing machines, which can run 24 hours a day, "effectively double" its capacity, its managing director Wu Yong Lin told The Straits Times.

His production staff comprises just four people, with an average of roughly two years' experience each.

Workers start off at about $4,000 a month, with half-yearly salary reviews and annual increments.

Mr Cheung See Lin, 29, joined the company as a technologist last July, crossing from research and development into industry after previously working at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology.

Because the team at Forefront AM is small, "we have more opportunities for exposure", he said.

They are sent for seminars and other forms of training, including at Mr Cheung's former employer, and can even travel overseas to find out more about how a machine of foreign provenance is used.

"Mr Wu has allowed us to be in touch with all the latest technologies," said Mr Cheung.

"It's quite a flexible company - it's not just designers doing design. We have cross-training. Most of us have knowledge of one another's job scope, for better cooperation."

From comparing with his peers, the Nanyang Technological University graduate in mechanical engineering finds that his wages are competitive.

He also enjoys the lack of red tape that comes with working in a small outfit. For instance, before starting on new projects, he and his colleagues will huddle together to bounce ideas off one another.

Mr Wu said of the process: "I gather everybody for a brainstorming session... to make sure that all sides or angles of the project have been studied well. Our people learn from one another and gain experience, so although young in age and experience, we could manage quite difficult tasks."

He added: "I believe in training them from the ground up and I believe in fast training... And the people are motivated because they have the opportunity to learn a variety of technologies and they also know their boss values them."

The advanced technology at Forefront AM's factory has also been a boon, Mr Cheung said.

"The good thing about 3D-printing machines is that they are largely unmanned... It frees up everyone to do other stuff."

While machines run, workers can design and set up other projects.

He said: "3D printing is not going anywhere any time soon. My personal view is that there will be more take-up... so the prospects should be good."

But small and medium-sized enterprises such as Forefront AM can still do more to embrace the tech revolution, with Mr Wu noting that the environment remains "very challenging" and "adoption-slow".

Singapore Manufacturing Federation secretary-general Lam Joon Khoi said: "While multinational corporations respond to such global trends well, as they have the capabilities to upgrade themselves to move to higher-value undertakings with digitalisation and automation, SMEs are often constrained by issues such as costs and labour."