Big jump in R&D spending by Singapore precision engineering firms


HIGH-VALUE lens manufacturer Wavelength Opto-Electronic used to take 30 seconds to manually inspect one contact lens.

Now, due to its automated contact lens inspection system, the homegrown precision engineering (PE) enterprise takes less than three seconds to do the same job.

Wavelength Opto-Electronic, which invested S$800,000 in research and development last year, is one of the many PE enterprises that has invested heavily in R&D.

In total, local PE enterprises spent S$313 million, or 50 per cent more on R&D in the 2016 financial year compared to the previous year, according to the Department of Statistics.

At the same time, there was a 20 per cent year-on-year increase in the number of research scientists and engineering (RSE) jobs in the precision engineering sector, according to the national R&D survey conducted by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

The Ministry of Trade and Industry announced these figures on Monday during a visit by Senior Minister of State for Trade & Industry and National Development Koh Poh Koon to Wavelength Opto-Electronic.

Dr Koh was presented with a demonstration of the automated contact lens inspection system, which was developed with the help of A*Star Operation and Technology Roadmapping (OTR) initiative and the Technology for Enterprise Capability Upgrading (T-up) scheme.

Since the company partnered with A*Star in 2007, its revenue has increased six-fold to US$30 million last year. This also marks a 78 per cent revenue growth compared to 2016.

In Wavelength Opto-Electronic's case, the OTR initiative helped to forecast consumer demand and global trends in the optics industry.

It also guided the company to file its first patent in 2008, as well as to enhance its R&D capabilities by building a rapid prototyping unit in 2012 and an in-house R&D lab in 2014.

For the T-Up scheme, an A*Star researcher was sent to the company to provide technical expertise. Ng Bing Qiang, now a senior software engineer at Wavelength Opto-Electronic, assisted the company in developing an image processing solution for the automated inspection system.

Dr Koh said: "We are enhancing schemes like T-Up and also trying to make sure that the schemes such as Operation and Technology Roadmapping continue to help our SMEs to devise strategies, scale technologies and adopt innovation."

More details would be released from the Ministry of Trade and Industry during the Committee of Supply (COS) debate, which is scheduled to take place next month.

Robert Huang, chief executive of Wavelength Opto-Electronic, said that the T-Up scheme and the OTR initiative have moved the company up the value chain, transforming the company to a systems provider.

For example, the company added that the automated lens inspection system has attracted attention from multinational corporations, who see potential applications in their own in-house quality control processes.

Dr Koh encouraged manufacturing companies to continue to persist in their transformative efforts, in light of strong contributions by the manufacturing sector in gross domestic product (GDP) growth last year.

He said: "All the more, when the growth is vibrant, they should take the opportunity to really develop their wings, put in more capabilities, invest more in training and R&D - so that as the economy continues to transform, they become even more competitive."