An ecosystem to boost innovation and revolutionise business

PBA Group's new premises will create an ecosystem for businesses to collaborate and use the firm's products and technology.

HOMEGROWN robotics and automation specialist PBA Group wants to be the platform of choice for businesses - be it large multinationals or start-ups - to collaborate and work together using its own products and technology.

To create such an ecosystem, PBA Group will move to its sprawling new premises at Cleantech Park come 2020, located near Nanyang Technological University, its CEO Derrick Yap says in an interview with The Business Times.

The new space is 260,000 square feet - more than four times the current space at its headquarters at Yishun Industrial Park. It will enable the group to carry out its ambitious plans for the future, many of which are already taking shape today, says Mr Yap.

The company will no longer be simply a manufacturer or a customised solutions provider, he adds.

The entire Singapore PBA infrastructure will be housed under one roof including the office functions, manufacturing facility, and training arm.

Known as the Robotics Automation Centre of Excellence (Race), the training arm aims to develop talent in the robotics and automation industry.

But most importantly, it will have dedicated floors for other firms to be based there throughout their entrepreneurial journey - from a small start-up to sizeable small and medium-sized enterprise (SME).

These firms do not need to be a part of PBA's advanced new technology incubator (ANTI). As long as they are in the robotics and automation industry, all are welcome, according to Mr Yap. "When they are there, they can bounce ideas off each other and us," he says.

There will also be an exhibition area in the lobby where these start-ups and SMEs can showcase their products, This added exposure will hopefully lead to more cross-collaboration to further boost the ecosystem. "We are so excited about this space - it will revolutionise how businesses are being run," says Mr Yap.

Taking a look at its cutting edge robotics and automation displays at the facility, it is clear that the group has certainly come a long way since it started off as a distributor business by Mr Yap's father. Fast forward 30 years, it is now a group known for its own cutting edge technologies and products, with over 30 companies under its belt and present in 11 countries.

It even has joint ventures with prominent multinationals such as Delta Electronics and Hanwha Robotics to further grow its business - an impressive feat for a local SME.

Mr Yap, who joined the business back in 2002 and became CEO in 2007, says that the strategy the firm sticks to is to look for areas which allow the company more "permutations of growth", rather than assume that he knows where the firm is going and charting a straight line.

"The world moves a bit too fast. So every step we take, we allow ourselves more permutations to grow than the step before," he explains.

But Mr Yap also understands the need for fiscal discipline as a small company. "We had a few caveats in case we went all over the place and spread our efforts out too much. One of the strategies is that in any direction we go, we have to be in the top three within three years. If not, we won't do it," he says.

This allows the firm to spend funds wisely. "We think that a three-year burn rate (is something) we can (afford) - but not 10 years," he adds.

He applies the same principle when it comes to research and development (R&D). "I don't think you need a sandbox if you allow yourself to fail quickly," says Mr Yap. "Allow the guy to innovate, but set checkpoints along the way. If it screws up, you have an indicator to measure by."

But at the same time, he says that employees must have the confidence that higher-ups will not penalise them for failure. Otherwise, they won't be upfront if they failed, which can lead to even further losses, says Mr Yap.

The firm takes its innovation seriously. Another new development for the group is that it will set up two new R&D sites around the world - one in Europe and one in Taiwan. Currently, Singapore is its only R&D facility.

The group will be working with local universities and research institutes in those markets. He said that the Taiwan facility will focus on more traditional R&D involving robotics and automation, while the Europe unit will be zooming in on the new frontier of artificial intelligence. "Singapore will be the main hub where we combine both of this and consolidate our R&D," he says.

The two new sites will be up by the end of this year.

Another new area that the group is looking to venture into is the leasing model.

Instead of selling robotic solutions to SMEs that could still cost up to S$50,000 even with grants, the group is working on a leasing model where they co-share the risk with the SMEs.

With growth taking place in various areas, one challenge that could stunt its growth is the shortage of manpower, especially in the niche field of robotics and automation.

With PBA's efforts in cultivating its training arm Race and with the new space ready by 2020, he hopes that more will be keen to join the industry.

Despite growing 30-40 per cent each year, PBA Group has no intention of slowing down, says Mr Yap. "Here, we have to eat our lunch and move at the same time," he quips.