Singapore manufacturing industry has transformed substantially over the last 30 years.
The emergence of lower cost centres such as China and Vietnam has forced the industry here to move up the value chain. To bring this about, it has become necessary to understand the various manufacturing industries and their respective needs and challenges; it has also become necessary to raise these sectors' technical capabilities.
One man who has presided over the transformation of the industry is Lim Ser Yong, the executive director of the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), a research institute of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) which has married the improving of R&D capabilities in high-value manufacturing technology and human capital with active engagement with players in industry.
This is so that the challenges they face can be identified and resolved creatively. SIMTech's endgame is thus to enhance the competitiveness of the manufacturing industry here.
Under Dr Lim's watch, SIMTech has grown beyond being a research centre.
In an interview with The Business Times, he said: "We don't just do research. A large part of our effort is in how we work with and help industry."
In other words, SIMTech marries the knowledge it creates and applies this to solve the challenges faced by industry. Doing this continually also improves the skills of its scientists in finding solutions to real-life problems.
Dr Lim named the three ways SIMTech helps companies in the manufacturing sector:
Firstly, it assists industry in ironing out their operational problems with the competency, knowledge and skills vested in its pool of researchers, "just like how a general practitioner helps people when they are sick", he said.
Eighty per cent of SIMTech's industry engagement is in giving assistance of this kind. In the last 20 years, it has undertaken more than 5,000 such projects. The pace is stepping up; in the last year alone, it undertook more than 300 projects, he noted.
Secondly, SIMTech facilitates knowledge transfer to companies in the industry.
It does this through an office it set up to run training programmes for those in the industry, with the support of the Workforce Development Agency (WDA).
The case-study approach is used in these training programmes. Dr Lim said that a training programme on laser technology, for example, would draw lessons from all the instances in which this technology has been put to use to solve actual problems that companies have come up against.
"It is almost like in an MBA programme, which also uses case studies to teach concepts. We have developed this case-study based training, which is unique to engineering and makes it easier for working professionals to absorb the training," he said.
Trainees are also taken on a visit to the institute's research facilities so they see first hand how the technology works to solve their problems.
By working with the WDA, SIMTech now has a menu of 17 training programmes. All are recognized as Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) programmes.
Dr Lim pointed out that knowledge generated traditionally in the universities through R&D typically takes a while before it filters down for industry use: A university does research, which then becomes a paper or publication. The information there eventually finds its way into a textbook, from which the knowledge is eventually taught.
This cycle doesn't work nearly fast enough for Dr Lim, although he acknowledges that the evolution of technology in today's world has shortened these knowledge cycles.
SIMTech is thus the bridge, bringing the knowledge out to the intended recipients as quickly as possible through the WSQ programmes it runs.
In the higher-end training courses for the group known collectively as PMETs - the professionals, managers, executives and technicians - SIMTech offers graduate diploma programmes for which classes are run in the evening, after work hours.
The third way SIMTech helps manufacturing companies lies in helping them to license the technology as intellectual property (IP) so that they can use it to further raise their game.
Dr Lim said that the performance of A*Star is measured by, among other things, the number of IPs and patents generated by its institutions.
However, if these are not useful or relevant, then they "just remain as numbers on the shelves". "In our case, we only patent the technology when we know that it can be of use to the industry to solve its problems. Today, we are deliberate in licensing out our IP to help the industry stay competitive," he said.
IPs generated by A*Star help small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) by showing that these small players are backed by a credible institution doing R&D.
Dr Lim said that some SMEs have told SIMTech that even a "patent pending" status has helped them sell their products better: "Companies like Component Technology (Pte Ltd) which have licensed our technology are able to sell machines now, rather than just being representatives for someone else's machines. In the past, it was just a trading company selling somebody's machines. That enabled it to know the market, but it did not manufacture the equipment.
"After working with us, it went into R&D and now adopt our technology, and also know that there is a need in the market for a 3-D wire bonder inspection machine."
With the technology licensed by SIMTech, the company developed the machine with SIMTech's help and went on to become the first to introduce a 3-D wire bonder inspection machine to the semiconductor industry.
SIMTech is deliberate in its choice of research projects to pursue. Its client companies "must be able to articulate the relevance" of the technology so that when it is developed, marketing it is not a problem.
Mr Lim, who clearly takes pride in the work of the institute in this area, announced that SIMTech has nearly 150 active licences, and that its licensing revenue has been charting double-digit annual growth.
SIMTech is a success story when it comes to engaging the industry meaningfully and producing commercially relevant and viable research.
But it has not always followed this strategy. When Dr Lim joined the institute in 1994, it was then a year old.
When it started out, the institute was under the leadership of Dr Frans Carpay of Dutch electronics giant Philips and based on a European model. The brief given to Dr Carpay was to start up an institute designed to help the manufacturing industry to move up the value chain, and to ensure that it had the capability to do so.
He scoured the world for the right people and the right industry-grade equipment to build a world-class agency.
It was only about 10 years later, when SIMTech was consolidated under A*Star, under the chairmanship of Philip Yeo - widely recognized as one of the architects of Singapore's economic development - that the focus changed to one of producing new technology.
"When Philip Yeo came to A*Star, there was suddenly a strong focus on R&D, where publications and patents became the focus. Student development also became more prominent as he put emphasis on (developing) scholars and training," said Dr Lim.
The marriage of the two functions of SIMTech - industry development and R&D - happened a few years later, when Dr Lim was appointed to helm the institute.
"When I took over in 2005, I saw the need to bring these two together, as we could not just do research or industry development alone."
He applied what he learnt from a management course - that the objective to scale Mount Everest was not to reach the summit, but to come back and tell the tale of one's experience.
In other words, SIMTech's making of technological breakthroughs and publishing of its findings is not the end of the story for him; it is vital to bring the knowledge out to industry so it can benefit from the R&D.