'Diamond-growing' firm shines in productivity race

IIa Technologies an example of move to high-tech manufacturing: Tharman

Diamond "grower" IIa Technologies has turned in a gem of a performance by increasing productivity fivefold in the past three years.

The improvements stem from the introduction of a central monitoring system run on iPads and a computerised process to control environmental conditions.

But while it has reduced the number of "drudge jobs", the firm has expanded employment in other areas, with headcount rising from 25 five years ago to 225 now.

Chief executive officer Vishal Mehta said at a briefing yesterday to mark the opening of the firm's new facility in Jurong: "We intend to create high-value jobs over the next few years.

"The quality of the jobs and the skills that we create are more important to us than the quantity."

The firm grows the purest and rarest type of diamonds for both the gem and jewellery industry, as well as high-tech industries that require diamonds. As opposed to traditional mining methods that have depleted the world's diamond supplies and damaged the environment, growing diamonds in greenhouses provides a more sustainable and cost-effective way of obtaining the precious material, the company noted.

IIa Technologies has invested about US$100 million (S$139 million) in the new 200,000 sq ft plant, which comprises the world's largest diamond greenhouse and a research centre.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who was guest of honour at the event, said that IIa occupies a niche in high-value manufacturing. He added that the firm is an example of Singapore's precision engineering industry's transformation towards high-technology and high value-added manufacturing.

Mr Tharman said that Singapore now sees more companies in the industry re-defining themselves beyond their traditional supplier role. They are moving towards the design, development and manufacture of high-mix, low-volume complex equipment for the international market. These firms are also drawing on research and development and putting deep specialised skills into the game.

Niche specialisations are a way for Singaporeans to develop high skills, a key thrust in Singapore's SkillsFuture initiative.

IIa is a "strong supporter of developing Singaporeans" and "provides opportunities for highly specialised jobs", Mr Tharman said.

For example, senior operations manager Ang Hui Hui has developed her skills. Starting out as a factory manager, she is now senior manager of operations at IIa Technologies and a key member of the team, noted Mr Tharman.

He also said that the Government will lend support for every form of innovation in industry. In particular, it will continue to encourage industry-wide adoption of advanced technologies in manufacturing - such as additive manufacturing, lasers and optics, and robotics.

Mr Mehta said the firm hires a good mix of staff - from Institute of Technical Education graduates to people with doctorate degrees. Most of them studied chemical engineering, mechanical engineering or physics.

A large amount of research was also done in collaboration with local institutes, including the National University of Singapore, National Technological University, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, and Republic Polytechnic.

Eight Republic Poly students have taken up internships with IIa during their course of study over the past 18 months.

"IIa Technologies' investments in Singapore open (up) new opportunities for research," said Economic Development Board assistant managing director Lim Kok Kiang. "This will enhance the competitiveness of Singapore's R&D ecosystem and manufacturing capabilities."

Mr Mehta said: "Singapore has played a very important role in our success - the stable work environment, world-class infrastructure and the highly skilled talent pool have allowed IIa Technologies to focus on its development process.

"IIa Technologies could not have found a better home," he added.

ongkx@sph.com.sg