SME Spotlight

Glass maker stays on the cutting edge

Mr Gan, seen here sitting on laminated heat-strengthened glass, plans to introduce thermochromic glass, an American technology, to Asia. This type of glass heats up and turns dark when the sun shines on it, cutting down the glare.
Mr Gan, seen here sitting on laminated heat-strengthened glass, plans to introduce thermochromic glass, an American technology, to Asia. This type of glass heats up and turns dark when the sun shines on it, cutting down the glare.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

In the third of a four-part series on innovative SMEs venturing abroad, executive director Gan Geok Chua, 58, tells Rachael Boon how Singapore Safety Glass continues to stay on top of things with new, niche products for the global market

Q How was Singapore Safety Glass born?

A In 1988, I, my older brother and several people in the industry saw the opportunity to set up a company in the glass processing business, to make tempered glass. There was only one manufacturer then.

With friends and business associates chipping in, we started the company in 1989 with nine shareholders and paid-up capital of more than $1 million.

Then we got our machinery and everything ready, and started production in 1990.

Q How has the firm been performing?

A Fifty per cent of the business is from Singapore and Malaysia, and the other 50 per cent from First World countries such as Japan, the United States and Canada.

It has a factory here with 170 people, and 120 in production, and a factory in Malaysia with 100 people. There's something to be said about being here.

Our industry needs a local presence, so to speak. We're trying to see - by innovating, creating value - whether we can still stay here and not have to move.

INVESTING IN R&D

We're always looking to bring in technologies from around the world and actively looking for projects, and we do a lot of R&D work for the size of our company. We set aside a budget of about $200,000 a year.

MR GAN GEOK CHUA, executive director of Singapore Safety Glass

We cut about 6,000 tonnes of glass a year. Turnover increased from $19 million last year to $27 million this year.

Q Besides tempered glass, what does the firm specialise in?

A It makes laminated glass, insulating glass and bullet-proof glass, for instance.

Using a few processes that we own and developed - like double glazing glass, which is putting two pieces of glass together resulting in the air in between creating insulation - we also create a lot of different products for functional and decorative purposes. We also print glass.

We combine all these things to create aesthetically unique products or functionally robust products like heated glass, where we take a piece of glass with conductive coating on it, pass electricity through it so when you switch it on, it heats up.

We originally used this in the shipping industry, as it prevents ice from forming on the glass when the ship goes to a cold country.

Q What are some of the firm's most exciting creations or innovations?

A We've extended the heated glass to the Singapore environment - it's so hot here but you can still use it. There are two applications.

One is for show kitchens and fancy restaurants where people keep the wines in wine rooms. With our high humidity, there is condensation. The glass is heated very slightly so it prevents condensation.

Surprisingly, we supply this to many bungalows in Singapore, and many rich people use it for their private collections.

The interesting thing is that we've extended the application. We also have these chap chye png (mixed dishes and rice) and nasi padang stalls, where they have to keep the food warm, using it. Otherwise, there are health problems.

Now, they use water tanks with heated water above 60 deg C, which keeps the food warm. But to refill the water each day is back-breaking work.

With our glass, you just place the dishes on the tray to heat up the food. We've been using it in our own canteen for about two years, and we also supply it to the social enterprise Dignity Kitchen.

I hope to let national water agency PUB know about it, as it saves water and electricity. We are trying to get this business idea to the public.

We also started supplying to foodcourt operator NTUC Foodfare a year ago, but haven't gained much traction so we want to push this business more.

Q How did Singapore Safety Glass evolve to become more than just a tempered glass manufacturer?

A Over the years, we've teamed up with a lot of people and organisations to bring new products and knowledge to Singapore or our company and export them.

When we first started, we worked with an Australian company to bring glazing solutions to Singapore, the region, and places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and even Israel.

Business was very good from 1990 to 1996, but the 1997 Asian financial crisis came and business was tough. So we had to think of how to create more business, and we started to look at interior, decorative glass. We worked with another partner, did research and development (R&D), and started laminating rice paper fabric and such.

In 2001 or 2002, we wanted to make a glass floor that was non-slippery and transparent - a very niche market. We attended a talk at PSB Academy and met a scientist from SIMTech.

We arranged a meeting, gave ideas on what we wanted, and asked SIMTech to do a project for us to create a slip-resistant coating that was transparent. In 2002, they came up with the technology and we licensed it from them.

Because we had this unique product, we could sell it to the United States, supplying to hotels and even the Utah State Library.

Q How much R&D does the firm carry out?

A We're always looking to bring in technologies from around the world and actively looking for projects, and we do a lot of R&D work for the size of our company. We set aside a budget of about $200,000 a year.

We create what we can, but as someone from 3M once said, 99 per cent of the best brains in the world don't reside in your company, nor in your country.

Even a big, innovative company thinks like that, so we have to be realistic and humble, and work with the best brains in the world.

Q What challenges does Singapore Safety Glass face?

A Low-cost competition. Our strategy is to leverage on our branding to sell more overseas where people appreciate the quality and reliability of our products. I think we've got quite a strong brand not just in Singapore but also globally.

Q What plans does the firm have for 2016?

A Besides getting more traction for the heated glass, we're trying to introduce thermochromic glass - an American technology - to Asia.

When it heats up or the sun shines on it, it turns dark, so people don't have to use blinds anymore. It cuts down the glare but still has daylight streaming in.

Now, offices have nice windows, but you can't see the outside with blinds. With this glass, you can.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2015, with the headline 'Glass maker stays on the cutting edge'. Print Edition | Subscribe