SMESpotlight

In robots we trust... to get the job done

Mr Lee (second from right), Aitech's founder, and (from left) engineers Seenivasan Lalithkumar, Jonathan Chang and Venkatachalam Singaram examining a prototype they had developed.
Mr Lee (second from right), Aitech's founder, and (from left) engineers Seenivasan Lalithkumar, Jonathan Chang and Venkatachalam Singaram examining a prototype they had developed.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

In two years, Aitech Robotics and Automation has gone from a struggling start-up to a fast-growing provider of mobile robot solutions to key industries in Singapore. Founder and business development manager Eric Lee tellsWong Wei Hanabout the company's emergence amid stiff competition from established players

Q What does Aitech offer its clients?

A We develop robotic solutions for companies in industries such as semiconductor manufacturing, and food and beverage. Our most notable products are automated guided vehicles (AGVs). AGVs are mobile robots that help our clients move their materials or products.

For instance, in our next big project, an F&B company is having us deploy robot waiters that serve food and drinks in a multi-storey office building. They will have trays in their "bellies" carrying the items while going from one office to another. A mobile application for ordering and a payment system will also be integrated. The robots will be launched in a month or so.

Q What inspired the founding of the company?

A If you look back, automation and robotics had already emerged 20 years ago in Singapore, and a lot of ideas and products were brought here to support the manufacturing industries.

But the automation industry was soon killed off as China lured the industries away with cheap labour.

The company was founded by two people, including myself, who have had experience in the engineering and manufacturing industries.

About five years ago, we noticed that robotics and automation were starting to come back because business costs in China had been rising.

So we set up Aitech in 2013 and decided to focus our business on mobile robot development. It's widely applicable. As long as a company's process involves movement, we can help improve its productivity.

Q How does deploying robots actually help a company?

A While a robot cannot do everything a human can, the human lacks consistency. Imagine this: A factory operator usually works eight to 12 hours in a single shift. If he or she is to push a trolley that entire time, the speed is not going to be the same throughout.

A robot will not have that problem. Having that consistency in production is important for manufacturing industries.

There is also the savings in manpower costs. Obviously, this benefit varies from business to business. A small company may benefit less because the operation is smaller, but a robot can be equal to two or three workers at large multinationals that run a production line at full capacity.

Q So did the company have a flying start?

A Not really. After the company was started, we went about one year without any income while spending money on marketing and development.

I personally forked out some $200,000 of savings. I couldn't have done this without my wife's support.

It wasn't easy competing in the automation industry as a small start-up up against big players such as Adept Technology or Daifuku.

At the beginning, most clients didn't even want to "entertain" us because they had never heard of us, and when they did, sometimes the efforts went to waste.

Once, we spent over five months studying and researching a proposal, only for the contract to be awarded to a multinational firm, even though our price was lower and our product equally competent.

During times like this, it's important for a start-up to believe and hold onto its vision. For Aitech, our belief is that automation is the way to go in Singapore.

Q How did your big break come about?

A It was the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) that opened the door for us. In 2013, we partnered SIMTech for support in capability development, and the agency linked us up with our first big client.

At the time, a German semiconductor manufacturer wanted to deploy the AGV system in Singapore - the first such attempt by the company globally. It spoke with SIMTech, which in turn introduced us to the company.

Things have improved since. Today, we have six major clients in the private sector. We are also the co-developer for a robotic research project at the Nanyang Technological University.

Our revenue is set to double to around $1 million this year.

Q What is your competitive advantage over the bigger engineering and robotic firms?

A We have to differentiate with customised solutions, according to a client's operational needs.

For instance, a semiconductor manufacturer may not want the robots to be too fast because the wafers are submerged in distilled water when being transported and the client wants to make sure the water is not spilled. We can also incorporate cloud and mobile technology where requested.

Of course, cost-wise, we're more competitive - we are about 20 to 30 per cent cheaper compared with the big service providers. More importantly, we offer local support. This is an advantage because the local market is honestly too small for many of the global robotic players to have active engineering support here.

Q How do you plan to grow Aitech?

A We are exploring new sectors, and logistics will be one area of focus.

In this area, we have a few near-closed projects. For instance, we are going to build an automated system to help a frozen food distributor unpack its products, a process that normally requires a lot of manual labour.

We are also close to submitting a proposal to a logistics firm at Changi Business Park.

To support the growth, we plan to hire about eight more people by the end of the year, up from the current six. But developing and retaining talent - especially the ones with hands-on engineering expertise - remains a big challenge for us.

Aside from that, our potential is strong. I foresee a steep growth in the demand for automation in the next two to three years in Singapore. So we will focus entirely on the domestic market for now.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2016, with the headline 'In robots we trust... to get the job done'. Print Edition | Subscribe