No slowdown for parts maker amid aerospace growth

Mr Soh, JEP Precision Engineering's CEO, has been reaching out more to polytechnic and ITE students in efforts to secure the firm's next generation of workers.
Mr Soh, JEP Precision Engineering's CEO, has been reaching out more to polytechnic and ITE students in efforts to secure the firm's next generation of workers.ST PHOTO: TAMARA CRAIU

Far from the tall towers of the central business district, tucked beneath the flight path of aircraft as they swoop into Changi Airport, home-grown JEP Precision Engineering is making its mark in Singapore's fast-growing aerospace engineering industry.

The contract manufacturer produces five engine casings a week for the Boeing 777. It also makes the casings for around 60 smaller engines a month for the Airbus A-320 or Boeing 737, planes often used by budget airlines.

In a year's time, JEP will move to a bigger space at the big boys' club at Seletar Aerospace Park - an 80,000 sq ft expansion for a small company that just 26 years ago got its foot in the door of the industry by making small components for Singapore Aerospace Manufacturing, and later engine casings.

The breakthrough came four years ago when JEP won a 10-year contract to make landing gear components for the Safran Group, an original equipment manufacturer (OEM). For JEP, it was a huge step up from a second-tier contractor to a first-tier one.

The contract took JEP two years to secure, as stringent checks had to be performed in an industry that has no tolerance for shoddy work, as people's lives are at stake, said chief executive Soh Chee Siong.

  • MANUFACTURING

  • Share of the economy: 19.8%

  • Growth: Shrank by 5.2% last year, reversing the 2.7% growth in 2014

  • Market structure: 9,106 establishments employing about 416,400 workers in 2014

On the floor of JEP's machine shop in Changi, machines are organised in neat rows; materials and parts are stacked and stored with great care.

"Boeing and Airbus will even check your toilet to see how good your housekeeping is," said Mr Soh.

"A good layout gives them faith in the way you process your parts."

JEP, which employs 220 workers, including 13 engineers, also makes actuators for oil wells, though that business is down 50 per cent with the slump in oil prices.

But Mr Soh is not too worried. JEP's work in aerospace accounted for 70 per cent of the company's $44 million in revenue last year, and the outlook is bright for the next few years, he said.

"Airbus and Boeing have eight to 10 years of backlog because demand is so good, they have not been able to keep up. Just add these two players up - that's 12,000 (aircraft) units behind schedule," Mr Soh said.

For him, as for many other manufacturers, the bigger problem is how to recruit the next generation of workers.

These days, being a factory boss also requires one to be a human resource expert. For the past two years, the 60-year-old industry veteran has been ramping up his outreach to polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education students.

"As long as I'm still kicking, I hope to grow this industry," said Mr Soh.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2016, with the headline 'No slowdown for parts maker amid aerospace growth'. Print Edition | Subscribe