The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2016 - Eric Lew

Drive for innovation

Eric Lew, executive director of Wong Fong Industries, started the Wong Fong Research and Innovation Centre to create new mobility products and stay ahead of the industry.
Mr Lew, executive director of Wong Fong Industries, wants the company, which sells, designs and services equipment such as trucks and cranes, to stay on top of trends that will shake up transport engineering.
Mr Lew, executive director of Wong Fong Industries, wants the company, which sells, designs and services equipment such as trucks and cranes, to stay on top of trends that will shake up transport engineering.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

With its mix of retro furniture pieces and minimalist elements, the offices at Wong Fong Industries' research and innovation centre look nothing like the Joo Koon building's industrial facade.

Instead, they bear the look and feel of a workspace belonging to disruptors like Facebook and Google.

But the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) was not always this fashion-forward. In fact, it began life in 1964 as a truck equipment servicing business run out of a zinc-roofed workshop in Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Today, it not only sells, designs and services equipment such as trucks and cranes for construction, logistics, waste handling and military uses, but it also wants to be at the forefront of technology.

This is mainly due to its executive director, 43-year-old Eric Lew, who wants the company to stay on top of trends that will shake up transport engineering, including electric vehicles.

The impassioned Mr Lew has tried his hand at drama and other creative projects as a social services programme executive when he experienced "an early mid-life crisis" in his late 20s and quit his job as an auditor.

The youngest of four children, of whom two others are also at Wong Fong, Mr Lew found his groove in business development when he joined the family company 13 years ago. In 2013, he mooted the setting up of the Wong Fong Research and Innovation Centre (WFRIC), to work on new products outside of its core services.

Next year, Wong Fong will debut Singapore's first electric supercar, a project undertaken in partnership with British F1 giant Williams Advanced Engineering, at the Geneva Motor Show. The Dendrobium, named after an orchid, has a top speed of 300kmh and is designed by Vanda Electrics, a WFRIC spin-off.

WFRIC also wants to help other companies develop new products through a "hardware accelerator" that Mr Lew hopes to launch in the middle of next year.

The vision is to create an alliance among hardware firms to pool resources and prototype commercially viable products, such as self-driving logistics vehicles, that can put Singapore on the map.

"We're still an SME and our annual budget is limited. But if there is a consortium, we can come up with a framework for innovation so that other SMEs can benefit," said Mr Lew, who plans to provide mentorship and other resources such as educating companies on how to identify industry trends through the accelerator.

Engineering has the power to change people's lives, said Mr Lew. With more international companies moving research and manufacturing back to home base as new technologies reduce the need for outsourcing, it has become even more important for Singapore to make its own products to stay relevant. "Imagine if we are able to create many products and export it, then we can become an even more powerful economy and country."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 25, 2016, with the headline 'Drive for innovation'. Print Edition | Subscribe