Jobs for the future

Career in sharper focus after switch to optical engineering

Mr Tay worked as an automation engineer designing machines before switching to the optics field.
Mr Tay worked as an automation engineer designing machines before switching to the optics field.

The economic outlook may be worrying, but there are bright spots with job opportunities for new as well as mid-career joiners. In the first of a weekly series, we look at the precision engineering sector.

A mobile phone screen that looks perfectly flat and pristine could have thousands of defects which are not visible to the naked eye.

But under an interferometer, a machine which uses lasers to make very precise measurements, they can be detected by senior quality assurance engineer David Tay.

Mr Tay, 41, works at optical lens manufacturer II-VI Singapore, where he leads a team specialising in measuring the surface quality of products like optic mirrors down to the micron and pico level.

These mirrors can be used in lasers for testing, engraving and cutting, or in mobile phone camera lenses, for example, and Mr Tay has to design the best way to measure products to ensure they meet customers' specifications.

More jobs like his are expected to be generated in the near future as Singapore's economy restructures.

"Optical engineering is quite interesting and is new in my field, so I took up the challenge," he says, referring to his career switch in 2010 when he joined the company.

  • Training opportunities

  • Workers who are looking to make a career switch to the precision engineering industry, or firms hoping to hire such staff, can tap three new professional conversion programmes (PCPs) which are now accepting applications.

    The Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF) also administers a Precision Engineering Master Craftsman Certification which includes a two-year part-time training course at Nanyang Polytechnic, leading to a Singapore Workforce Skills Qualification diploma.

    For students keen to join the industry in the future, mechanical engineering is a useful starting point, said Mr Brandon Lee, chairman of the SMF's automation technology industry group. Knowledge in computer-assisted design or computer-assisted manufacturing are useful to progress further.

    For more information on the skills framework for precision engineering, you can go to http://www.skillsfuture.sg/skills-framework/pe.

Before that, he worked as an automation engineer for six years designing machines, after studying mechanical engineering and mechatronics at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

"I've always liked to troubleshoot and analyse things, and solve problems, so this department is a good fit for me," he says.

The field of optics and lasers has been identified as a growth area in the Precision Engineering Industry Transformation Map, which was launched in October last year.

Other up and coming fields are robotics, additive manufacturing and sensors. A spokesman for the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) said precision engineering employs some 94,000 people in about 2,800 companies, and will shift towards higher value-added activities that are crucial to support advanced manufacturing.

To support this, the Government is investing in research and development schemes, like the $450 million National Robotics Programme, and model factories for companies to test out new technology.

"Precision engineering is a major pillar of our manufacturing base in Singapore, forming the backbone of manufacturing capabilities in Singapore and supporting other sectors like aerospace and marine," the EDB spokesman said.

The move towards digital manufacturing in the industry is expected to create 3,000 higher-skilled jobs by 2020, such as robot coordinators and industrial data scientists.

Three professional conversion programmes are already open for workers looking to make a career switch. These prepare trainees for jobs as engineers or assistant engineers in various types of companies:

• system integrators, which provide automation and robotics solutions to a wide range of industries;

• component original equipment manufacturers, which produce parts such as lasers, optics, sensors, motors and precision pumps; and

• complex equipment manufacturers, which work with semiconductors, testing and measurement, light emitting diodes, additive manufacturing and machine tools.

For Mr Tay, making the switch to the optics field involved attending a lot of short courses on laser testing, metrology and interferometers to get up to speed. His company sent him to the United States headquarters three times for hands-on training on the latest equipment.

He also attended a five-day master class in optical engineering in March last year at NTU, where he learnt about lens design and new developments that the industry is likely to see in the future, such as ultra-fast lasers and fibre optics.

New products present new challenges for him, which he says help him to constantly upgrade his skills.

For example, products used to be more regular in shape, so there were only four methods of measurement. Now there are 12, he says, adding: "With new products, I can get new training and this pushes my level higher and keeps me interested."

Mr Brandon Lee, chairman of the Singapore Manufacturing Federation automation technology industry group, said to take the industry forward, manufacturers should get involved in component and module design instead of producing components based on customers' designs.

A focus on innovation, professional invention and entrepreneurship in the industry can help boost interest in jobs there, he added.

"We are talking about how to create highly customised components through design apps... or even printing devices that perfectly fit individuals, like creating implants that fit their bone structure."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2017, with the headline 'Career in sharper focus after switch to optical engineering'. Print Edition | Subscribe