Jobs of Tomorrow

Inventor duo have fingers in many pies

The Elleviate Bed Mover, a motorised device that helps nurses push heavy hospital beds around with ease. Mr Andrew Toh (left) and Mr Arron Li with a water jet cutter that is used to cut thick sheets of metal. Mr Li says engineers are encouraged to be
Mr Andrew Toh (left) and Mr Arron Li with a water jet cutter that is used to cut thick sheets of metal. Mr Li says engineers are encouraged to be hands-on throughout the creative process, from the designing to the manufacturing stage, which includes learning how to use such machinery.ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW
The Elleviate Bed Mover, a motorised device that helps nurses push heavy hospital beds around with ease. Mr Andrew Toh (left) and Mr Arron Li with a water jet cutter that is used to cut thick sheets of metal. Mr Li says engineers are encouraged to be
The Elleviate Bed Mover, a motorised device that helps nurses push heavy hospital beds around with ease.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

This is the second of a three-part series profiling recent graduates from the Singapore University of Technology and Design who have taken up jobs in future-ready tech industries.

Ask 27-year-old Arron Li to give you his job description and he hesitates. "I don't really have one," he says with a laugh.

According to his name card, he is an engineer at home-grown engineering solutions company Hope Technik but in reality, he has fingers in many pies.

Says Mr Li: "I do mechanical design, fabrication, electrical wiring, procurement, research, proposal writing, outreach, basic Microcontroller coding. Hope Technik really likes that - having the ability to do everything yourself."

In his 11/2 years at Hope Technik, he has helped conceptualise numerous products, ranging from a customised treadmill to a wearable "exoskeleton" designed to help people lift heavy loads.

His latest project - produced with the Centre for Healthcare Assistive and Robotics Technology - is the Elleviate Bed Mover, a motorised device that helps nurses push heavy hospital beds around with ease.

He started work on it in the middle of last year and three of these bed movers are now undergoing trials at Changi General Hospital.

"I design, I fabricate, I assemble... It's been a non-stop roller-coaster ride," says Mr Li.

It is a Monday morning and I am at the Hope Technik headquarters in Penjuru Close in Jurong to visit Mr Li and his colleague-cum-flatmate Andrew Toh, 27. Mr Toh has a similar job scope, but does more electrical and software-related work, including work with drones.

The pair met as students at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), where they were "campus builders" - they helped set up clubs and student spaces a year before the university officially welcomed its pioneer batch.

Today, the duo are "inventors" in a special projects research and development team at Hope Technik called T2 (read as "Technik-square"). Most of their projects are commissioned by clients and assigned to them by their project managers.

Hope Technik has produced Red Rhino emergency vehicles for the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and boasts big-name clients such as Airbus.

When Mr Li and Mr Toh take me on a tour through the company's 52,000 sq ft headquarters, the workshop is a sea of organised mess. On the ground floor project space, early incarnations of various projects are scattered everywhere. More than once, Mr Li and Mr Toh point to some projects they had a hand in creating.

Pulling out a motorised trolley for moving heavy weights, Mr Toh says: "This is one of the first things I did (at Hope)... We had quite a few of these wheels lying around, so we decided to mount these onto the trolley so you could 'drive' it."

Mr Toh, who has helped fabricate the fibreglass body panels and roto-casted plastic parts of SCDF vehicles, is now working on multiple projects which have to be kept under wraps due to client confidentiality agreements.

Still, it is clear he has left his mark on Hope Technik, if his 3m-high in-house rotational casting machine - two large square steel frames that rotate a closed mould to produce hollow plastic parts - is anything to go by.

Last May, he designed, programmed and helped to weld the machine in just a week because the company wanted to create foam and water storage tanks for fire engines.

Racing against time, Mr Toh tried out different kinds of chains and gear boxes, replaced the original motor, and addressed balancing and structural issues.

He says: "Our business is in doing new things... You're not very sure where the problems and the risks are. That's why we have such a huge drive for rapid prototyping."

Mr Li chimes in with the Silicon Valley mantra: "Fail fast, fail often."

Mr Toh continues: "The faster we build something, even if it's crappy, we are able to find out a lot of problems about it that will inform our future designs."

Says Mr Li: "You run to the water jet, cut a new piece, fit it again and try it again."

The water jet cutter, which can cut thick sheets of metal, is his favourite machine.

He adds that these metal sheets can be folded into a stronger structure, or combined to create 3D shapes.

"It's like origami - folding it in a correct way to fulfil a function that wouldn't have been possible," says Mr Li, who used the machine for his Elleviate Bed Mover.

In a company where projects often come with tight deadlines, the biggest challenge for Mr Li has been time management.

"A lot of it is not about being perfect," he says. "It's about being professional. Everyone wants to spend 10 months working on something, but deadlines are what keeps the company going."

He likes how the engineers are encouraged to be hands-on throughout, from the designing to the manufacturing stage.

"We try to keep a lot of our production capability in-house," Mr Li adds. "If anything happens, we are able to do it ourselves. We can use any of these machines any time; they encourage us to get familiar with them and build our own 'nonsense'."

Mr Li shows me one of his pet projects, a 3D printer that he created with the help of information from the Internet. While the printer no longer works, its belt has been salvaged and used in an open source 3D printer in the workshop.

"It's now an 'organ donor'," quips Mr Li. He is baffled when I ask him why he decided to make it in the first place. "I just wanted to. There's no 'why'. Why not?"

In a corner of the ground floor project space is an e-scooter - Mr Li's transport to work - created during his SUTD days and modified at Hope.

"I made this because I couldn't afford a $1,000 e-scooter. So I bought a normal (kick) scooter, ripped out the wheels, stuck on a bag to contain the battery and motor, and bought stuff online, like a throttle and brakes," he said.

Work may be hectic - there are months when they go home after 11pm every day - but for Mr Li and Mr Toh, the line between work and play is a fine one indeed.

During breaks, they play table tennis in the building's front lobby.

And at night in the workshop, "when no one is watching", Mr Toh zips around in his "Batt Mobile", a go-kart he created in university. Mr Li also assembles drones at his desk for fun and flies them with his colleagues.

"That's why I have so much 'junk' cluttering my table," Mr Li says. "My hobbies and work are all in the same place."

WATCH THE VIDEO

The Elleviate Bed Mover helps nurses wheel 300kg beds. http://str.sg/4ehe

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'Inventor duo have fingers in many pies'. Print Edition | Subscribe