Engineering innovation with passion
Drones and robots used to be the province of science fiction, but these products of human imagination are fast becoming an integral part of industry and everyday life.
Working hard behind the scenes to translate these ideas into real products are engineers — modern-day thinkers and tinkerers who seek technological solutions to society’s problems.
Flashback to 2006 Singapore : A group of intrepid engineers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) band together to start HOPE Technik (HT), a company founded on the belief that Singapore can develop world-class products.
“We started out as a mechanical engineering company making small parts for customers,” said Mr Ng Kiang Loong, Programme Director at HT.
“Slowly, we gained electrical, electronic and software capabilities, and started to provide full engineering solutions six or seven years ago.”
Their hard work burst onto the national stage when the company’s drones — ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ — made an appearance at the 2016 National Day Parade, held at the brand new National Stadium.
Having walked the talk of innovation for slightly more than a decade, Mr Ng and his fellow ‘engineering commandoes’ — Chief Engineer Paul Wu and Software Engineer Mr David Lee — were eager to share their insights on ‘Engineering the Innovation Economy’, a seminar held at the NTUC Centre on 3 August 2017.
The talk was jointly organised by NTUC and General Assembly, an organisation that promotes education and strategic career connections.
It’s about passion
While it may be exciting to embark on a new adventure, staying the course through difficult times takes passion.
HT’s founders know this all too well, having forfeited nearly two years of salary before the company won contracts from the Singapore Civil Defence Force to build the fire-fighting vehicles known as the ‘Red Rhinos’.
Hence, for engineering companies to thrive in an innovation economy, their people must have a keen interest in engineering that transcends personal wealth and immediate gratification.
“It’s not just about getting the job done,” said Mr Wu. “It’s about being passionate and taking ownership of the work.”
This passion should not only apply to official projects — HT also encourages its employees to explore their own engineering interests.
According to Mr Wu, it is not an uncommon sight to see people tinkering in the HT workshop in the wee hours of the morning or during the weekend to create their own gizmos and gadgets.
“At HT, we are always challenging each other to come up with new ideas and techniques,” he added.
Open to people and ideas
There is a tendency for people within an organisation to become complacent and comfortable with ‘safe’ ideas, Mr Ng noted.
Hence, to sustain an innovative culture, he emphasised the importance of being open to people and concepts from external sources.
“We have many tie-ups with tertiary institutions such as the universities, polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education, so there’s always a healthy influx of new people who have many fresh ideas,” said Mr Ng.
“Some of them can be bit naive, which is actually a good thing! They keep the rest of us on our toes and make things interesting.”
Even as HT welcomes new faces to invigorate its own culture, its mentoring of students also benefits society.
The knowledge and experience of senior engineers can be invaluable when it comes to “finding the bug in every design or problem,” said Mr Wu.
By providing a training ground for students to cut their teeth on real-world projects, HT is helping to nurture the next generation of engineers.
Different companies have different risk appetites, and this affects their willingness to experiment and innovate.
But firms should realise that in a climate of rapid disruption, keeping still is the equivalent of sliding slowly into obsolescence, said the speakers.
It is therefore necessary to foster a risk-tolerant culture to ensure growth in an innovation economy, urged Mr Lee. He added that our education system also needs to change to recognise failure as a stepping stone rather than as an end point.
“Singaporeans are practical people, but we need to dare to get out of our comfort zones, and the best place to start encouraging this is with the young,” he said.
In addition to changing mindsets, governments can help to defray the risks of innovation. Mr Lee gave the example of Israel, which is renowned for its technological prowess and cutting-edge innovation.
“The Israel Innovation Authority funds companies by matching investment capital dollar-for-dollar. It doesn’t take shares, only royalties, and that gives companies the freedom to develop and pursue their own agendas,” he explained.
“This model has helped to spawn many technologies in various industries.”
In Singapore, companies keen to make innovation a part of their DNA — in the vein of HOPE Technik — can apply for government grants aimed at helping startups secure a foothold in the local and global marketplace, such as those offered by SPRING Singapore.
Such initiatives, combined with a culture that is more tolerant of failure, will hopefully inspire more Singaporean tech entrepreneurs to venture off the beaten track — and help to engineer an innovative Smart Nation.
- Images of Red Rhino and Spider drone courtesy of HOPE Technik website.