The world of hardware startups has changed drastically ever since the advent of the 21st century. First, the rise of China as a contract manufacturing hub has lowered the costs of starting a hardware business, as one can easily subcontract fabrication to a Chinese plant, taking advantage of their lower infrastructure and labour costs.
More recently, advances in computer-controlled manufacturing, such as CNC machining and 3D printing, has brought down the barriers of entry even further. 3D printing allows cheap and rapid prototyping, while relatively inexpensive, open-source CNC systems such as Build Your CNC lets one fabricate to close tolerances in a machine shop not much bigger than an apartment.
Given these developments, it’s a puzzle why there aren’t more hardware startups setting up shop in Singapore. Even though Singapore has traditionally been on the labour- and capital-intensive side with regard to manufacturing, it should be fairly easy for a plucky startup to make use of Singapore’s extensive connections to the world market to purchase their own CNC mill or to subcontract fabrication out.
Here, in an exclusive interview with e27, Rick Tan talks about the challenges in starting a hardware company in Singapore, as well as his own experience in Innova Technology, the company behind the Duet Bluetooth smart tag.
What do you think are the main challenges facing hardware startups in general?
Having hardware as your product presents a few challenges that are different from web or mobile startups. For one, the lead times are long, involving extensive testing and prototyping. Also, creating and testing hardware require experienced technicians and engineers, who are expensive and hard to come by.
As an example, our Duet Bluetooth smart tag was two-three years in the making. We started off with our Protag loss prevention system, a credit-card-sized Bluetooth tag. Along the way, we incorporated the lessons learned from the making and marketing of the Protag to our Duet, gaining valuable experience in both manufacturing as well as testing.
Does being in Singapore offer any benefits or drawbacks to a hardware startup?
Being based in Singapore does come with its own opportunities and challenges. Singapore’s small size means that startups have to look abroad for customers, and for us it means the US. Fortunately, Singapore’s open economy makes it easy for us to engage US-based PR firms to help with marketing, and modern logistics arrangements enable us to ship quickly and cheaply as well.
One other advantage is Singapore’s status as a regional transport hub, aided by its location in the heart of Southeast Asia. This lets us ship parts to and from our Chinese factory easily, and lets us do critical processes like final assembly and quality control locally. Additionally, the rise of budget airlines lets us visit offsite manufacturing plants easily, enabling better communication between us and our Chinese plant managers.
Do you think developments in tech, for instance 3D printing, has made it easier to do hardware startups?
Not for us, unfortunately. We did try 3D printing when we were prototyping the Duet, and our experience has shown that it is very inadequate for that purpose, let alone full-scale manufacturing.
For one, the accuracy and tolerances are poor. Our Duet tag has many small internal offsets and catches to hold its circuit board tightly, and we found out that the boards would never fit in the 3D printed cases. In addition, the surface finish of the 3D printed cases are particularly rough, as compared with our CNC-built prototype.
I believe that right now CNC machining is far superior to 3D printing for both prototyping and manufacturing. That said, it’s almost certain that 3D printing will only get better in the future. In fact, we have already ordered a new 3D printer, and we look forward to seeing what it can do for our product development.
Finally, why don’t we see more hardware startups in Singapore?
As mentioned earlier, Singapore suffers from a dearth of hardware manufacturing know-how. Nowadays, students are turning away from science and engineering to study business and finance, as working in a factory is seen as an unglamourous occupation.
In addition, even though there are a lot more easier ways to create and prototype new hardware ideas, such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi development kits, they are still not very widespread in Singapore. All this translates to a lack of quality engineers in Singapore, those who have the calibre to execute new hardware ideas.