Lingjack Engineering Works: Extinguishing Skepticism About Change

With about 90 per cent of work processes automated, the business is much more "scalable", with the capacity to take on more orders. "Even the workers themselves are happier," says Mr Lim.

Originally a general engineering firm, Lingjack was founded in 1971. The company began making fire extinguishers in the 1980s, establishing the Combat brand which endures till today.

In 1991, Lingjack started to expand its product range to other fire safety products. In 1997, it moved from a flatted factory to its current premises, adding more production lines now that it had its own building.  Further transformation and expansion were to come after Lingjack’s current managing director Mr Kenneth Lim took on a management role in the 1990s.

Prior to that, Lingjack focused mainly on the Singapore market, making only occasional overseas sales when it received enquiries. But Mr Lim saw a need to go further. "The simple fact is that the Singapore market is very small," he says.

In 2000, Lingjack achieved United Kingdom certification, opening the door to markets in Europe and the Middle East. The firm began going for international exhibitions, picking up distributors in various countries. Lingjack now has offices in Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia, as well as one in Shanghai that focuses on the marine offshore industry, in addition to a factory in Johor Bahru. Yet despite these changes, its manufacturing operations in Woodlands remained labour-intensive.  That was until two years ago.


Fighting the labour crunch

Lingjack faces the same key challenge of labour shortage as do many other small manufacturers, says Mr Lim.

Before automation, Lingjack had some 45 production workers, accounting for about half its headcount. As many of them were foreign workers, quotas and levies were a constant source of pressure.  It became clear that the firm could not carry on with its reliance on labour-intensive manual work.

Mr Lim admits that the transformation plan to automation did face some resistance from some of the older management staff.  However, the undeniable fact of the industry's labour shortage helped him push for change.

As it was, the process was hardly immediate. The firm took time to understand what automation should entail, and to get management buy-in and workers' support. Says Mr Lim: "What we do is to go slowly, step by step, to get things changed." In 2013, before approaching Spring Singapore, Lingjack bought a single small robotic arm. "We thought we should buy one and try. The key thing is to let everybody have a feel: what is a robot, how does it help you." After all, he adds, the biggest challenge in transforming is not about getting the hardware - "From top to bottom, it is all about the mentality. To really get your existing staff, especially older workers, to accept the fact that we can do things in a better way ... that is where we really spend a lot of time guiding them,” Mr Lim says.

Lingjack has many workers who have been with the firm for 20 or 30 years. Says Mr Lim: "When you put in something new, they will say, 'Eh, this one cannot work.' They give you all sorts of reasons. It's not that they don't believe (in change), but they feel that automation has a lot of problems. So we have to prove to them that this thing can work. It takes a while."

Happily, once staff saw the effectiveness of their mechanical "co-workers", they were convinced of the need to move forward with automation.  "After that, you will start to see that they are the ones pushing you more now," Mr Lim says with a laugh. “They will say, 'Why don't you automate this, why don't you automate that', because they realise that actually, there are a lot of things they don't need to do."


Fired up for the future

The journey from sheet metal to finished product does not take place along one continuous production line. Each process requires a different machine, with the half-formed fire extinguishers having to be loaded and unloaded at each point.

Previously, one particular seven-step stretch - shaping cut metal sheets into the fire extinguisher bodies - required seven workers, just to load and unload the machines.  With robotic arms bridging the gaps between each machine, human workers need only load the cut metal into the first machine, and finally unload the shaped cylinders at the other end of the whole chain.

Not only has this made workers’ jobs safer and less tedious, it has also increased their skills and hence their value. Mr Lucas Fong, Lingjack’s senior engineering manager says: “The workers can concentrate on doing more important work.” Output has increased, and Lingjack estimates a total efficiency gain of about 40 per cent from this move.

But the pure return-on-investment figures are not the point, says Mr Lim. "Robots, to us, are a long-term investment. The benefits we get are more intangible." The automated laser-cutting machine allows for greater product consistency and quality, resulting in fewer rejects and less wastage. 

With about 90 per cent of work processes automated, the business is much more "scalable", with the capacity to take on more orders. "Even the workers themselves are happier," says Mr Lim.


This article was first published in the “Leaders of Transformation” series in the Business Times and reprinted with permission in the latest issue of the SMF CONNECT Magazine. Find more articles in the SMF CONNECT here.

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