Homegrown optics manufacturer makes big strides with R&D

The rise in demand for smart consumer devices globally is keeping local precision engineering firms like Moveon Technologies on their toes.

As intelligent devices such as multi-purpose smartwatches and autonomous vehicles increasingly make their way into everyday life, demand swells for the optical components that sit at the heart of these electronics. Local SME Moveon, which specialises in the design and manufacture of optical technologies for various applications, such as mobile phones, cameras and automotive lightings, recognised that this was a huge opportunity.

Yet, its founder and CEO Chee Teck Lee understood that the business, established in 2006, could not depend on its traditional, labour-intensive fabrication if it wanted to remain competitive in the evolving industry. He knew Moveon needed a concerted research and innovation strategy to tap new markets.

This led the company to collaborate with government agencies like the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and Enterprise Singapore (ESG) to develop new technologies and deepen its capabilities.

The result? Rapid business expansion and a five-fold revenue growth over the past five years.

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing and A*STAR CEO Frederick Chew touring Moveon’s facilities to witness how the firm employs cutting-edge technologies in its optics fabrication process.

To gain a competitive edge, Moveon has leveraged A*Star’s Technology for Enterprise Capability Upgrading (T-Up) scheme. Since 2015, two A*STAR’s research scientists and engineers were seconded to its site at the Kaki Bukit industrial estate to improve its R&D processes.

Up until 2010, Moveon had depended heavily on optical insert suppliers in Europe and Japan when it required diamond-turned inserts made from hardened steel or non-Nickel coated materials. This changed when the company engaged A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech).

Through the licensing of SIMTech’s ultrasonic technology, Moveon is now able to carry out direct cutting on steel, an otherwise hard-to-machine material which shortens the life of the diamond tool. This sparked the next development with SIMTech – the ability to plate a layer of nickel-phosphor on inserts. The system simplified the diamond cutting process and extended the use of the diamond cutter by up to 20 per cent while reducing fabrication lead time by up to 80 per cent.

An array of ultra-precise optics, machined in-house using SIMTech’s diamond turning and plating technologies. Diamond-turned components have broad applications in fields that require extremely accurate optical inserts, such as automotive and biomedical.

“Due to the highly efficient diamond turning and plating technology developed by SIMTech’s scientists, we were able to reduce our dependence on overseas suppliers, saving costs of up to 15 per cent and reducing our time-to-market from two weeks to three days,” says Mr Chee. “This was a huge milestone and turning point for our company.”

2015 marked another leap forward for the company when it launched its nanofabrication facilities with the support of A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE). The cost effective production of tiny, sub-micron diffractive optics allowed Moveon to diversify its products and service offerings in target markets with a demand in technologies related to face recognition, time-of-flight sensors, spectrometers and wafer-level optics manufacturing techniques.

“Five years ago, Moveon had zero revenue from nanofabrication. Today, it accounts for approximately 30 per cent of our business revenue,” says Mr Chee. Plans are being drawn up for a new nanofabrication facility six times bigger than the current one by 2022, he adds, as the firm steps up investments in nanofabrication.

Since embarking on its R&D journey with A*STAR, Moveon has made a successful foray overseas. The company now counts Daimler, Google, Avago and Dyson among its biggest clients.

Beyond manufacturing parts for businesses, Moveon has also dipped its toes into developing its own consumer products.

One example is the Beoncam, the world’s first wearable 360-degree panoramic wrist camera that doubles as a watch. The device is an outcome of a collaboration between Moveon and A*STAR’s Institute of Microelectronics (IME), where IME’s seconded T-Up engineers contributed their expertise in optical coating for imaging lenses in the camera module assembly. A T-Up secondee from SIMTech also contributed in the development of an image-stitching algorithm, which allows the corresponding smartphone app to stitch together separate shots into an impressive panorama.

Sales of the camera has hit more than 2000 units since being debuted by Moveon’s spin off company Spacemap in 2016. The base technology of this camera has also been leveraged and redeployed in Moveon’s new camera project in collaboration with an electronics MNC, to be launched at the end of 2019.

With its aggressive pursuit of relevant technological capabilities and an expanded business portfolio, Moveon’s operations have also grown internationally. The company now has an office in the United States’ Silicon Valley for design and prototype and a plant in Malaysia for mass production. Its Singapore’s office focuses on R&D, project management and small builds.

“These diversifications would not be possible without the transfer and adaptation of technologies from our close collaboration with A*STAR,” says Mr Chee.

Moveon’s CEO Chee Teck Lee giving Minister a glimpse of the cleanroom, where manufacturing is done in a sterile and controlled environment to meet the stringent needs of optical components.

With research and innovation at the core of its growth, Moveon has no intention to slow down investments in R&D, which are estimated at $1.5 to $2 million each year. Currently, 15 per cent of Moveon’s 80 local staff are focused on R&D work, and Mr Chee has plans to hire more.

Looking ahead, the company intends to strengthen its core optic capabilities in emerging sectors, including medical technology and electric / autonomous vehicles.

“It is important for us to continue our investments in R&D to stay relevant and future-proof the business that we took pain to build up. Our competitors are in countries like Japan, Korea and Germany. If we are not forward-looking, we will not be able to resonate and align ourselves with the evolving needs of this volatile and dynamic market,” says Mr Chee.