SINGAPORE — Singapore is the size of Denver, and it cannot pay toolmakers quite the same rock-bottom wages of competitors in China or nearby Malaysia. But the island nation, another rising Asian star in mold building, has one thing going for it: youthful energy.
"Our workers on average are 20-30 years old," said C.G. Ng, managing director of Singapore toolmaker Unique-Skill Precision Pte. Ltd. "They work very, very hard and put in a lot of overtime. Our grouping of mold makers is much younger than in the United States.
"And when they get older, a lot of them are ready to be their own bosses."
The country has a lot more going for it than youth. The nation is establishing a reputation — especially in contrast to its Asian neighbors — as a maker of high-precision, sophisticated tooling.
Unlike the fragmented U.S. tooling industry, Singapore operates one of the best state-run tool-training centers in the region, offers aggressive government subsidies for investment and endorses the belief that tool shops work together. It places great emphasis on training and manpower.
Between 600 and 700 companies make tools and dies in Singapore, a nation with 3.5 million people. About half of those shops make plastic injection molds.
Many of those firms sprouted or evolved over the past decade, relative infants by mold-making standards.
The late arrival has put Singapore on the offensive. The nation wants to grow fast and to grow now. To do that means attracting outside investment and more partners, Cheng-Kwang Pheng, executive director of the Singapore Precision Engineering and Tooling Association, said.
"We believe that you invest here, and you make money," said Pheng, speaking Jan. 31 to a group representing the U.S. Plastics Mold Builders Trade Mission. "You will make money fast, and the return should be fast and big. You can find cheaper labor in Malaysia or other countries. But labor is only part of the [equation]."
Indeed, Singapore wages for top toolmakers are close to U.S. standards, with many top workers earning more than US$30,000 a year, Ng said. Still, some toolmakers there claim that parts can be made at 70-80 percent of U.S. prices.
The country is betting that its skill in design and manufacturing and its speed to delivery will raise the comfort level for Western companies doing business in the East.
"This is an extraordinarily modern society," said Stephan Helgeson, first secretary for commercial affairs with the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. "The country is leaps and bounds beyond its neighbors. It's been a meteoric rise."
The country has laid a foundation to back up its boasts. Its 2-year-old Precision Engineering Institute was funded by close to S$4 million (US$2.35 million) in state monies. It features more than 100 state-of-the-art computer numerically controlled machining centers.
More than 250 students — some from Malaysia, China and India — graduate each year from the "teaching factory," serve apprenticeships and then get a job.
The students, 16-17 years old, pay S$2,060 (US$1,215) in tuition, according to Pheng. The rest of the tab, which is about S$16,000 (US$9,400) is picked up by the government and private companies.
The blend of government and private sector extends to research. Singapore's Gintic Institute of Manufacturing Technology, half-funded by the government, prides itself on cutting-edge research for the global market. More than 200 companies have booked projects at Gintic.
Mold software provider Unigraphics Solutions Inc. of Maryland Heights, Mo., launched its recent design program, MoldWizard, to a global market after developing it at Gintic.
"There's been a great upgrade to [computer-aided design] now within reach of local companies," said Ian Pinwill, senior business manager at Gintic.
And then there are actual tool shops, where government reach comes from the Singapore Economic Development Board. Mold making is included in the board's Industry 21 project, which supports industries it thinks will blossom this century.
Tax credits ranging from 50-100 percent on new equipment can extend over five years, and grants to offset ongoing training costs are as high as $80 a day per engineer. Funding also is available for private research.
Of course, the board would like to use its clout to attract outside companies to Singapore.
"We will make some arrangement with companies to help with a move," said Wong Guan See, engineering head for the board's industry development division. "We want to provide the seeds for development of the next generation of toolmaking."
There are pesky restrictions, though. Land in Singapore is leased for 99 years and not owned by companies. Vehicles and many goods are heavily taxed.
But the heavy public hand also brings its benefits. Toolmaker Omni Mold Ltd. has opened three factories in its 10-year history. That includes a new, 36,000-square-foot Singapore plant that is a poster child for mold technology.
The plant features bar codes for tracking orders through the plant and robotic mold changers. It offers electrode-grinding machines running automated 24 hours a day. It has high-speed milling machines revving up to 32,000 revolutions per minute.
And it includes read-only mold-drawing displays on the plant floor that allow engineering work to run concurrent with preliminary manufacturing.
Sophisticated molds moving from Brazil to Mexico to San Diego are completed in 10-11 weeks, said Omni managing director Neo Age Seng. World-class companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Cisco Systems Inc. account for much of the work, cut from 19 computer numerically controlled machining centers.
"We only work with premium customers such as Hewlett-Packard," Seng said. "We need to be a global player, because we'll never have a strong domestic market for our molds."
Singapore has not always lived on easy street. A financial crisis in 1997 left many companies bereft of work and with too much equipment. Competition is starting to improve in surrounding countries, such as Taiwan, Thailand and India.
Yet, many mold makers now come to Singapore for a better way of life, said Ng at Unique-Skill. The country is clean, efficient and offers a better life than in Malaysia and other places, he said.
Yet, as with U.S. toolmakers, finding skilled laborers can be a burden, Ng said.
"It's not hard to make money here," Ng said. "We are young, and we know we cannot fail if we don't hide [on our island]. But as an island, we have the same need for skilled labor as anyone else."