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From right, ST Engineering President & CEO Vincent Chong, Top Glove Executive Chairman Lim Wee Chai, and HCL Technologies Corporate Vice President & Head, APAC Business, Swapan Johri discuss transforming businesses in the digital era in Singapore on Jan. 18. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)
Asia300 Summit 2018

You can't walk alone to survive the digital era

Asian companies need to work with partners and customers to keep pace with innovation

SINGAPORE -- Companies, whether they are manufacturers or software providers, must speed up the process of transformation to survive the changes of the fourth industrial revolution. And to do that, they cannot walk alone.

That was the message from leaders of Asian companies speaking at the Nikkei Asia300 Summit held in Singapore on Thursday. The complexity of digital transformation is so great, they said, that companies will need to work hand-in-hand with external partners, startups or even their own customers.

Vincent Chong, President and CEO of Singapore Technology Engineering, said collaborating with an external partner with expertise is crucial. "Businesses are being challenged to solve problems which are multi-faceted and complex," Chong said. Speaking about an autonomous vehicle project ST Engineering is focusing on as one of its future growth businesses, Chong said: "Look at ... the map and all the technology components we have to put together. Many of them require collaboration because you just don't have expertise."

The second largest defense equipment maker in Asia by market capitalization, 51%-owned by Temasek Holdings, Singaporean state investment company, is pushing to expand its business into such areas cyber security, autonomous vehicles and robotics for commercial use.

ST Engineering, Chong said, has set up a cybersecurity laboratory at Singapore University of Technology and Design. "We can't do on our own, so we started a corporate laboratory, with SUTD, for data analytic solutions," he said.

Mergers and acquisitions are another way to broaden its technology reach, as the company demonstrated when it acquired US-based Aethon, which makes robots that work in hospitals.

Swapan Johri, Corporate Vice President & Head of APAC Business at Indian IT company HCL Technologies, stressed that the company is working closely with customers to speed up the business transformation process.

"We are seeing customers investing in our software development centers," Johri said. He says businesses have to be flexible when it comes to working with other companies if they are to compete today. "It's no longer possible to work in the classical manner," he said.

"There is no question about whether ... businesses need to transform. The question really is about whether you transform in parts or in whole, and the speed of transformation," Johri added.

Legacy is one of the challenges to companies must overcome if they are to transform, Johri said. Besides the legacy of technology and business processes, there is the legacy of mindset. This is "the biggest challenge," he said, because it is tough to push people to think differently.

The pressure to transform is being felt by Malaysia's Top Glove, despite its position as the world's largest rubber glove maker. "Business is very competitive. We must use advanced technology systems -- digitalization, computerization, [and] automation," Executive Chairman Lim Wee Chai, said in his speech. "[It is] just like in the war game. We must use the latest, most advanced weapon."

The 60-year-old company founder emphasized the importance of automation for leaner operation of factory. "With automation, you don't need a light [in the factory]", he said. "Thirty years ago, we had only one production line. To produce 5000 pieces [of gloves] an hour, we needed 100 people. Today, to produce 30,000 gloves an hour, we need 20 people."

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