Island Thrives on Industry

16 September 2007 (Last Updated September 16th, 2007 18:30)

Singapore's economy has grown steadily since independence, and the medical industry is one of many to benefit. Yeoh Keat Chuan explores the country’s medical technology sector.

Island Thrives on Industry

The medical technology sector is a significant part of Singapore's fast-growing biomedical sciences (BMS) industry. In 2006, it contributed S$2.07bn to Singapore's total BMS manufacturing output and created over 6,550 jobs. Singapore has attracted numerous leading medtech companies to its economy and has encouraged them to establish commercial operations, R&D centres and manufacturing facilities.

Among the major companies are Applied Biosystems, Affymetrix, Baxter International, Becton Dickinson, Biosensors International, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Hoya Healthcare, Japan Medical Supply and Siemens Medical Instruments. They develop and manufacture a wide range of medical products, such as syringes, catheters, hearing aids, contact lenses, research instruments and scientific analytical equipment in Singapore.

"Singapore's vision is to be the biopolis of Asia; an international biomedical sciences cluster advancing human health."

SUPPORTING INDUSTRIES

Since the 1980s, Singapore has strengthened its expertise in the areas of electronics, precision engineering and materials sciences. The combined manufacturing output for these industries is about $100bn, equivalent to 50% of Singapore’s total manufacturing output. Collectively, these industries employ more than 180,000 people in the country. This is critical for medtech companies who engage in both product development and manufacturing.

A number of smaller industries support the diverse medtech sector, including electronic manufacturing services (EMS), plastic components, metal forming and casting, ceramics, surface treatment and cleansing, packaging and sterilisation.

EMS providers have grown alongside Singapore's development into an international electronics hub. Today, the top five EMS companies, Sanmina, Flextronics, Solectron, Celestica and Jabil have established manufacturing operations in Singapore and offer crucial manufacturing support to a growing number of medtech players. The medtech sector includes instrumentation, diagnostic equipment and medical consumables.

EMS companies have moved up the value chain, providing a comprehensive array of services from product conception and design to full manufacturing and supply chain management.

Many OEMs and EMS providers choose to base such high value-added manufacturing operations in Singapore because of strong intellectual property rights protection and the workforce’s ability to meet quality and reliability requirements, enabling sophisticated manufacturing and engineering services.

Boosted by the thriving electronics industry, Singapore also has assets in precision engineering and plastics and metals handling. Plastic components manufacturers supply disposable and non-disposable plastic components for a range of products, including optical lenses and diagnostic devices. Many manufacturers are able to provide a full suite of services, offering product design and development, prototyping, precision plastic engineering, plastic moulding, volume manufacturing and assembly, thereby providing customers with a full turnkey manufacturing solution.

Companies with niche tooling and equipment expertise are also crucial to Singapore's medtech sector. These manufacturers' service offerings include tooling fabrication, metal stamping, mass production and assembly. Some companies, such as Forefront Medical Technology (FMT), provide dedicated contract manufacturing services, including product and process redesigning.

ESTABLISHING QUALITY STANDARDS

The manufacturing of medical devices requires a high level of quality assurance. Companies providing components to the medtech industry must comply with these stringent quality standards. SPRING Singapore (the standards, productivity and innovation board) encourages and supports local component suppliers to adopt nationally recognised Singapore Standards (SS) and achieve international quality standards such as ISO 13485, IEC 60601 and GLP. This ensures that Singapore-based companies are able
to compete on a global basis.

SPRING identifies and bridges capabilities and competency gaps in branding, service excellence, technology management, manpower and organisational excellence.

High costs often deter supporting industries from obtaining certification. In response to this, SPRING recently launched a capability development programme to help the local supporting industries by co-sharing the cost. Professional consultancies are also available in Singapore to assist medical device companies and their suppliers with the delivery of technical compliance and validation in accordance with internationally recognised standards.

OPTIMAL OUTSOURCING OPTIONS

With increasing global competition, the challenge of keeping production cost effective and the demand for work of the highest quality, a greater number of international medtech companies are exploring outsourcing options in Singapore.

"The country produces over 15,000 engineers and engineering science graduates per year."

One company that provides outsourcing services is Solectron Singapore, which represents the firm's sole medical manufacturing facility in Asia. Expertise extends into areas such as collaborative design, printed circuit board (PCB) assembly and system integration services. The company assembles high-performance liquid chromatographers for Waters, one of its major customers.

Solectron also has a sister facility specialising in the fabrication of precision tools and dies for the metal stamping industry, as well as a global services facility that provides post-manufacturing repair, product logistics and end-of-life services.

Another company that has secured many outsourcing contracts is Sanmina-SCI Singapore, which leverages its EMS and PCB businesses to achieve greater synergies. The company focuses on server and medical electronics, providing customised solutions in the design and manufacture of medical devices, including ultrasound equipment, defibrillators and CT scanners.

Beyonics Technology also provides vertically integrated manufacturing services to the medical devices assembly sector. It offers a range of products, such as infusion pumps for fluid administration, IV systems, safety syringes, disposable CAPD connectors, spikes or piercing devices, POC devices, OAE probes and disposable surgical scrubs.

ACCESS TO TALENT

The Singapore Government has invested heavily in education, spending more than 3% of its GDP on public education. The emphasis on learning encompasses lifelong learning, reflecting the dynamic nature of modern competitive environments.

In addition, the educational curriculum focuses on business needs and skills sets that meet future industry requirements. With the manufacturing sector contributing to 28% of Singapore's GDP, it is unsurprising that the country produces over 15,000 engineers and engineering science graduates per year, approximately 40% of the total number of graduates.

The number of engineers produced per year as a percentage of total nationwide enrolment is equivalent to, if not higher than, some of the world's most industrialised nations.

CONNECTIVITY AND ACCESS TO MARKETS

Medtech companies can effectively supply global markets from Singapore. In addition to logistics connectivity, which ensures rapid and cost-effective deliveries, Singapore's wide network of free trade agreements (FTAs) provides manufacturers with access to key markets at preferential tariff rates.

Singapore has signed FTAs with many countries, the US, Australia and India among them. As an example, the terms of the close economic cooperation agreement (CECA) between India and Singapore provides for the elimination of tariffs for a variety of medical devices by 2009. This is also true for exports to China, with tariffs expected to be eradicated by 2009.

Coupled with Singapore's global logistics capabilities and connectivity, medtech companies look to Singapore as a natural choice for a base of operations when seeking access to multiple emerging Asian markets. At the same time, they are able to exploit offshoring and outsourcing opportunities.

COMPETITIVE TAX ENVIRONMENT

The competitive tax environment also plays an important role in attracting major companies to start manufacturing high-value products in Singapore. The current headline corporate tax rate in Singapore is 18%, far lower than in the US and many European countries. There are also numerous other potential tax incentives that companies could enjoy, depending on the scope and magnitude of their investments.

"Medtech companies look to Singapore as a natural choice for a base of operations when seeking access to multiple emerging Asian markets."

BOOSTING GROWTH IN SINGAPORE

Another initiative to enhance the operating environment within the medtech sector is the Medical Technology Advisory Committee (MTAC). This committee was established in 2006 in response to requests from industry to enhance manpower, regulation, policies and infrastructure. This was set up to support the rapid growth of the medical technology sector in Singapore.

Today, the MTAC comprises of representatives of 19 major medtech companies involved in manufacturing and R&D. Throughout 2006/7, the MTAC facilitated a manpower study and organised a sharing platform to allow companies to raise their awareness of technologies. Alongside other future initiatives, the MTAC will further advance the industry and strengthen interactions among key stakeholders.

Singapore's vision is to be the biopolis of Asia; an international biomedical sciences cluster advancing human health. The strong growth of Singapore's medtech sector only serves to emphasise the country's encouraging business environment.

Suppliers who meet international quality standards help medtech companies to comply with stringent regulatory requirements, and many medtech companies leverage the process engineering expertise of Singapore companies to enhance their process manufacturing efficiency. As a result, medtech companies feel comfortable locating key business functions that span the entire value chain in Singapore. It is hoped they will continue to do so as more businesses recognise the potential that Singapore has to offer.