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Giving Robots “Vision”: How One Singapore Company Is On A Mission To Replace Human Inspectors With Smart Robots

He tried to retire twice – now he’s teaching smart robots to “see”.

Emage Vision CEO Charles Cher

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The current Chairman of Emage Vision, Charles Cher, has a storied background in Singapore’s high-tech engineering sector. His journey began with a Tape and Reel service start-up in 1990. It eventually merged into ASTI Holdings and was later listed on the SGX in 1999.

After steering the company through the Dotcom bubble in 2000 and the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2007-09 as CEO, Charles decided to ride off into the sunset in 2013.

Before he could get too far, the chairman of SGX-listed AEM Holdings came calling. He asked Charles to run the then-stalling testing solutions provider. From 2014 to 2018, Charles overhauled the firm, growing the company’s market capitalisation from about $20 million to more than $100 million and setting it on a growth trajectory to nearly $1.1 billion today.

A Third Rodeo In The High-Tech Engineering Space

Before Charles could make retirement plans for a second time, ex-colleagues from his stint at ASTI Holdings came to him for help growing their start-up, Emage Vision.

Giving “eyes” to machines, Emage Vision enables automated production line monitoring. Besides streamlining quality control processes, manufacturers gain real-time diagnostics to avoid expensive downtime and even system failures before they happen.

The first order of business was to diversify customer segments and introduce new automation, machine learning, and AI solutions at Emage Vision. Unknown to them all, a much bigger fight was looming on the horizon. Just months into his new role, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the global economy to its knees.

We were fortunate to sit down with Charles for an interview to understand his journey in Singapore’s high-tech sector and how that helped him navigate Emage Vision through the pandemic. We also got a glimpse of his expansion plans for Emage Vision.

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Dinesh: Your website says that Emage Vision transforms manufacturing by giving “eyes and brains to machines”. Can you explain how you do this?

Charles: In any manufacturing process line, there are operators at the end of the line conducting a final inspection of the products. I don’t think this can continue – with human eyes.

Emage Vision’s biggest customer is in the pharmaceutical industry, where quality control is very stringent. Besides, it can also be very expensive to have multiple human operators with the expertise to conduct all inspections. It also slows down the process and is more prone to human errors – which can lead to very expensive downtimes for production lines.

Our solution replaces human eyes with Machine Vision – a highly customised four-camera system that we integrate into the production line. This is the hardware, or the “eyes”.

Machine Vision also comes with bespoke software, now integrating machine learning. This functions as the “brains” and equips the manufacturer to pick up on diagnostics to avoid unnecessary downtime and increase production yields.

Dinesh: Emage Vision is a relatively small player in a segment dominated by economic megatrends: Automation, Machine Learning and AI.

While promising, it also sounds like there’s likely cutthroat competition – from both existing technology giants pivoting their businesses and new and innovative upstarts.

What gave you the confidence to join Emage Vision?

Charles: The company was run by people I knew very well.

Pitting with the biggest and best in the space, they had 3 things that few other companies could compete against:

1) Trusted founders with decades of experience in the high-tech engineering sector;

2) A long track record of customising solutions to fit the exact requirements of customers; and

3) Deep expertise in a specialised segment – high-tech optical systems and algorithms.

Having invested in machine learning technology since 2015, Emage Vision also has a first-mover advantage in the sector.

Hybrid Machine Vision Learning System

Dinesh: You’re exposed to the manufacturing sector in two ways. Your products have to be manufactured and deployed, and your customers use your products in their manufacturing lines.

When COVID-19 hit, it must have been a testing time as production facilities ground to a halt and global supply chains were disrupted.

How did you manage to sustain the business during the pandemic?

Charles: All our customers were shut in 2020. The financial implications were only felt in 2021, the only time in the company’s history that we registered a loss.

Supply chains were disrupted. Even if we got a purchase order, it would take months before we could procure the parts and ship out our products. For our products that had been recently shipped, it would be 2 years before we could go to the production facility to set them up!

This was all out of our hands. The only thing in our control were costs. The other was our development plan – we could use this down time to invest in our future.

As a technology company, the need to develop and improve your solutions never ceases – and some hardware and software we develop take many years of R&D. We are confident in what we can deliver and are always ready to take a bet on our own future. On average, we invest about 30% of our revenue in R&D. I think this is much higher than the industry average.

As we incurred a loss during the pandemic, there was less to invest. This had a domino effect. Not investing enough now will affect product development and, ultimately, sales in a few years.

OCBC has been a fantastic partner to us since the start. We have been working closely with our relationship manager from the Serial Entrepreneur team who understands our different businesses and collective goals. During the pandemic, she constantly speaks with us to be well aware of our situation and this allowed us to draw on a Temporary Bridging Loan to defray our overhead costs and strengthen capabilities for the next phase.

Dinesh: You don’t just compete with the biggest names in tech or engineering for the same business, but also for the same talent. How do you hire good people who will spur your future growth?

Charles: It starts with the business itself; the founders and management team are exceptionally talented people.

While the big companies have an advantage in acquiring scarce talent in the AI and machine learning fields, we decided not to go into a bidding war with them. Instead, we prefer to nurture our own talent organically.

This takes longer and is much harder to pull off. Over the years, we have reaped the benefit of this by fostering a culture of growth and innovation. We allow our people to learn and explore ideas they have. We looked for people not only with the right skills but also those whose vision aligned with ours.

The second thing we have done very well is leverage global talent. We are in Malaysia, Vietnam, India, and Russia.

While employees in these regions are technically gifted, the bigger boys may not be competing for them, and they are at a comparatively lower cost.

Again, this only works because the people we already have on the team are technically gifted themselves. They are able to work with and train the talent base across our regional teams.

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Keeping Pace With The Tech Sector

Towards the end of our chat, Charles candidly shared that “you cannot afford to stay still” in the tech sector. To keep up with competitors that have deeper pockets, Emage Vision has to play every trick in its book.

With a very gifted core team, they realised they didn’t necessarily need to fight for the most sought-after talent. They complemented their Singapore office with satellite teams across Malaysia, Vietnam, India, and Russia. The local team could train and nurture their talent pool organically.

This didn’t just serve to reduce overheads, either. Emage Vision benefited by diversifying operations and building a presence in the region. Furthermore, employees they had trained and inculcated with their core values were far more likely to stay with them for a longer time.

The ongoing engagement with their OCBC relationship manager allows the bank to gain a comprehensive view of Charles’ ambitions for Emage Vision. Once they became aware of his aspiration to establish a physical regional presence, they connected him to OCBC’s regional network and facilitated the setup of a bank account through a single touchpoint.

Rather than pause work during the pandemic, Emage Vision doubled down on their future. Charles kickstarted their largest-scale R&D project for a smart humanoid robot – that they call TOMO. As border restrictions prevented the regional teams from coming together, he made the decision to fly the development teams from Singapore, Vietnam and India to Atlanta, U.S.A. for several months to work on TOMO.

Two years on, this gamble is starting to pay off. During our conversation, Charles described the excitement of clinching their first purchase order in hand.

Emage Vision TOMO robot

Emage Vision also forged ahead with its software overhaul. Upgraded with machine learning, users can now handle the initial set-up on their own, and, better yet, learn from manufacturing lines to improve yields by recognising products wrongly flagged as defects.

As a serial entrepreneur, the bank recognises Charles’ experience and track record across his group of businesses. Therefore, Emage Vision was able to utilise OCBC’s Business Term Loan to ensure that its development plans were not hindered by the pandemic, even though its operating cashflow was affected.

The Group also owns the premises they work out of now. Not having to constantly move around at the whim of their landlords also gave them a feeling of permanence. According to Charles, they’ve built a happier and more fun place to work – and to continue expanding their product depth and presence in the region.

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