In the final of a six-part series on the retail sector, Esther Teo discovers how a company can stand out in a global market through product innovation
INSPIRATION struck Nanyang Optical chairman Yang Wah Kiang as he was eating in a restaurant one day.
Observing a mother securing her child into a child seat using a seat belt, he got the idea to incorporate the belt mechanism into a new eyewear hinge.
Hence, the revolutionary buckle-lock system was born.
The company’s managing director Bernard Yang explains: “The buckle-lock hinge means the frame does not need to be soldered, which reduces carbon emissions. Since it has no screws, users do not need to worry about screws coming loose. It makes changing the temples easy.”
Pushing the idea for “green” eyewear further, the company collaborated with A*Star’s Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) to develop frames made from high quality recycled materials using manufacturing processes with reduced environmental impact.
SIMTech also seconded a researcher to Nanyang Optical for a year, to help build its research and development (R&D) capabilities.
The project eventually led to the invention of the eco-friendly eyewear Nature Eyes, a lightweight, durable plastic frame with good tensile strength made out of recycled materials.
Nature Eyes has been well-received in the high-end eyewear categories in Europe and North America, regions where there is a rising demand for recycled products.
The company is working to bring the eyewear line to China by next year.
Against the backdrop of globalisation, retailers have to embrace innovation to differentiate their products.
Instead of competing on cost alone, product innovation enables companies to capture more value and stand out from the crowd, says Dr John Yong, director of the Industry Development Office at SIMTech.
The research institute has been providing technology and support to local small to medium-sized enterprises to help them develop new, innovative products.
Since Nanyang Optical began its R&D journey a decade ago, it has filed and registered more than 10 patents in Singapore and overseas for innovative frames such as S-clip, a screwless hinge that allows the temples to have an in and out spring effect; Eyelet Jr, a stable children’s frame; and Flip, which is for customers with long-sightedness.
Spring Singapore has been providing support to Nanyang Optical by helping to build its capabilities in information technology, human resource, customer service, omni-channel retail and e-commerce.
“We want to break from the traditional mould of typical optical stores by constantly innovating to stay ahead of competition. We feel that the most exciting invention is still to come,” says Mr Bernard Yang.
Another innovation which Spring’s support has helped bring to life is B L Packaging’s (BLP) Stabilyne line of furniture.
Combining wood and polypropylene, the company developed the unique assembly system for chairs that enables efficient packing for shipping and has the ability to withstand weights of more than 200kg.
In its first year, the company sold over 30,000 Stabilyne chairs to its business partners in various markets, and three years on, it is looking to surpass 600,000 chairs — a 20-fold increase in sales. Its revenue is tipped to triple to reach $45 million by 2018.
“Having unique products means that our stories are different from those of our competitors. We don’t have to rely purely on price to sell furniture,” says Mr Ng Boon Long, chief executive officer of BLP.
“Once our business customers switch to Stabilyne, they don’t just stay converts; they have the tendency to switch other chairs in their ranges to this system as well.”
Patents and trademarks for Stabilyne have been granted in the United Kingdom and China. Intellectual property (IP) protection has been instrumental in enabling the company to make inroads to new markets in Europe, the United States, Brazil, Australia and South Africa.
With commercial demand for Stabilyne expected to rise significantly in the US, the company is now working on filing for IP protection in the market.
For every innovation success, the back story often involves a process fraught with challenges.
Mr Ng recalls: “We faced many failures for Stabilyne along the way. We had to test new materials and combinations. Some skill sets we required were not even available within the trade, so we had to leverage government agencies like Spring and friends in other industries to brainstorm for solutions.”
Buoyed by the good reception for its chairs, the company is currently at the prototype stage for Stabilyne Generations 3 and 4.
Equipped with increased knowledge and expertise derived from the Stabilyne project, BLP is also conducting more R&D to develop new, innovative products. It recently invented the Boltzero range of knock-down furniture that does not require any bolts or screws.
Nanyang Optical is working on a new eyewear concept with a local engineering company. Currently operating four eyewear boutiques in Beijing, it is also considering further regional expansion, and will also be launching its customer relationship management (CRM) experience and omni-channel store locally by early next year.
Says Mr Bernard Yang: “R&D is a journey with no end as long as you keep on innovating. We have learnt to accept the growing pains associated with R&D and the failures that come with it. The key is to get up after every fall and keep improving.”
To find out more about how Spring Singapore can support your retail business, visit www.spring.gov.sg/retail or e-mail email@example.com.
The SkillsFuture Study Award for Retail Sector encourages Singaporeans to develop and deepen specialist skills in retail management, digital marketing, e-commerce and supply chain, among others.
It targets early- to mid-career Singaporeans with relevant working experience who are committed to developing and deepening their skills. Individuals will receive a monetary award of $5,000.
Visit www.skillsfuture.sg/studyawards/retail.html for more information and to apply. Applications open on Nov 1, 2016.
Singapore Productivity Centre is organising a two-day LEAN Job Redesign Masterclass on Nov 14 and 15, 2016 to train retailers in applying the LEAN methodology for productivity improvement and job redesign. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to register your interest with the programme organiser.