Digital Makers: Supporting budding makers in Southeast Asia – The Edge Markets MY

digital-makers:-supporting-budding-makers-in-southeast-asia-–-the-edge-markets-my

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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 22, 2021 – February 28, 2021.

During the pandemic last year, Tan Eng Tong, co-founder of digital maker marketplace Cytron Technologies, received requests from teachers and lecturers in Singapore to send electronic and robotic kits to students under lockdown. 

“They gave us a list of addresses and asked us to package the kits and send them to their students. Their students still needed to do projects and complete their lessons despite the lockdown. We also saw a spike in our sales to Thailand during its lockdown period,” says Tan.

This supported the growth of the Penang-based company, which sells electronic and robotic components online, including sensors, motor drivers, wires, connectors, robot accessories, as well as Arduino, Raspberry Pi and micro:bit mainboards and components. 

Cytron’s customers are mainly schools, universities and hobbyists. During the pandemic, the demand from these target markets increased because many general electronics stores were not online, says Tan. Meanwhile, electronics projects and assignments still had to be submitted. 

But Cytron’s growth does not just ride on its digital platform. In recent years, the company has benefited from the digital making revolution promoted by governments in Southeast Asia. Nurturing digital making skills has become crucial to building the next generation of tech workers. 

“While we used to focus on supplying to hobbyists and some who are commercialising products, now we are focusing more on digital makers in Southeast Asia. We try to make more tools and hardware for students to learn digital making,” says Tan.

In 2014, Cytron launched its educational robotics kit called “rero” for students. This robotic kit allows students to learn how to build robots from scratch. Students can learn through a free online rero robotics course or bring rero to school, where Cytron will train the teachers as well. 

Single-board computers, such as those by Raspberry Pi and micro:bit, are also popular digital making tools to build robots and other solutions. These are small computing devices that can be programmed and connected to components like sensors or motors. Cytron imports the mainboards and manufactures many of the other components at its Penang factory. 

“You can create an Internet of Things project with a single-board computer. This is [the kind of thing] governments want students to learn. Students will have to learn how to connect wires and do other processes from scratch,” says Tan.

Digital making has been integrated into the national curriculum by the Ministry of Education. Other than supplying the hardware to schools, Cytron also provides online resources to train the teachers. Last year, the company reached more than 8,000 teachers through these webinars, he says.

Cytron helped the Penang Science Cluster set up digital maker labs in 100 schools in the state. The company also hired sales teams in Vietnam and Thailand to handle the growing number of enquiries from these two countries. 

“They are just like us. Their governments are also trying to integrate digital making into their mainstream education system,” says Tan.

From a seller to a maker

Tan co-founded Cytron with his friends after they graduated from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in 2004. They had won the national Robocon Malaysia competition and wanted to raise the quality of local teams that participate in this and other international-level robotic competitions.

“We realised that there was a need for good-quality components for building robots. When we were in university, we sourced everything ourselves. But some of the other teams were very passive. They didn’t talk to suppliers and they didn’t know where to get motors or sensors or how to build a simple circuit,” says Tan.

Coming from a family of business people, he immediately saw the opportunity and utilised his network of local and international suppliers to sell robotic and electronic components to students and hobbyists. Eventually, his team wanted to try manufacturing the products themselves.

“Initially, we tried to replicate imported products because the shipping costs were killing us. After a while, we began to improve on the products and now, we have unique products of our own that we export,” says Tan.

Cytron’s scale of production was elevated in 2014, when it received a grant from the Malaysian Technology Development Corporation and purchased a surface mount technology line. “Before that, we were soldering circuits with our hands, like we used to do in secondary school!” he says.

Its most popular locally manufactured product is the motor driver. According to Tan, it is a device to control DC (direct circuit) motors, which are often used in electric cars or mobile robots, or small-scale electric cars. Most of the customers of this product are from the EU, Japan and the US, he says. 

“In recent years, we have seen people who used our components during their school years trying to commercialise their products. They continue to use our components in their commercialised products as well,” says Tan.

“One of them is a company from Ukraine. It made a chair that can move according to a game, and it is powered by a DC motor. It needed a lot of our motor drivers.

“Another use case is solar panels. In some countries, they need the panels to rotate according to the [direction of the] sunlight, so you need a DC motor for that.”

With the surface mount technology line, Cytron can produce between 5,000 and 10,000 such components a month. According to Tan, exports currently contribute around 40% of its revenue. The rest of it is from Malaysia, where its customers are mainly from universities and schools. 

“We look forward to entering more markets in Asia. We hope to expand to Indonesia and the Philippines by this year or next. Our goal is to become the biggest digital maker marketplace­ in Southeast Asia,” he says. 

Scan this QR code to look at how Cytron manufactures its products

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