Bring IT Home – AAPICO HITECH PLC 

The Lunch of AITS Navigation System, at Lumpini Park

Yeap Swee Chuan came to Thailand to start a Ford distributorship, and when that threatened to go under, shifted to what did not seem an inspired low-volume jigs, dies and OEM (original equipment manufacturer) parts for the automotive industry.(Jigs are machines that hold car parts in place while  they are welded together.)

But after a 20-year roller coaster ride, the auto parts company he founded, known as Aapico Hitech Plc (www.aapico. com), has become an investor favourite in the Stock Exchange of Thailand, reporting a turnover of nearly seven billion baht (about RM636mil) in 2004, up 74% from the four billion Baht the previous year.

    


No wonder his company – known as Aapico Hitech Plc  (www.aapico. com) since it went public in

2002 – is frequently cited in lists of the best-managed or most prominent enterprises in Thailand.

And while he has never severed ties with Malaysia – coming home at least once

a month, he says – Yeap is finally eyeing the Malaysian market.  But it will be for

something completely different: information and communications technology (ICT).

We can do IT too

Yeap caught the ICT bug about four years ago on a visit to Japan, where he noticed

many cars carrying a navigational device built on GPS (Global Positioning System)

satellite-tracking technology and digital maps.

The devices allowed drivers to get guided instructions on how to get about city streets.

"If they can do it in Japan, I asked myself, why can’t we do it here In Thailand?"

he wondered.

Yeap felt that this could be a "transformational technology," something that would

not only change the automotive industry but one that would also usher in new

applications for a wider market.

So in 2004, he established Able ITS Co Ltd (www.ableits.com) to develop what

he calls Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS). He gathered consultants from

Germany, Japan and Taiwan and began work on a GPS navigator.

"For one year the team did nothing but work on it. I spent 20 million Baht in

the first year, and will spend 50 million baht this year. Every business advisor

I know has urged me to drop this venture," he says.

But Yeap is used to ignoring what may seem to be sound business advice – after all,

that’s what he did in Thailand 20 years ago when the Ford distributorship was in trouble.

Instead, he embarked on the new business of auto parts manufacturing.

Single-mindedness

Yeap is focusing that same singularity of vision on his new business.  It’s easy to see

why he’s excited though. The AITS Car Navigator is relatively easy to operate.

Just enter your starting point and destination, and it projects the easiest route.

Its GPS technology tracks your vehicle as it moves, to update the map on the screen.

Instructions are simple: Turn left at next junction in 100m; U-turn approaching; etc.

But Yeap just doesn’t stop there. "With this you can solve traffic jams," he says

enthusiastically, pointing to that perennial Bangkok problem.  If sufficient numbers

of cars had the device, he says, one could collate data such as their speed and

numbers to determine how traffic is flowing in certain streets, and then provide

alternative routes to ease bottlenecks.

He’s trying to sell the idea to the Thai government, and has provided some

high-ranking officials with sample units to allow them to discover the device’s

uses for themselves. 

All this can be done with existing technology, Yeap claims. "We can do it already –

the technology and infrastructure can be easily implemented."  He says that Able ITS

is ready to spend the money needed for the back-end machines needed to

process traffic and geographical data; countries such as Japan already have them.

"This can be a big business," he adds, giving examples of providing Thai police

and army operating in the country’s strife-ridden south with such devices so their

locations are always known; or installing them in children’s toys so that kids can

be easily traced if they were ever kidnapped.

"This is just a gadget; its range of applications ultimately depends on how far

we’re willing to go," he says. 

Back to earth

That first-year effort by the Able ITS team yielded four GPS navigator models:

The AITS Car Navigator portable model that can play MP3s; a PDA phone model;

an "in-car" model; and finally, an OEM version for car makers to build into

their machines. The device combines hardware such as the handheld itself,

incorporating a GPS receiver, and the PowerMap software.

The immediate priority is to make money to keep Able ITS rolling until the car

makers are on board, so selling the PowerMap software and standalone

devices is important, he says.

The company has appointed two retailers in Thailand – Platinum and Digital Art

as well as IT City – to sell the portables, but Yeap admits sales have been slow with

fewer than 50 units shipping since the device’s launch in the first quarter of this year.

Bulk and OEM sales – the in-car model – have been better, with just below 1,000 units

having shipped, he claims. Able ITS is also looking to form alliances with

Thailand‘s cellular service providers in which they could download the PowerMap

software onto their customers’ GPS-capable cell phones and PDA-phones.

Finally, the company will be looking into introducing the GPS navigator into fleet

management systems for trucking companies, for instance.

Homeboy comes home

Able ITS will be employing the same strategies when it comes into the Malaysian

market before the end of 2005. Aapico subsidiary New Era Sales has a Malaysian

office in Petaling Jaya, and Yeap says he’s already got the showroom manager

there interested in plugging the GPS navigator.

Able ITS is already working with a Malaysian company, which he declines to

name, to provide digital maps. The next step would be to overlay the audio

instructions – the company would probably begin with three: English,

Bahasa Malaysia and a Chinese dialect.

Yeap says he’s been in very preliminary discussions with some Malaysian car

makers, and is confident that they will come on board when the Malaysian product is ready.

The next step – and for businessmen such as Yeap, there’s always a larger goal –

would be to take the product regional. He’s eyeing the countries of the Mekong Delta,

from Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia right up to southern China.

Somewhere in that equation, Singapore will come in as well.

BY A. ASOHAN IN BANGKOK Extracted with permission from Bizweek, The Star, Saturday July 9, 2005

 

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