The complex process of designing and manufacturing electronic products requires a wide variety of engineering skills. These are applied in the successive phases of research and development, testing, production and quality assurance, and require the input of professional engineers with technical competence in various specialist areas.
Varitronix, an ODM company engaged in manufacturing liquid crystal displays (LCDs), is a good example of just what is needed since the company employs five distinct types of engineer for its day-to-day operations. In particular, technology engineers are responsible for the development and commercialisation of new technologies and for enhancing existing products; while some other engineers focus on product design and customisation, sample development, feasibility study, quality control, supporting and monitoring the production process, and providing technical support.
The roles of the design and process engineers can be further subdivided. Some mainly look after the "glass" of an LCD panel, which involves specialist knowledge in the use of chemicals and materials; others focus on liquid crystal modules (LCMs) and deal with the electronic and mechanical parts of the display modules.
Since the company operates mainland factories, LCD engineers may have to travel frequently to the LCD manufacturing site, while those responsible for LCMs may even be stationed across the border on a longer-term basis. According to Susana Chan, human resources and public relations manager for Varitronix Limited, it is more difficult to hire LCM engineers in the booming China market. LCM engineers usually possess electronics engineering background and are targeted by different types of consumer electronics manufacturers. Although due consideration has been given to pursing a policy of greater localisation as a way of solving the problem, it has proved difficult to find mainland-trained recruits.
"Hong Kong trained engineers have a better command of the English language when compared to mainlanders," Ms Chan says. She adds that this is a crucial factor for design engineers who have to work closely with overseas customers.
Ms Chan has also found that experienced engineers in Hong Kong tend to be more proactive and creative. "They are more able to use their own initiative when given tasks to accomplish," she explains. From the perspective of research and development, she also believes Hong Kong engineers have more opportunities to learn and get better exposure to the latest technologies, which helps to foster innovative thinking.
To counter that, Ms Chan nevertheless notes that mainland engineers are now achieving improved standards of technical competence and are fast catching up with the rest of the world.
When recruiting, Ms Chan looks first for relevant training and technical expertise. "For fresh graduates, we mainly focus on their overall academic performance and look for any projects they have done," she says. Obviously, a university degree is required, but the company aims to take on people from different backgrounds and with varied experience. This can be in diverse areas of mechanical and material science or in carrying out independent research projects. For certain positions, a postgraduate degree is preferred.
In general, engineers must have sound technical skills and, once they have developed professional competence in a particular field, are likely to continue working in that area. Interpersonal and communication skills are important for dealing with customers and business partners. Ms Chan points out that successful engineers usually have good social skills and understand the need for maintaining close working relationships.
She is confident about future prospects for the LCD business and believes it offers good career options. "The technology keeps evolving and we continue to see many more applications for LCDs in existing or new electrical appliances," she says.
Nowadays, engineers are facing new challenges and they are obliged to develop all-round skills to tackle issues related to material sourcing, costing and supply chain management. They must also be equipped to handle other non-technical matters which arise from discussion about business development, product budgeting and even management.
Ms Chan says that it is common for engineers to take a master's degree or an MBA as part of their continuing professional development. "It is also important to keep up with market developments," she says.