Engineers assume multi-faceted roles

by Elaine Chow

TK Fu, R&D manager, Tsuen Shing Enterprises Limited

Creativity and market knowledge are now key attributes for an aspiring engineer

Statistics show that Hong Kong's electronics industry accounted for 42 percent of total merchandise export earnings in 2003. That impressive figure is largely the result of the world-class electronic manufacturing services (EMS) and contracted OEM and ODM services provided by local companies. One outstanding example within the electronics industry is Tsuen Shing Enterprises Limited, which has supplied customers around the world for the last 22 years, and learned during that time to cope with the changes the business demands.

"The past few years have seen drastic change in the electronics manufacturing industry and made versatility important," says TK Fu, the company's R&D manager. "Intense competition has meant that customers have come to expect new products all the time and the prevailing market conditions have made it necessary for the company and our employees to keep adapting."

Mr Fu points out that this has made openness and innovation very important qualities. "We pride ourselves on providing a wide variety of electronic products," he adds, "and therefore need people with creative minds to expand our market potential." As a leader in the field, Tsuen Shing has 60 R&D engineers and has built a reputation for developing their own brands, as well as working for a string of highly regarded customers such as AND Co. Ltd, Hasbro, Tandy Radio Shack, and Osim.

"Our engineers are capable of working with different departments and on any type of product," notes Mr Fu. "They also make commercial decisions which can have an important impact on the financial results of business. Those with good language skills get involved in a lot of coordination with overseas customers and factories in China, and like the marketing team, are well aware that the amount of time spent on production determines the profitability of the company."

Marketing input

The role of R&D engineers is fundamental to the success of any new product. Therefore, to maximise their chances of success, they are actively encouraged to work with the 20-person marketing team and make use of the country and sector expertise that is available.

The key is to understand customer needs and shifting trends and then to incorporate this information in discussions with technical staff to design the latest range of products. "Success stems from being able to translate a basic need or vision described in layman's terms into a sellable product", says Mr Fu. "It must meet our targets for price and profit margins, while attracting customers and promoting sales."

The prevalence of IC (integrated circuit) technology has led to a whole new wave of design innovation for toys and electronic appliances. It has also enabled the manufacture of smaller products which possess more functions and can be relied on for their quality and accuracy.

Not surprisingly, the arrival of this technology has forced companies to adopt new business models and more flexible strategies. They have to be ready to move with the market and, according to Mr Fu, must know how to apply IC technologies in all areas, rather than depending on products which have sold well in the past.

"Engineers now require a much higher level of creativity and multi-dimensional thinking," he notes. "We are therefore more likely to recruit engineers who are open-minded and adaptable. Nowadays, it also helps if they have an outgoing attitude and are people-oriented."

End to end

Senior engineers have a major influence over everything from development to finishing and can oversee every stage of the process. Many combine practical work with management responsibilities and are expected to communicate regularly with suppliers and clients in order to keep in touch with the latest market developments. "This helps them to pick up new ideas which can then be taken further during internal brainstorming sessions," says Mr Fu. In fact, the creative process often begins at exhibitions and trade shows, where engineers can hear directly from vendors and clients, and subsequently convert those comments into concepts and products.

In recent years, the role of the production engineer has greatly evolved from its traditional emphasis on mainly technical aspects of the manufacturing process. Nowadays, it will include elements of design, testing, marketing, logistics, and quality assurance. The range of skills and expertise required is more extensive than ever, especially as engineers are now seen as an integral part of the creative process, if not the actual inventors of many new products. "They must actively anticipate market trends and an understanding of the entire production process has become a common prerequisite," Mr Fu stresses.

He encourages candidates with less than five years' experience to plan a career path but to be realistic. In particular, they should look out for employers willing to invest in their training and development, in the way that Tsuen Shing does for new recruits and more senior employees.

"Engineers tend to be specialists who are focused and quality-oriented," Mr Fu explains. "However, in our business, they also need to have a real interest in consumer trends. These are changing all the time, so it is vital to be open to outside influences, observant and able to adapt to new perspectives."

Broader scope

  • Manufacturing companies are engaged in a constant search for new products
  • Engineers are now involved in everything from design to marketing
  • It is essential to have regular contact with customers to get feedback and ideas
  • IC technology has accelerated the pace of change
  • Potential recruits should be creative and have a feel for the market

Taken from Career Times 21 January 2005
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