Among the hundreds of research and development (R&D) engineers in Hong Kong, most focus on the development of hardware-based electronics products. Based on their previous knowledge and experience, they tend to enhance existing solutions to keep pace with, and satisfy, market demands. However, to reach a higher level of technological innovation requires a different, research-based approach.
"Research and development are actually two different things," says Anvil Ng, technical project manager of Perception Digital. "While product development focuses more on further improvement, technology research involves exploration of new, adventurous concepts that entail more uncertainties and thus higher risk. I would say the former is more market-orientated and the latter technology-orientated."
Mr Ng believes that the technology-orientated approach could bring about more revolutionary changes to products, which could easily be differentiated from existing offerings. However, commercialisation is the major challenge.
Perception Digital is one such research-based technology solution provider that focuses on the development of high-end digital audio consumer products and voice-based Internet applications. It was founded by professors and graduates of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
R&D engineers need clearly defined milestones and deliverability
Drafting the specs
Preliminary R&D work involves substantial effort in the realm of market research. "With particular regard to market demand and customer requirements, the R&D team can obtain relevant information from the marketing department," says Mr Ng. "Engineers, on the other hand, focus more on the comparative study of products already available on the market, reviewing their strengths and weaknesses."
After sometimes lengthy study, both the hardware and software engineers will work together to draft specifications for the new solutions and then start their development. In addition to the product functions, features and performance, time-to-market is vital for success. As a result, the R&D process must be well scheduled with clearly defined milestones and deliverability. On the other hand, due to the high uncertainty in the R&D process and fast changing market needs, engineers always need to struggle between features and time-to-market. The review mechanism is thus important as well.
"R&D engineers are required to work as a team internally, but normally they do not have to deal with customers and other external parties. The latter task actually is the duty of project managers, who have to bridge the gap between commercial requirements and the exigencies of technology development," says Mr Ng.
Since it is common practice today to migrate part of the R&D work to the mainland, engineers in Hong Kong must make regular cross-border visits. "These trips can average four to five days a month for our engineers," says Mr Ng, pointing out the two main reasons for moving R&D northward. One is to save costs and the other is to enhance efficiency.
"As the production floor is located in the mainland, it can help speed up the development process if the later stages of R&D, which mainly incur testing and fine-tuning, are also carried out in the country," says Mr Ng.
To conduct technology-orientated research, there is a high requirement for the technical knowledge of R&D engineers. According to Mr Ng, it is an imperative that engineers possess a bachelor's degree in related disciplines, such as electrical and electronics engineering and computer science. Mr Ng points out that 70 per cent of the company's engineers are actually master's degree holders. "In addition to one's own expertise in a specific area, the candidates should also have a wide scope of knowledge in the field. It is because the more uncertain the research work, the more likely it will touch different aspects of the field," he asserts.
Naturally, the company sets stringent requirements on the personality of candidates. "While the technical knowledge can be learnt, it is unlikely to change one's character," says Mr Ng, a dedicated team player. He thinks that an R&D engineer must be proactive, innovative, responsible and self-disciplined. All these qualities are essential to cope with the uncertainty of technology research.
Because of rapid technological change, today's engineers have to be more adaptive. "The biggest challenge facing R&D engineers is to maintain both the depth and scope of their technical knowledge in order to drive the development of innovative solutions," says Mr Ng. Ironically, that is also where the satisfaction inherent in R&D work comes from. "It is most rewarding if we come up with a new product that can meet the required technical features and performance," he says. "Of course we will be happy if we obtain some outstanding results, however the satisfaction from such technical achievements will not be affected by market response."
Because the job is demanding, the starting salary for an R&D engineer is slightly higher than other professions and may exceed $10,000 a month, according to Mr Ng.
In the long run, there are two major career paths for R&D engineers. They could either become a technical team leader, serving as the chief technology officer of a company, or shift to the business side, responsible for the commercialisation and management of the technology venture.
"No matter which path one ultimately takes, it is essential for newcomers to be willing to learn," says Mr Ng. "An R&D engineer must have the courage to accept and face new challenges, which are the most effective ways to learn."
"There is no clear and definite path for the continuous development of R&D engineers," he says. "They need to have the self-motivation to learn and catch up with technological developments in the field." He thinks that, instead of taking courses, engineers should attend seminars and conferences where they can network and learn about the latest developments in technology.