Quality control and assurance is an essential part of any industrial process, but professionals in the field believe their role is often misunderstood. Because they have the authority to reject substandard consignments, demand changes and, in extreme cases, even halt production or cancel orders, they are sometimes perceived as individuals who simply go out of their way to find faults.
Not true, says Sam Wong, corporate QA/QS manager for Automatic Manufacturing Limited (AML), a company specialising in the design and manufacture of medical electronic devices and telecom products. While admitting that he does have the authority to stop the production line, there is rarely any need to do so. "Our role is vital to the company," he explains. "We are there to eliminate any mistakes in the manufacturing process before they cause problems and to ensure the quality of all finished products. The aim is to minimise the waste of resources and achieve maximum cost effectiveness."
The search for quality is something that has guided Mr Wong throughout his career. He still recalls the time 23 years ago when a slogan saying "Japan can, why not Korea?" appeared on a TV programme he was watching. His immediate reaction to that was "If Korea can, why not Hong Kong?" and he realised that the manufacturing sector was the place to prove his point.
He joined a magnetic head manufacturer soon afterwards and was put in charge of promoting product quality throughout the company. World-class quality standards were expected, but achieving them was a major challenge. "At that time professional training was rare and climbing the career ladder wasn't easy," says Mr Wong. "I had to learn about the job by getting information from colleagues and friends working in related fields. It turned out, though, to be a good way of understanding the scope of the business and of building relationships as well."
As he progressed, opportunities arose for overseas training and he subsequently steered the company through the accreditation process for the Statistical Process Control Technique, ISO 9000 and Six Sigma. With AML, Mr Wong now has responsibility for developing QA systems and tools, training associates and vendors, and explaining the overall quality control process to staff.
As leader of the QA department, he firmly believes that Hong Kong is more than capable of maintaining world-class industrial standards. "However, there is still room for improvement," he points out. "Non-stop learning and the continuous integration of appropriate technology are essential parts of the process."
It is also vital for manufacturers to realise that quality assurance begins with design. Working closely with Mr Wong is CF Chan, DA (design assurance) senior manager for AML, and he knows all about getting things right from original concept through to successful execution.
After graduating in engineering, Mr Chan worked in product design and development for more than 10 years before switching to design quality assurance with AML. "Most manufacturers focus on production quality, but my task is to establish assurance teams for the quality of designs," he explains. "That is where the supervision of quality should start -long before materials are bought or production tooling is made."
Mr Wong agrees and confirms that AML's management endorses this viewpoint. "The extent of our role can easily be mistaken if people only think of the production line," he says. "Therefore, we need to educate them and keep educating ourselves."
Although production facilities have largely been relocated across the border and are steadily moving further north, Hong Kong manufacturers still have a worldwide reputation for quality and reliability. And while the focus of local offices may now be more on design, marketing and customer service, there are still numerous career possibilities for young people who are interested in QA and prepared to travel.
Any potential recruit needs academic qualifications, but Mr Wong states that interpersonal skills, enthusiasm and a sense of teamwork are also prerequisites. He cautions that, before applying, people should carefully consider their own personality and abilities, and assess how well they would fit in. "You need to be patient, meticulous and a good team player," he says, adding that any QA professional from Hong Kong should be prepared for a completely different working environment on the mainland. This includes the ability to communicate fluently in Mandarin and getting used to frequent travel between plants and R&D centres.
Meanwhile, young graduates are advised to bear in mind that the Hong Kong government is helping investors with projects under China's "Go West" scheme. During the next five years, this is likely to generate more opportunities for landing a QA position with an expanding and ambitious company.
Having won in the "quality" category at last year's Hong Kong Awards for Industry, AML has, in a sense, entered a new era. Mr Wong emphasises that, despite the welcome recognition for what has been achieved so far, there is always something to improve and that the aim should be to set new standards, not just match what others have done.
Mr Chan, in turn, notes that the ongoing need for quality extends beyond day-to-day operations to the areas of management and leadership. "The business environment is rapidly changing," he says. "Therefore, we are striving to create a culture which recognises quality within the company and the industry generally. That is a way to keep us strong and competitive."