One thing that research engineers learn early in their careers is that there's little point in coming up with a technological advance if it has no commercial value or practical application. Creativity and innovation are important, but they must lead somewhere and have relevance for the business world. That is a lesson which Steve Yeung, chief technology officer of Varitronix Limited, learned even before he joined the company, and it has helped him to play a pivotal role linking the technical and business spheres for one of the world's leading manufacturers of liquid crystal displays.
"We're not making things for ourselves, but marketable products that can best satisfy the needs of customers," he says. "Therefore, the greatest job satisfaction for me comes from turning a new development into a commercial success, which is always the major challenge in our kind of research."
Dr Yeung joined Varitronix in 1998, after completing a PhD in mechanical and automation engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong the previous year. However, he had known the company since 1995, when he was finishing off his Master's thesis and took part in a joint project which had been set up by his supervisor.
Engineers must be more adaptable and ready to react to market changes
With his extensive academic qualifications, he started work as a project engineer. At the time, he was the only member of staff in the company with a dedicated research role and he contributed to solving a number of technical problems. "The technical director in charge of day-to-day development and production work regarded me as his think-tank," he explains. "I had to carry out detailed studies to prove his ideas and then implement them."
A year later, Dr Yeung was offered the chance to take charge of a research and development (R&D) team. He recalls that their work was originally more product-oriented, focused mainly on the enhancement of existing technologies. In recent years, though, it has become more exploratory and innovative.
This has presented new technical and business challenges and made it necessary to work with external partners on joint development projects. "It requires a lot more business and legal knowledge, as well as negotiation skills and managing relationships," he says. "We have to set up non-disclosure and licensing agreements, and deal with other intellectual property issues."
He especially remembers one project with a European partner. It involved developing new technology from scratch and took three years to complete. The result, known as bistable cholesteric display, is now used in the world's first memory stick that can show memory size without requiring power. There were both technical and cultural problems along the way, but these helped Dr Yeung to see that the best way to resolve conflict is by putting yourself in the other person's shoes.
Graduates interested in becoming R&D engineers can go into the area which concentrates on improving product design and manufacturing processes. Alternatively, having a postgraduate qualification, will give greater scope to be creative and independent in exploring technologies and devising new applications. Varitronix currently has around 80 engineers in product development, with about 20 working on technological advances. A number of them have to travel occasionally and may even be stationed in China.
Despite the increasing tendency to recruit mainland-trained engineers to work in manufacturing facilities across the border, there are still many opportunities for those qualified in Hong Kong. Dr Yeung says they should therefore take advantage of their ability to add value and of their unique combination of language, communication, leadership and management skills.
He points out that there is no fixed career path for those who go into R&D.
"Some may capitalise on their technical expertise and knowledge of the scientific aspects, while others may choose to focus more on strengthening their business skills," he says. In general, though, it helps to develop all-round skills and learn new competencies in different areas.
Dr Yeung adds that the field of R&D engineering is getting increasingly competitive. Within the region, Japan and South Korea have traditionally led the way, but Taiwan and China are catching up fast. "As a result, engineers must be more adaptable and ready to react to market changes," he says.
In facing this challenge, Dr Yeung says the best thing is to be flexible. "There's no perfect plan. The best thing anyone can do is to monitor trends in technology and make the optimal decision based on what they have on hand."
The mainland is already a major force in the global economy, and Dr Yeung recommends that it is good to get as much exposure as possible to what is currently going on. The experience, he believes, will help engineers to gain a better understanding of the entire supply chain, stretching from development and production capacity through to end-user requirements and overall market demand.
He notes, though, that mainland employers are generally looking for experienced senior engineers from Hong Kong, who have at least five years' experience and, preferably, some unique expertise.