Creativity may not be the first quality you associate with engineers, but it is absolutely essential whether they are in design, production, R&D, or the kind of technical support and after-sales service roles which are so important at 3M Hong Kong.
The company was founded in 1961 and functions primarily as a sales and marketing office for the group's wide array of industrial and consumer products. These include everything from communications and healthcare items to graphics, transportation, security, and optical systems. Engineers are assigned to a specific product category and can expect to find themselves dealing directly with customers and handling frontline sales-related activities.
According to Thomas Chow, 3M Hong Kong's senior manager for human resources and office administration, engineers also collaborate closely with colleagues who have to deliver sales pitches and respond to client enquiries about product usage. When necessary, the company will even develop customised value-added solutions, especially for industrial customers, and this often requires high levels of innovation.
"In order to achieve optimal results from our products, engineers will not only give their professional advice, but also visit customers to modify certain workflow or manufacturing procedures," says Mr Chow. He emphasises that every engineer must therefore have in-depth knowledge of systems, processes and emerging trends in the industries for which they are responsible.
You need the ability to think ahead and anticipate potential problems
"For example, if they are in charge of healthcare products, they must thoroughly understand the medical and pharmaceutical industries," he adds. "Then they can find out where and how we can offer new solutions and facilitate a customer's daily operations." Being a specialist is one thing, but today's engineers must also have sufficient general knowledge to apply lateral thinking and find inspiration from outside their immediate field.
To function effectively, service engineers need to have good communication skills and should be proficient in English and Putonghua. They should expect to travel frequently, sometimes spending three to four days a week on visits to manufacturing plants in the mainland. Presentation skills are also necessary for taking part in marketing campaigns, seminars and product demonstrations.
3M has set high standards for engineers and intends to maintain them. Preferred candidates have a degree in a discipline such as electronics, electrical or mechanical engineering, and one to two years' experience. Starting salaries for applicants with relevant experience are around HK$17,000, while recent graduates usually get in the range of HK$12,000.
According to Mr Chow, it is still not easy to recruit qualified engineers who are also willing to undertake regular travel. He admits that, in terms of overall efficiency, it would be better if Hong Kong-based engineers did not have to make such frequent trips to the mainland. However, this mode of operating is unlikely to change as long as the senior management and decision-makers of many of the company's customers still have their headquarters in Hong Kong. The pace of localisation in mainland China will depend to a certain extent on the type of service and assistance that clients want to receive.
Mr Chow points out that engineers trained in Hong Kong still have an edge over their mainland counterparts. "Generally, they have wider exposure and are more flexible when it comes to solving problems," he says. However, he finds that mainland engineers tend to work harder and are catching up very quickly.
A different challenge is presented by the ever faster speed of the business cycle and the amount of information which is now available. "Customers expect quick responses and are unwilling to wait for solutions," Mr Chow says. "Ideally, you need the ability to think ahead and anticipate potential problems in order to deal with them effectively." As a result, what marks out both companies and individual engineers is their skill as innovators. It is always possible to improve market knowledge and build up further experience, but the spark of creativity is the vital element in any ongoing business success story.