Few children spare a moment's thought to why their new toys move, flash or squeak. However, behind the scenes, people can be found who magically turn an idea or a sample into a finished product. These are the toy engineers.
Such specialists come in two varieties - those working in toy companies and those in factories, according to Roger Kwok, engineering director of Manley Toys Limited.
Factory-based toy engineers work with toy-company engineers, following design concepts or samples through the manufacturing process and dealing with technical and manufacturing procedures. Company-based toy engineers, meanwhile, communicate and liaise with clients and designers (usually from overseas) and co-operate with factory engineers to ensure operations are smooth. "They need to consider many things, such as costing, price-setting and problems that may arise in mass production," says Mr Kwok.
In general, toy engineers start their career at factories to gain experience, later transferring to toy companies. "If a fresh graduate goes directly to a toy company, he does not have clear concepts of manufacturing and may find it difficult to work with the engineers at factories," Mr Kwok explains, noting that, after joining the industry some 20 years ago, he worked on production lines for some years before proceeding to toy companies.
However, wherever a toy engineer works, frequent travel to mainland China is a given, as most production lines are located there today. Factory engineers usually need to spend four to five days a week on the mainland, while company engineers also spend two to three days over the border every week.
Since production lines are mainland-based, competition from mainland engineers is inevitable. Although, in Mr Kwok's opinion, they cannot replace Hong Kong engineers, as they only deal with the manufacturing element of toy production, Hong Kong candidates should not underestimate the threat posed by their relatively low salaries. Mr Kwok, therefore, recommends HKSAR engineers move to toy companies once they have accumulated adequate manufacturing experience.
An engineering background is clearly a prerequisite. Although a manufacturing engineering education is an advantage, mechanical and electronic engineering both provide a suitable grounding. Most of Manley's products, for example, require toy engineering, while Mr Kwok believes that at least 50 percent of Hong Kong's toy companies' products are electronic.
Toy engineering not only requires technical skills, he adds; toy engineers must be sensitive to market trends thanks to toys' generally short lifespan. For example, companies may obtain licenses to develop new products related to the latest cartoons and movies.
Due to the design element involved in toy engineering, creativity is another asset. "A person must be interested in toys," he adds. "He likes toys, wants to know more and even [wants] to create toys."
Within the industry, remuneration is reasonable but depends greatly on a company's scale and product range. According to Mr Kwok, "green" engineers earn about HK$5,000, rising to HK$10,000 with one to two years' experience. Promotion to senior engineer brings HK$15,000 to HK$25,000, while group supervisors take home around HK$20,000 to $30,000 a month. Engineering managers and engineers at director-level earn over HK$30,000.
As employers usually expect candidates to possess at least one to two years' experience, Mr Kwok urges young people interested in the field to grasp the summer internship opportunities offered by some large corporations to technical school or university students.