Ever since the day he dismantled the family fridge, Edwin Cheung's path was set. "My family knew I would become an engineer. They were spot on," says Mr Cheung, who is now manager, MRI, advanced wireless technologies program, communications technologies group, Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute Company Limited (ASTRI).
Endowed with an inquisitive mind and a flair for innovation, Mr Cheung believes a good engineer should possess passion and the tenacity to accomplish tasks. Aside from holding the requisite qualifications, including an overseas degree in electrical engineering, a master's degree in automation and computer aided engineering and soon a PhD, Mr Cheung is also the proud owner of a US patent for a method of forming lead-free bump interconnections.
Since joining ASTRI eight years ago, Mr Cheung has led a variety of market-focused research and development (R&D) projects including those for a class-1000 clean room facility, an MSM (metal-semiconductor-metal) photodetector, a heat dissipation module for semiconductor devices, and more recently, the development of an affordable and compact MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) system. He is also responsible for designing and building a high sensitive radio frequency (RF) coil for low magnetic field MRI machine application; and prototypes of a cryogenic circulation system for high signal-to-noise-ratio RF coil systems.
Design for manufacturing
Technology companies across the globe compete in a race against time. Designated as the Hong Kong R&D Centre for Information and Communications Technologies, ASTRI prides itself on its customer-centric R&D approach.
"In terms of funding and decision making, we also have the upper hand," says Mr Cheung, based on his previous work experiences in the private and academic sectors.
"Backed by the government, we are granted sufficient resources and support, so we can take a proactive approach to identifying and meeting market demand," he explains. "There's also greater flexibility for R&D."
In line with the organisation's mission to promote the application of technology in industries, Mr Cheung stresses that the ability to deliver on R&D projects is embedded in the initial conceptualisation stage. "Part of our job is to translate technologies into practical applications," he confirms.
Working towards that goal involves multidisciplinary know-how, Mr Cheung says. "Modern technology is about cross-discipline collaboration. When different people work successfully together there can be synergy." This is why his team comprises 12 other members from different areas of expertise. "We work very hard and very well with each other," Mr Cheung says. Cycling is one of the team's favourite activities. "We often cycle to lunch in Shatin or Tai Po. It's fun and it helps us to build a bond and maintain good health," he adds.
"All end products must have a beneficial influence on people's lives"
A good engineer never works behind closed doors, Mr Cheung emphasises. "Market analysis and resources management are part of the job and to do these we must be in touch with the real world," he says. In his opinion, there is no such thing as a mad scientist: "All end products must have a beneficial influence on people's lives. Otherwise, they are meaningless, just mindless self indulgence."
The chance to witness first-hand the development of technologies gives Mr Cheung an adrenaline rush but he stresses that nothing beats the joy of being able to touch lives through his work.
"For example, affordable MRI technology potentially facilitates early assessment and subsequently early treatment for patients suffering from various diseases like cancer. In developing countries where medical supplies are expensive and equipment scarce, this would mean a significant reduction in medical expenses too. The simple fact that we are helping people to improve life quality is the best reward."
Mr Cheung's daily schedule also includes mentoring students under ASTRI's various internship and work placement programmes. The benefits of such endeavours are manifold, he says.
"In terms of R&D, academia can be a decade ahead of industries. Young students can bring in the latest academic news while learning the ropes from us," he remarks, noting however that there is an obvious decline in the number of electrical engineering students that local universities produce. "This discipline used to admit only the best and brightest. These people are now being snatched up by the finance and accounting industries. This situation, however, will only give truly capable and passionate engineers better prospects and even more space for creativity."
The Hong Kong advantage
Mr Cheung observes that Hong Kong provides an ideal platform for unleashing young engineers' innovative potential. "Innovation breakthroughs don't happen here every day but youngsters looking to launch a career will find ample opportunities," he says. This is because:
- Chinese industry is steadily moving across to ODM (original design manufacturing), resulting in soaring demand for R&D talent from Hong Kong
- More manufacturers are now returning and setting up bases in Hong Kong
- Local universities produce better quality engineers
- A well-structured legal system gives foreign investors confidence
- Intellectual properties are well protected
- An international reputation and a trusted brand built on 100 years of industry, trade and business excellence
- Unique culture and social values sprung from Chinese traditions and aligned with the West