1 Sept 1998
Hong Kong Optical 1999 - Research & Development
COUNTING ON QUALITY
Research & Development
HONG Kong's optical industry continues to move upmarket, producing higher-value-added goods in order to maintain or increase its market share. This direction is taking on even more importance as a result of the Asian economic downturn. Lower-end manufacturers may be losing out to competitors from Asian countries with a currency advantage, but most Hong Kong companies are improving their design capability, implementing good-quality management systems and boosting the profile of the industry.
Tony Chow, president of the Hong Kong Optical Manufacturers' Assn (HKOMA) and owner of Mandarin Optical Mfy, notes that the Special Administrative Region has taken business away from European manufacturers, in particular Italian and French companies, not only because its production costs are cheaper, but because it can also compete on quality. Hong Kong is currently the largest exporter of optical frames in Asia, and second in the world to Italy.
Chow comments, however, that Hong Kong's optical manufacturers need to continue to push quality, in both design and materials, in order not to lose out to cheaper manufacturers in South Korea, Taiwan and in the future the mainland itself.
It is a view with which Cary Ma, formerly vice-president of the HKOMA and managing director of Moulin Int'l Holdings, one of the largest Hong Kong-based frames manufacturers, agrees. "The economic situation in Southeast Asia has affected the lower end of 'Hong Kong-China manufacturing' [companies headquartered in Hong Kong but with production facilities on the mainland]; business has been taken away by Taiwanese and South Korean manufacturers and one or two factories in Indonesia because they have a currency advantage," Ma explains.
"The materials required for making lower-end frames can be made in these countries. At the high end, however, factories in these countries owned by German, Swiss and Japanese companies do not enjoy the advantage of the weaker currency."
Ma is adamant that Hong Kong must concentrate on quality, design, sales and marketing techniques in order to continue being competitive. "Customers show very little loyalty to lower-end factories because everything is price-driven. Medium- to high-end manufacturers enjoy strategic relationships with customers who are interested in quality and product development," says Ma.
Hong Kong companies must concentrate on marketing and promotion, says Harvey Fung, vice-president and co-founder of HKOMA and managing director of VIP Optical Int'l Ltd, which exports all over the world. "[Markets in] the US and Europe are already developed and Asia has slowed down, so it is important for not only optical companies, but all Hong Kong manufacturers, to focus on new markets like South America," he says.
Fung singles out countries like Brazil, Chile and Argentina, which "have good potential for all Hong Kong exporters".
In other moves to boost the profile of Hong Kong's optical goods industry, the HKOMA has been working closely with the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC) on two initiatives. Recently completed was a quality-improvement programme for the spectacle frame industry.
"The project aim was to upgrade the quality management system and operation practices of local spectacle-frame manufacturers to internationally recognised standards," says Lee Kwok-Keung, HKPC's manufacturing system development manager.
"With the implementation of a good quality management system such as ISO 9000 and the adoption of good operation practices, manufacturers can produce high-quality products consistently and enhance their competitiveness in the world market," explains Lee.
The ISO 9000 project produced a quality manual, a set of operation procedures, and a set of sample working instructions. Based on these, spectacle-frame manufacturers may apply for ISO 9000 certification.
Another project involving the HKOMA and HKPC relates to the development of a knowledge-based design system and NC production technology for the spectacle-frame industry. Completed at the end of March 1998, the study was able to deliver a 3D parametric human facial database and a set of full-scale human head samples for actual testing, a methodology to use the database on popular CAD systems, and an NC production technology to integrate the design and manufacturing process.
Six human-head CAD models and full-scale samples representing the averages from measurements classified by race and sex were produced. "These can be used in spectacle design to verify whether the design is appropriate for a targeted market segment," says Derek Louie, manager of CAD/CAM system development in the manufacturing engineering division of the HKPC.
"At the beginning of the project, market study through research and interviews with three Hong Kong-based spectacle designers Moulin, Arts [Optical Mfy Ltd] and Elegance [Optical Mfy Ltd] were conducted to consolidate spectacle-design parameters and requirements, which determined the grouping criteria for setting up the human facial data library," says Louie.
"In order to increase the representativeness of the various ethnic facial databases, we actively participated in exhibitions such as Technology Week '97 and Optical Fair '97, and conducted off-site 3D facial measurements in various tourist spots in Hong Kong."
By the application of computer software packages, a data-extracting method was developed to digitise critical dimensions from the 3D images. "Afterwards, statistical methodology was applied to calculate the mean standard deviation and normal distribution of the data," explains Louie. "The database can be integrated with CAD systems for 3D spectacle design."
Meanwhile, manufacturers are also working to boost the profile of the industry. They are increasingly producing their own brand-name eyeglasses, while others have been entering into licensing agreements with world-famous designer brands. Several are developing new titanium production methods, such as colourisation and plating. Moulin, Ma's company, has spent HK$10m to HK$15m in following up new techniques such as iron-plating and laser-engraving, and the application of different materials. "It is part of our positioning strategy," says Ma. "We are not pioneers, but we do like to follow trends closely."
He points out that titanium will be the future core material for eyewear. It is lightweight, durable and non-allergic. "The material itself is more expensive," says Ma. "The machinery and skills required are very different from nickel-silver or plastic workshops. The result is higher costs, but also a higher selling price."
Among Hong Kong operations producing innovative products is Wing Shing Optical Mfrs Ltd, whose range of reading glasses was launched in May.
Wing Shing's frames are small, but unlike similar models on the market, they are not foldable, which allows the firm to create a wider range of designs.
"Our design team saw a need for handy and ready-to-wear reading glasses that would offer customers convenience," explains marketing executive Katie Cheng. "Men can simply put them in their pants or suit pockets, whereas women can put them in their handbags without taking up space. In addition, a well-fitted leather case can protect the lenses from scratches or breakage."
The stainless steel glasses are 16 centimetres long and 31/2 centimetres high, and come in sizes 29-40. "We count on our R&D team to keep developing new and innovative products to meet market needs," says Cheng.
In 1997 Cheong Hing Optical Co Ltd developed its "Flex Look" Night Driver eyeglasses that ease drivers' eyestrain when driving at night.
"The Flex Look lenses are made from special optical glass and are equipped with an electronic device," says director Alex Cheng. "The lens is multi-layered. At its full opaqueness it can filter 90% of the ultraviolet light and 70% of infrared light. When strong lights shine on the optical sensor, the electronic signal device is processed by micro-electronic circuitry. At a certain luminance level, the lens changes its opaqueness at a speed of 70 microseconds. No matter how strong the incoming light, the luminance level passing through the lens will remain unchanged, and thus the irritation to the eyes of approaching lights can be avoided."
Written by Ann Williams
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