Hong Kong Story
Many of you probably know this, but it was a surprise to me. Traveling from Hong Kong into China is not a big deal. In fact, it has all the glamour of taking the New York City subway from Grand Central Station to Brooklyn. Trains leave every five minutes, running as subways in downtown Hong Kong and arrive in Shenzhen in about an hour, servicing the more than 100,000 commuters who make the trip every day, in addition to tourists and business travelers.
As impressive as is the unbridled, exuberant development of Shenzhen, my primary focus this trip, taken in mid-July, was Hong Kong. Despite the initial fears of political repression when Hong Kong was returned to China by the U.K., the most serious problem that actually developed was that much of Hong Kong's electronics (and display) manufacturing moved across the newly permeable border for the cheaper land and labor of southern China. Hong Kong is now, finally, recovering from the combined blow of the loss of so much manufacturing and the Asian economic crisis of several years ago. Still, display-related Hong Kong companies tend to do their manufacturing across the border – which contributes to that train traffic.
During my brief stay in Hong Kong, I visited the Centre for Display Research at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), Integrated Microdisplays, Ltd., Varitronix, Ltd., and Solomon Systech. Here are some very brief and selective comments about each of them.
The Centre for Display Research (CDR) at HKUST. Under the leadership of Prof. H. S. Kwok, CDR has four senior faculty and about 20 students and is supported by HKUST's impressive support services, which include a wafer fab. Fast LCD technology has been developed, which is now being considered for commercialization by major Taiwanese companies.
At CDR, Prof. Vladimir Chigrinov is conducting research on photo-aligned ferroelectric LCDs with bistability and gray scale on both glass and plastic substrates. Chigrinov has fabricated stable plastic ferroelectric displays with a high contrast ratio (450:1) and credits the excellent photo-alignment possible to the use of azo dyes.
Integrated Microdisplays, Ltd. (iMD). It comes as a surprise to walk down the corridor of a university building and suddenly find the well-designed logos and modern furniture of several high-tech start-ups. The start-ups are part of the technology incubator at HKUST, which encourages students and faculty to spin off commercial companies from their university research.
Prof. Hoi-Sing Kwok, Director of CDR, has started a company called Integrated Microdisplays, Ltd. (IMD), which is applying his simple color-on-chip LCOS design (see Information Display, July 2005) to the making of very simple projectors with inexpensive lamps. The bill of materials for a color VGA projector is under $US100. Kwok is lining up partners in China to manufacture the LCOS imagers and the projectors in quantity.
Varitronix, Ltd. At Varitronix I met Tony Tsoi, the new CEO who is taking over from the legendary C. C. Chang. The company's main business remains the making of modules using monochrome displays, but color is increasingly important to our customers, Tsoi said. The company could just buy such displays, but Tsoi feels it is important to manufacture color displays so the company can fully understand the technologies it is integrating and delivering to its customers.
I asked Tsoi and R&D Manager Steve Yeung about the future of microdisplays at Varitronix, which has been working on the technology for years. Tsoi said, "We have been investing in an emerging technology; we hope that harvest time is near."
Solomon Systech. My last stop was at display IC maker Solomon Systech, which is located in the growing Honk Kong Science Park. The company has significant penetration in the global cellular-telephone market and is expanding in the areas of large-display ICs, new-display ICs, and system-support ICs for TCONs, power management, and connectivity. Among the "new-display" ICs are those for drivers for LED backlights, which Solomon Systech believes to be a substantial growth market. Also of interest is LED automotive lighting and general lighting.
As Chinese companies become less and less dependent on Hong Kong as a stepping stone to the West, Hong Kong must re-tune its economy in light of today's realities. One way of doing that is to leverage the technical talent issuing from Hong Kong's excellent universities together with the vast manufacturing power that is just a train ride away.