Domestic companies: the gateway for China’s pioneering business leaders

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Beijing ETOWN is a greenhouse for innovative domestic Chinese companies to flourish and reach out to a global marketplace – even though sometimes their products are much more visible than their names.

It was one marvel of electronic engineering that even the most short-sighted visitor could not fail to miss at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January – an event billed as the global stage for innovation.

The huge Samsung 110-Ultra HD television took centre stage in more ways than one at the annual event with 2 million square feet of exhibition space that attracted 20,000 new products from more than 3,500 exhibitors from 140 countries and drew some 140,000 visitors.

While everyone will have seen the Samsung billing in the screen and on the stand, however, what many will not have known is that the screen itself was designed, engineered and produced by LCD panel maker BOE in Beijing ETOWN.

Although less well known than the household-name brands it produces for, BOE is one of the world’s top-five companies in the global display industry and its products are looked at by millions of people every day.

As well as making TVs giant, large and small, BOE is the number one maker of LCD panels for mobile phones and tablet computers worldwide, producing two out of every 10 mobile phone screens and three out of every 10 tablet screens.

Like scores of other electronics firms, its success story is rooted in the fertile ground of Beijing ETOWN, where its global influence and reach is continuing to be carefully nurtured, month by month and year by year.

Nurturing talent

For Zhang Yu, BOE's vice-president, the ability of Chinese companies to compete on a global stage against much longer established electronics and technology firms is remarkable bearing in mind that in 2002 the digital display industry simply didn’t exist in China.

Then, after the acquisition of a foreign business, BOE set up its first production line and gradually expanded across the country, opening factories in Chengdu, Hefei, Beijing, Ordos and Chongqing.

BOE now has six production lines, including a Gen 5 TFT-LCD line and a Gen 8.5 TFT-LCD line in Beijing, a Gen 4.5 TFT-LCD line in Chengdu, a Gen 6 TFT-LCD line and a Gen 8.5 TFT-LCD line in Hefei, and a Gen 5.5 AMOLED line in Ordos. A second Gen 8.5TFT-LCD line is being built in Chongqing.

BOE  

In a field where cutting-edge technology is critical, the need to draw in expertise has been central to the company’s progression, particularly in the early years. "At first we recruited college students majoring in such subjects as micro-electronics, opto-electronics, chemistry and automation," he says. "We recruited people to train them and we sent them overseas to receive training."

Today, the company has more than 10,000 engineers, with 800 of those focused on the critical area of research and development to keep BOE ahead of the curve as technology moves forward at a dizzying pace.

"This industry is changing really quickly," Zhang says. "New technology is emerging every day. We have to work closely with the international industry."

BOE has experts from Korea, Japan, Singapore and Europe working in its Beijing ETOWN base and has cooperation relationships with overseas institutions including Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

"This way, we train most of our employees ourselves and we also recruit talent from overseas. In the future we would like to strengthen our work in recruiting international talent," says Zhang.

Thinking differently

The new generation of electronic engineers working at Beijing ETOWN represents a fundamental change in the attitude and position of entrepreneurs and businesses in China, Zhang believes.

"Before 2000, China was called a factory for the world," he says. "We were doing the industrial work passed to us by countries in Europe, Korea and Japan and elsewhere. Our work was human-resource intensive.

"Then, with the development of the internet, people in China began to realize that with innovative concepts, they can change the industry. They began to realize the importance of innovation.

"Today, the new environment offers substantial new opportunities for young people. It is easy for them to start a new company, a new business, with a very small team. Look at the example of Jack Ma (founder of Alibaba). Everything becomes possible."

"New technology is emerging every  day. We have to  work closely with  the international  industry"

- Zhang Yu, vice-president  BOE
The futuristic vision of BOE is encapsulated by its factory floor in Beijing ETOWN, where vast LCD display screens are produced noiselessly by robotic technology, with not a single worker in sight.

It is a scene that neatly sums up the ethos of Beijing ETOWN, where the emphasis is on innovation and where employees are hired to think and to create rather than to sit for hour after mindless hour on gruelling production lines.

Breaking traditions

In a fast-moving and highly competitive industry, however, there is no room for complacency and Zhang talks with conviction about the need for "disruptive innovation". He says: "You have to break through the old industry and the old concepts.

"You have to keep on changing and improving. We have to keep up with the technology. If we don’t do that, we will be left behind the whole industry."

BOE’s products are used by some of the world’s biggest names in electronics, including Huawei, Lenovo, Dell and HP, but the company is not content to stay in the background.

"We have a new logo which we started using in November," says Zhang. "This means we have stepped up to a new stage. We will go more global and expand from business to business into the business-to-consumer area.

"In the past, we did relatively few overseas exhibitions. This year we have more plans to go overseas. In March we will attend the CeBIT show in Frankfurt and the Society for Information Display (SID) in America in June. This way, more people will know BOE in future."