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Setting high hopes for China's microcontroller industry

Posted: 10 Dec 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:mcu? microprocessor? alarm system? lockable phone? cellular phone battery charger?

Local legend Li-Gong Zhou believes his most important daily task is to continue learning.
He used to be a moderator, a workshop leader and a factory director, and was elected as the National New-Long-March Pioneer and Hunan Province's Labor Model. For his outstanding achievements at the age of 28, he was selected out of 3,800 national labor models to study at Shanghai Spin University (SHSU), where he obtained his bachelors degree in automation control in 1994. Since then, he has become a local legend in the MCU industry.

Li-Gong Zhou is the founder of ZLG-MCU Development Co. Ltd and a professor at the Mechanical and Electronic Engineering Department at SHSU. He is also considered a hero in China's MCU application industry. "It's a milestone to have been selected and sent to the labor model class at SHSU in 1992," said Zhou. After graduating, he decided to devote all his time in the MCU industry to become the dominant player.

Realizing early ideas

In the early 1990s, due to lack of technological know-how, most Chinese companies in the MCU business only sold chips rather than develop MCU-based projects. Engineers knowledgeable in MCUs opted to stay in universities or research institutes rather than go to business. Aware of this commercial opportunity, Zhou left the state-owned Fushan Analyzing Instrument Factory after only three months and founded a small startup with almost $2,600 borrowed from his friends.

By focusing on specific MCU application software development and MCU chip sales, Zhou provided customers with value-added services tailored to their request. "At that time when a 500-chip transaction was a big deal, it was a difficult matter to determine profitable products," Zhou said.

By chance, Zhou came upon many advertisements for business call centers, and for chatting and listening music on demand via telephone. The advertisement per page normally costs several thousand dollars per month. After doing some research, Zhou discovered that most of the chatting and listening music on demand were done using public payphones. "Why not develop a lockable phone for a business call center and music channel with a phone number starting with 9?" he thought.

He presented his idea to an investor and said, "I promise you will gain more than $120,000 in three months; I only want $12,000." Zhou achieved this and earned the $12,000 after three months. After that, he focused on the $1,200-valued cellphone market in China in the early 1990s. At that time, an imported cellphone battery charger would cost $60 to $120 in China.

Zhou developed a charger solution based on a MCU, which sold only at $48. He profited from $0.36 to $0.60 from the charger vendor for each piece of chip he programmed. This became his core business strategy - providing solutions according to customers' requirements with software programmed into the MCU chips he sold.

In 1995, Zhou discovered that car burglar-alarm systems made in Taiwan almost took up the whole mainland market. Each burglar-alarm system was sold at a price of more than $120, but the production cost was just over $12. Based on the sample research, he decided to venture into the car burglar-alarm system market.

The year 1995 could have been another milestone in Zhou's career. However, as the business grew, malpractices caused by family-style management emerged. Before he could take a rest and enjoy the achievements of his success, troubles came in succession because of different issues in the family enterprise.

"From 1995 to 1999, our problem was the lack of knowledge on management theory and practice. We were afraid to allow employees to touch the kernel technology, so we could prevent them from taking the technologies with them to other companies. But the less we were willing to face any competition, the worse we were able to deal with it," said Zhou. Consequently, Zhou's engineers kept leaving the company while challenges from competitors never stopped.

In 1999, Zhou left the company, abandoned the outdated family management system and founded ZLG-MCU Development Co. Ltd. He adopted the modern enterprise management system to normalize the operations of his new MCU application design house.

After setting up the company, Zhou assigned himself two duties. First, to define the orientation of the company, such as what they should be dedicated to and what they shouldn't. Second was to establish a people-oriented company culture. At present, the emphasis of the company is to develop MCU application systems and to provide total solutions for some specific industries.

"Setting up a people-oriented company is easy to envision but very hard realizing," Zhou said. "First, you must understand what your employees think, their difficulties, and help them solve the problems they encounter. You must think from the employees' perspective. Second, you should discover the difficulties that customers might encounter during product development. If you can figure out and solve the problems they meet and help them come up with solutions, you'll be able to build a community of common interests with your employees and cooperating partners."

Zhou emphasized that it is crucial to plan the employees' career according to the circumstances--to build a feeling of achievement, to share success and profits, and to conduct regular training. It is also important to create an impartial competitive environment inside the company. Besides, Zhou said, it is crucial to create market demand and focus on background R&D instead of only concentrating on short-term objectives.

By implementing a series of management measures, Zhou established his first R&D team in 2000. The design house has been expanded from the original eight engineers to its current 138 headcount, with a marketing network covering the whole of mainland China. Zhou's products have been sold across the mainland along with some exports to the United States and Germany.

Because a number of students graduate from Chinese universities each year, training talents on application technology is a major issue. "When training students in application subjects, it's important to combine theory and practice, leading them to applied research from the standpoint of industrialization and commercialization. Only then can we push application technology talents onto a new level. Our target is to cultivate MCU application experts with enabling technologies in product industrialization and commercialization," Zhou said. For the purpose of training and discovering outstanding talents, Zhou has sponsored the creation of MCU application laboratories in some Chinese universities.

As an expert, professor and entrepreneur in the MCU arena, Zhou believes his most important daily task is to continue learning. Otherwise, there is no way to survey the whole industry, making it is impossible to plan the development direction and refine product lines.

Setting goals

Zhou hopes that the number of engineers in his company will increase from 50 to 200 in two to three years to lead the firm into being a platform-focused design house. The objective is to provide total solutions including chips, application notes, software, application development platform and services.

Zhou expects to build his design house into a strong international player in the MCU system development market. He hopes to achieve this through collaboration with foreign companies, mutual licensing of IPs and financing on large-scale investment. To provide total application solutions for specific industries, the company needs to have a competent staff, top-level application technology and thorough service portfolio. "To build the most dominant MCU application design house rather than to have the biggest one is my wish," Zhou said.

- Simon Zhou

Electronic Engineering Times - Asia

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