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Honing a career in RF, antenna research

Posted: 31 Mar 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:rf? microwave? antenna? career? research?

Hongli: The key (to RF) is how to stimulate engineers' creativity and passion.

Over a million Chinese engineers graduate from colleges and universities each year, and many of them will swarm in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen, home to multinational behemoths that offer well-paying jobs. Because of this, many new designers often lose their sense of direction in the frenzy. By giving an account of Peng Hongli, a veteran and expert in the microwave antenna field, this story hopes to shed some light on how to grow in the engineering industry through research.

Hongli divided his 20-year engineering career into two stages--joining China's National Security Ministry as deputy director and vice chief design engineer, and then working as a director for mobile terminal standard research in ZTE Corp. Hongli was only 28 years old when he headed a national R&D project focusing on RF antenna in 1995. "Luck and encouragement made us an expert team," he recalled.

After graduating from Xi'an Electronics Technology University, Hongli decided to work in a government institution. Together with his colleagues, Hongli successfully developed China's first smart antenna for a radio base station. Since then, he has been engaged in the research of W-CDMA single- and multiple-antenna technology, terminal RF design, broadband wireless channel models and related standards.

The two decades in the field have been fruitful for Hongli. He finished 20 theses focused on antenna research, which have been published in leading international and local academic periodicals. Among these, six have been included in the Science Citation Index and Engineering Index databases. Moreover, he holds seven patents in the field of smart and terminal antenna.

With the downpour of high-paying jobs offered by multinational corporations, Hongli fears that China may not be able to fully utilize its EEs in setting a better direction for China's technology endeavors.

A common phenomenon in China's electronics industry is that design engineers are easily swayed by their initial achievements. For instance, it is hard for a senior engineer to surpass himself once he has made a breakthrough. Most experienced engineers in China will eventually rise to executive positions. This is a common practice, which becomes a hurdle to fostering world-class engineers.

Fortunately, some large-scale enterprises have their own R&D strategies. Although they don't have many investments in pure or applied sciences like IBM Corp., many have accumulated necessary technologies for future development. "We have to realize the importance of technical innovation on enterprises and know how to protect innovations, which in turn will translate into business benefits," Hongli said.

Fundamental research

Currently, Hongli is focused on multiple-antenna and wireless channel research for mobile communications, especially those related to smart-antenna technologies used in 3G and ultra-3G systems. "Doing research in the field of microwave and antenna requires a solid understanding of fundamental theories and practical experience. The goal in wireless communications research is to fully utilize the frequency of the electromagnetic waves. Improving frequency utilization is the main task of all communication technologies, which requires us to look at wireless channels in a new light, build complete models and design innovative communication systems with higher efficiency," Hongli said.

Conventional wisdom says that crowded buildings in big cities are a hurdle to wireless communication. However, advanced systems in the future can identify circumstances and even leverage them to improve communication efficiency. This technique is currently in the initial development stage and has only touched upon improving the efficiency of space usage, instead of leveraging the circumstance. Hence, it is necessary for the industry to review the electromagnetic wave and construct multidimensional channel models from the aspects of time, frequency, space and other quadrature domains. Innovations made in recent years have injected momentum in the development of advanced communication technologies of the future. "These will also provide opportunities to medical applications such as non-destructive diagnosis," Hongli said.

Leaving the institution was a major shift in Hongli's career. "It was an important period of my life that paved the way for my later development. ZTE opened up opportunities for research--a dream by most R&D fellows."

The atmosphere in the institution is relatively simple, and provides longer R&D cycles compared with that in a dynamic business environment. "A business usually has more stringent deadlines, while an institution can provide you with more time to get into the depth of techniques. However, private businesses have the advantages on R&D equipment and capital, which are critical to the success of a project," he said.

For those engineers who are willing to face new challenges and opportunities, "you have to get rid of all the unrealistic ideas and begin with fundamental technologies." Hongli believes that an institution is more suitable for an engineer to start research work, and a training ground for undertaking pressure- and time-sensitive tasks.

Harmonic management

In addition to fostering hi-tech advancements, Hongli also supports an optimal communication mode which he calls "harmonic management."

"The key point is how to stimulate engineers' creativity and passion. The main job of a technical manager is to guide and help his staff to succeed," he explained. "I learned that you will get totally positive results if you try to understand, encourage and help your staff to overcome the problem instead of shouting at them when they are facing difficulties."

Traditional state-owned institutions don't provide sufficient assessment and incentives. As a result, frequent face-to-face communication and verbal encouragement are important for building a good relationship among the staff. In contrast, a business unit will combine this kind of "harmonic management" with more effective evaluation and incentives to achieve better results.

Effective communication cannot be replaced by material rewards. "The happiness you get from solving problems and the acknowledgement from colleagues are more often important than bonus pay."

- Samuel Ni

Electronic Engineering Times - China

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