Innovation key to adding value

By Kengchi Goah 吳耿志  / 

Sat, May 17, 2014 - Page 8

The Sunflower movement has brought up a critical issue the nation can no longer ignore. The movement may seem to have been triggered by the dubious cross-strait service trade agreement and its perceived impact on small businesses.

However, the roots lie in the more damaging fact that in the past 20 years, Taiwan has failed to elevate its technical competitiveness and presents a bleak economic future for students entering the workforce.

Against this backdrop and given China’s recent successful robotic lunar landing, a review of Taiwan’s National Space Program may shed some light on the way forward.

In 1991, under the auspices of the Executive Yuan, the program had an office in Taipei and began recruiting, with an eye on compatriots from overseas in the aerospace profession.

By November 1992, more than 100 personnel had been enlisted, and another office was established in Tainan. Of those 100 or so staff, more than 95 percent had doctorates.

However, fewer than five claimed expertise in electric engineering including hardware circuit design. From the outset, signs of organizational deficiency percolated.

Work skewed toward space vehicle structure instead of interior electronic components, which was the most troublesome issue. Few had even seen a spacecraft or a subsystem assembly.

As time passed, the program’s divergence from its original intent became obvious. Rather than training domestic personnel in building satellite components, it shifted focus to acquiring foreign-made technology. On Jan. 27, 1999, a small, 400kg research satellite built by US firm TRW was launched into a polar orbit from Florida. A second one weighing 750kg, also built in the US, followed on May 19, 2004, from Vandenberg, California.

However, with only a single ground station in Taiwan and very limited assistance from other countries, the line-of-sight communication window between the station and the satellites was restricted to three out of their sixteen orbits each day and less than 25 minutes per orbit.

The total time the satellites are in communications range each day is a mere one-and-a-half hours at best.

The program strayed from its stated goal: to build indigenous high technology.

The conclusion still holds to this day, and there are lessons to be learned from the program.

Fabricating objects to operate in space requires a well-organized network of parts suppliers. What the nation has is inadequate to support such an enterprise. For decades, numerous efforts failed to design and produce viable domestic car engines. With a degree of complexity a hundred times greater, rocket engine and propulsion systems remain beyond the nation’s reach. Moreover, Taiwan does not possess a launch vehicle.

On a program organization chart, dozens of doctorates in mechanical engineering look impressive. However, it turns out that a pile of advanced degrees did not translate into a working spacecraft. There was an idolization of higher honors; a trait that has choked Asian societies for centuries.

A spacecraft contains tens of thousands of electronic and mechanical components. Most of these would have to be imported, excluding some mechanical parts. Procurement of parts was made impossible because specifications were written in Mandarin, which is utterly inefficient in scientific documents.

Is the prospect any better 20 years on?

Hyundai and Kia cars made in South Korea are criss-crossing highways in the US, but Taiwan’s roads are also filled with imports. For every iPad sold, Foxconn, the assembler, makes only US$6, while Apple, the designer, makes US$230. Plenty of manufacturers in Greater Taichung are able to make ball bearings for motorcycles, but when it comes to high-impact truck wheels or aircraft landing gear, the firms are not part of the market.

So how can the nation make a mid-course trajectory correction to lift it out of economic stagnation?

There is no shortcut to making high-value-added products. Technological advances cannot be transferred or purchased; they must be learned with time and sweat. Taiwan should prepare to make a transition and plan to spend at least five years in development.

The ivory tower mentality does not build a solid, long-lasting technology foundation; hard work does. Therefore, people need to reject the foolish worshiping or glorification of doctorates.

There is no industry that will be dumped in the bucket labeled “sunset.” Is textile production a low-tech industry? No, it is not. Has anyone heard of the coming wave of “wearable electronics” — the integration of fabric and flexible electronics? People must open their eyes and minds to the possibilities, then they can lay claim to an infinite spectrum of possibilities.

Kengchi Goah is a senior research fellow at the Taiwan Public Policy Council in the US.