Working with Crest, Wong Peng Wen aims to create a world-class RF ecosystem in Malaysia
By Dzof Azmi March 29, 2023
- Left role as head at Huawei's R&D Lab in Sweden, to 'do something for Malaysia'
- Help firms embrace RF technologies like 5G/6G and IoT, support value-added RF activities
As the world becomes increasingly connected, radio frequency (RF) technology has emerged as an essential component of wireless communication. Driven by his passion for microwave engineering and years of experience, including heading Huawei's RF R&D Lab in Stockholm working on new generation 5G base stations, leading to two leaders of Penang's semiconductor ecosystem to hail him as among the world's top RF engineers, Dr Wong Peng Wen, founder of RF & microwave design house FILPAL Sdn Bhd, now seeks to revolutionize Malaysia's Electrical & Electronics (E&E) industry by proposing the establishment of an RF Centre of Excellence (RF COE) in Penang, funded by the government.
Such a centre will serve three purposes. Save money. Every new product developed today that has an RF component (any wireless product or product with wireless access) must pass a conformity test in an RF lab before it is launched to the market. At the moment, Malaysian manufacturers must send them overseas to be tested and certified. The cost can be in the hundreds of thousands of US dollars per test, and Wong estimates manufacturers from Penang spend between US$1.14 million-US$2.27 million (RM5 million-RM10 million) each year. If the RF COE becomes a reality, his hopes are to halve that cost.
That is music to not only Malaysian based companies, but all those based in Southeast Asia (SEA), that likewise have to send their new products for RF testing outside the region. Being the only RF testing and certification lab in SEA naturally translates into the second purpose - generate revenue by capturing the SEA market. While there is no publicly available data for this market size, research by P&S Intelligence projects the global wireless testing market to be worth US$14 billion in 2023 and rising to US$31 billion by 2030 with the Asia Pacific region experiencing the highest growth at 12.3% CAGR versus 11.7% CAGR for the total market.
[RM1 = US$0.23]
The third purpose is to strengthen Malaysia's position in the semiconductor value chain. Coupling the globally recognised strengths of Malaysia as a key player in the US$528 billion semiconductor ecosystem with a world class RF testing and certification lab that also churns out top RF talent, will only enhance the country's attractiveness as an FDI destination for players in the semiconductor industry.
The cost for achieving all this is a relatively modest RM10 million funding support that Wong is seeking, via the Centre for Collaborative Research in Engineering, Science and Technology (CREST), an agency under the Ministry of Finance. Owned by the government, Filpal will operate the centre and share revenue from its testing and certification services.
"CREST and Filpal share a similar vision of growing the potential of RF technology in Malaysia," explained Jaffri Ibrahim (pic), the CEO of CREST. "The collaboration on the RF Center of Excellence will leverage our strength in building industry-required intellectual capital and capability and tapping into Dr Wong's technical skills and vast experience globally."
Two decade history in RF engineering
A former academic with Universiti Teknologi Petronas where he was Associate Professor for 9 years, Wong has been involved in RF engineering for more than two decades and was headhunted by Huawei to lead its RF lab in Sweden in 2019 as Principal Engineer, where he was the only Asian on the team.
Despite working on cutting edge projects in Sweden, Wong frequently found himself thinking about the weak RF ecosystem in Malaysia and his desire to utilise his expertise to "do something for Malaysia," he says.
Given the wealth of E&E expertise in Penang, there was still a lack of local suppliers with design knowledge and manufacturing capabilities in the RF and millimeter wave (mmWave) domains. The limited pool of skilled engineers and a weak RF ecosystem further exacerbate the situation. Consequently, Malaysia has become increasingly reliant on expensive foreign talent and services to fill the gaps in the industry, notes Wong.
He decided to come back in mid 2022 to get cracking on his desire to address the weakness in the Malaysian RF ecosystem.
Filpal itself was formed in 2014, driven by his motivation to grow the RF ecosystem. Wong, was inspired by his doctoral dissertation supervisor at the University of Leeds, UK, who set up a consulting practice as a vehicle to hire his students to give them industry experience and on the job mentoring.
"I launched Filpal with the aim to build RF and microwave capabilities and ecosystem in Malaysia," said Wong.
Strengthening Malaysia's RF ecosystem
To address the gaps in the RF ecosystem and its challenges, Wong's proposed RF COE aims to focus on three strategic objectives: building a robust ecosystem for local RF design and manufacturing, developing a talent pool to support industry growth, and strengthening the local RF value chain. Wong explained, "Our ultimate goal is to develop a comprehensive ecosystem that can support the entire RF ecosystem and make Malaysia a key player in the global RF market."
The RF COE intends to accomplish these objectives through three key strategies. "We plan to set up shared facilities that will serve as a one-stop-shop for RF research, design, and testing in Malaysia." This would enable foreign MNCs to increase their localization percentage which promotes RF growth.
Secondly, the RF COE will develop the talent workforce by increasing the pool of skilled engineers, deepening RF knowledge, and establishing Learning, Training & Development labs. Wong explained, "We're working on establishing partnerships with local and international universities to develop training programs and create a pipeline of skilled RF engineers."
Lastly, the RF COE will strengthen the value chain by facilitating local companies to embrace emerging RF technologies, such as 5G/6G and the Internet of Things (IoT), while supporting higher value-added RF activities.
Working with Crest to host a series of cutting-edge labs
Working in tandem with Crest, Wong plans for the RF COE to host a series of cutting-edge labs, including a Die Characterization Lab, a Device Characterization Lab, and a System Validation Lab. These labs would be responsible for evaluating and analyzing the performance and behavior of RF devices, playing a crucial role not only in the development and optimization of RF products, but more crucially, ensuring the devices meet required international specifications before going to market. "These labs will enable us to test and validate RF devices locally, ensuring they meet international standards and reducing our reliance on foreign testing facilities," said Wong.
The demand for such RF characterization labs is currently high, with factories in Penang having to send their products to Japan, Taiwan, and China for testing, each time at a cost of hundreds of thousands of ringgit. Wong also points out that each additional change in the design will require another round of testing each time, piling up the costs. In contrast, if the RF COE were able to conduct such testing, Wong estimates the cost for local companies would be approximately halved. "Having a local testing facility would not only save costs but also allow for faster turnaround times and better control over the testing process," he added.
The RF COE will also include an RF Design lab, equipped with an in-house developed Electronic Design Automation (EDA) software used to create and simulate electronic components, understood to be the first AI-assisted RF-EDA in Asia. "Our software will enable faster and more cost-effective design processes, positioning Malaysia at the forefront of RF technology innovation," claimed Wong.
The labs will serve as valuable training grounds to train a pool of RF talent, which will then hopefully nurture local RF-related startups, enabling them to grow and contribute to the local economy. "By training a new generation of RF engineers, we can help local companies to thrive, innovate, and compete on a global scale," Wong asserted.
"Overall, we envision the CoE to help build a robust ecosystem for the local RF design and manufacturing sector and strengthen the local RF value chain," added Jaffri.
With the growth of emerging technologies such as 5G/6G, IoT, and I4.0, the RF COE - if funding is approved - is poised to significantly enhance Malaysia's global competitiveness in the semiconductor sector and not only attract foreign investment but also provide a strong foundation for Malaysia's E&E sector to thrive in the era of digital transformation. With their collective efforts and commitment, the RF COE can pave the way for a brighter future for Malaysia's E&E industry and the nation as a whole. The ball is now in Crest's court to push for the funding to come through.
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