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Dr Yeong in TheStar

posted Oct 27, 2014, 8:21 AM by cf yeong   [ updated Oct 27, 2014, 8:24 AM ]

One STORY robot inventor Dr Yeong Che Fai never tires of telling his students is of the time his robotic maid conked out just the night before the final judging of the Robofest event in 2004. 

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“My wife Eileen Su, who now lectures in the same university, was in competition with me. We were doing our final testing before closing up for the day when we discovered the phasing between the laptop and the interfacing card was out,” recalls Yeong, 34, now senior lecturer at the faculty of electrical engineering in University Teknologi Malaysia in Skudai.

Lesser mortals would have given up, but not Yeong and Su who immediately began to check the board for downed circuits. Yeong, suspecting it might be an electrical current issue, rushed to a nearby computer shop for a printer cable to create a new connection with the motor to split the current. Both then headed to a nearby cyber café and spent over an hour downloading the software for the interface. Reprogramming the PC took the entire night, but by morning, they fixed the problem to emerge champions in the partner category.

The moral of the story, says Yeong, proves Edison’s theory: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Since then, Yeong’s record shows him collecting over 50 awards in international competitions dating from his first Robofest event in 2002. Over the years, he has made a name for himself, his team and the university. His inventions have taken him to competitions as far as Thailand, South Korea, China, Holland and the United Kingdom, and having appeared on television and in newspapers, he enjoys a mild sort of celebrity status.

Yeong (right) with his students at the faculty's research lab.  At left is his robot maid which he redeemed at the 2004 Robofest  competition.
Yeong (right) with his students at the faculty’s research lab. At left is his robot maid which he entered in the 2004 Robofest competition.

But in 2007, Yeong, who now manages about RM2mil worth in research grants, had an epiphany.

“I began to think, ‘All this looks good on my curriculum vitae but was it bringing value to the country?’” recalls Yeong.

It began when the father of two entered his students in the 2006 Philips Young Inventors Challenge. Organisers offered to buy the licence for a wristwatch to alert family members via PDAs and pagers in the event of the wearer facing health emergencies designed by his final-year students.

“They said, ‘No need to complete. We’ll give you RM5,000 for the rights of the product.’ As I already had six other teams in the competition, I persuaded them to agree. Another team that had designed a glove to help the deaf communicate via a sensor system won first prize. As for the wristwatch, a search revealed something similar had already been patented in Holland. During that time, three companies from the UK asked if my teams were interested to look into further developments,” he recalls.

But as an academician, Yeong knew little of entrepreneurship until he attended a boot camp organised by UTM’s Innovation and Commercialisation Centre in 2011.

Tan (left) and Yap, who both graduated in 2008, developed everything in house to build their AGVs.
Tan (left) and Yap, who both graduated in 2008, developed everything in- house to build their AGVs.

Using the NABC structure (Need, Approach, Benefit and Competition) the ideas began to flow.

“Over the years the Ministry of Science, Information and Technology has been granting up to RM650mil in research funds with little returns. However, over at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University in the US, research and development work on a four-legged robot for their defence department was bought by a company for US$100mil(RM326.4mil)! At that point, I thought it was about time our research should have the same high impact,” says Yeong.

One of Yeong’s solutions was to design a robot to help rehabilitate stroke patients while pursuing his doctorate in London’s Imperial College, spending a month at a hospital to do research.

“One of the main issues faced by stroke patients is immobility, hampering access to physiotherapy. That was when I began work on CR2, a compact rehabilitation robot for home use,” reveals Yeong.

Today, development work on CR2 continues in TechCare Innovation Sdn Bhd, using brains and manpower from the faculty’s student body.

Under Yeong’s supervision, the students have found funding by participating in idea pitching and innovation challenges, the same path taken by Yeong during his student days.

Despite access to capital and research facilities, it is not easy to motivate students to treat their final-year projects as a stepping stone to entrepreneurship.

“Among the excuses were backpacking plans to see the world. Some wanted to take a gap year to unwind before they took up full-time employment,” says Yeong, who wonders at times if some of his charges are at all serious about their courses in the first place.

But when he found the apples of his eye, Yeong spared no effort in roping them in, going as far as Hong Kong to intercept fourth year UKM students Khor Kang Xiang and Patrick Chin, then in the thick of a competition.

“I wanted to catch them just before they dispersed,” explains Yeong who cornered them for an hour to share his vision.

Today, Khor is head of Techcare, responsible for developing the CR2-Haptic, a robot designed to exercise the wrist and forearm; and CR2 Motion, for improving limb and body mobility. Both robots are connected to gaming software, developed by first-year student, Yong Bang Xiang, to monitor progress.

The latter device harnesses Kinect technology — motion sensor technology found in Xbox video game consoles.

The idea is to get patients hooked on these games like they would on Candy Crush to spur exercise, a crucial component in stroke rehabilitation. Recently, the team delivered a unit to the National Stroke Association of Malaysia in Petaling Jaya.

In addition to stroke rehabilitation, Yeong has also started other robot-building entities to do all the fetching and carrying in factories and to separate dirt and feathers from birds’ nests.

DF Automation and Robotics Sdn Bhd, a two-year-old company which specialises in automated guided vehicles (AGVs) is headed by Yeong’s former students, Ricky Yap and Tan Ping Hua.

It started when they went into a company as interns. During that time, they shortlisted some 30 production problems and one of the solutions was to introduce robot technology to move guided trolleys to cut down on labour. The problem was, the interns’ project had yet to meet industrial standards.

To further development the company offered to pay, thus creating a business opportunity.

“We are expecting a revenue of RM500,000 before the end of this year,” says Yap who reveals all programming and routing for the micro controllers and printed circuit board assemblies for the guided vehicles are done in-house.

Admittedly, the AGV idea is not new but the selling point at DF is the entirely localised technical support which can respond to problems within two days, because they are the same team responsible for the robots’ manufacture.

“It makes perfect sense for students to start the commercialisation process of their inventions before they even graduate.

“This way, they can get a head start in their careers,” insists Yeong who reckons the challenging process of securing funding for research and development is best done in the prime of youth, not when one is struggling with family and mid-life crises.

“Looking at them (his students) reminds me of my younger days. If I had someone to guide me, I wouldn’t be wasting my time at gaming arcades. So, these guys are in a luckier position than me,” Yeong says.