As a young engineer at General Motors in Detroit, Hyun Soon Lee was handpicked by Ju-yung Chung, founder of Hyundai Motor Company in Seoul, to return to South Korea to lead the company’s independent development of engines and transmissions.
“Ju-yung’s enthusiasm and will moved my heart,” Lee said. “I thought it would be more valuable to contribute to my homeland’s automotive industry than to dedicate my life to being one of many researchers at General Motors.”
But when Lee joined Hyundai in 1984, he discovered the South Korean automotive industry significantly lagged what he had experienced in the US. Hyundai ranked 23rd on the list of 27 global automobile companies, manufacturing only 97,000 vehicles a year, all with technology developed by others. Mitsubishi Motors of Tokyo provided all of Hyundai’s engineers; Hyundai’s Korean employees merely assembled the parts from drawings in Japanese.
Lee advocated changing Hyundai’s dependence on other automakers, especially in the field of engines, which he believed would become important for passenger vehicles. Hyundai’s financial department doubted Lee’s projections, while other executives doubted the wisdom of recruiting a young and inexperienced engineer to develop the engines.
Within a decade, Lee overcame adversity and opposition from both inside and outside the company and proved his potential by leading the effort to produce engines in Korea for the first time. His first engine, the 1.5-liter Gasoline Alpha engine, won recognition for its excellent output and fuel efficiency, which were superior to those already on the market. By 1999, Lee completed Hyundai’s full gasoline engine lineup from compact cars to full-sized cars. In 2002, he developed the Theta engine and exported the technology to automobile manufacturers DaimlerChrysler (now Chrysler, of Auburn Hills, Michigan) and Mitsubishi Motors. In 2005, Lee was promoted to president of R&D at Hyundai, and then to vice chairman of R&D in 2008.
Remembering the opposition he encountered at the outset of his Hyundai journey, Lee observed: “The financial department decides on making investments only if the market is certain, but an engineer must create a market that has never existed. That’s the path that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have followed."
Although South Korea entered the automotive industry approximately 100 years late, Hyundai now ranks among the global Top 5, manufacturing 8 million vehicles in 2014. It is second in the global market for its variety of diesel engines.
OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES
In the summer of 2011, Lee became vice chairman of South Korea’s Doosan Infracore, which was struggling to develop next-generation, 1500-horsepower engines for military tanks. The engines required state-of-the-art technology controlled by a few German companies. The project, which lagged for more than seven years, succeeded within two years of Lee joining Doosan Infracore.
“It was so hectic taking care of the urgent problems at hand,” Lee said. “However, we obtained approval from the Ministry of National Defense through redesign and enhanced durability of the engines.”
Lee moved quickly to consolidate Doosan Infracore’s R&D functions, which were scattered in four different locations. Based on his belief that collaboration is the most important competitive factor in the construction equipment industry, Lee built the Doosan Infracore Global R&D Center in Incheon. Created in 2014, the center employs about 1,000 researchers of construction equipment and engines, all housed in a 12-story building. Additionally, construction will soon start on the Doosan Research Complex, which will become the company’s headquarters for developing original technologies. The complex is scheduled for completion early in 2017.
As chief technology officer of Doosan Corporation, an umbrella company established in mid-2013, Lee is responsible for improving the technological skills of Doosan Infracore and all Doosan affiliates, including Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction and Doosan Engine.
With the global financial crisis easing and markets improving, Lee is ready for new challenges. “Now is the time that we need new technologies and products,” he said. “I believe that technological skill is the only thing that can lead to sustainable growth. I expect to see the Doosan Infracore Global R&D Center and the Doosan Research Complex produce great synergies.”
Lee’s goal for Doosan’s technological development is to develop fuel cells and automate construction equipment. The company reinforced its energy businesses, which include nuclear power, thermal power, cogeneration, and clean renewable energy such as fuel cells, last year when it acquired fuel cell companies Fuel Cell Power of South Korea and US-based ClearEdge Power to accelerate commercialization of the business.
“Fuel cells are the most practical among various types of renewable energy,” Lee said. “The Korean government regulates firms who are building new power plants, to construct with up to 10% of green materials. The prospects for the fuel-cell business are bright.”
As for automating construction and mining machines with Doosan Infracore, Lee cites the sensation caused by automated vehicles at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Automation, he believes, will be a competitive advantage in construction equipment as well.
For example, Lee plans to automate road-building equipment so that it flattens the ground within 1 millimeter of perfection. “We flatten the ground after 3D scanning and modeling,” he said. “It may seem impossible, but it can definitely be done with current technology.”
WAKE UP YOUR ENGINE
In making decisions, Lee insists on future-oriented value.
“From the outside, managers are evaluated by stock price,” he said. “The company must make high-net profits to bring up the stock price, which is in conflict with the vision of future growth. It is necessary to invest in technological development in order to achieve future growth. Even if there’s no immediate net profit, we must properly face and decide on whether we can become the leader in five or 10 years. We especially must invest in cutting-edge technologies with uncertainty, because those with certainty are already attempted by others, placing us second in the ranks.”
He also emphasizes the importance of technological convergence, arguing that the key to success is in quickly exploiting, developing and commercializing converging technologies.
“There are many necessary conditions like creativity, government support for the new technology, or deregulation, but the most important of all is the engineers’ passion,” Lee said. “Young engineers today tend to give up so easily. But look: The things that are feasible for anyone are already done. The difficult things that other people have already tried and failed are the only things that remain. To achieve them, you must not give up so easily. Try again 10 or even 20 more times.”
This belief in “try, try again” has inspired Lee to volunteer as a mentor to young engineers. He was appointed as a guest professor of the Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at Seoul National University and chair professor of Mechanical Engineering at the State University of New York in Songdo, Korea.
“Recently, I nag at the executives more often, asking them to become mentors for young engineers,” Lee said. “I always emphasize that their top priority must be in fostering juniors better than themselves, and nurturing outstanding engineers. That’s one way to contribute to the company as well as society. Trial and error must be reduced by sharing knowledge, skill and experience. It is necessary to establish a ‘knowledge management’ system to implement the above.”
Lee shares the critical importance of engineering in his book Wake Up Your Sleeping Engine: “A judge determines the life or death of dozens of people in a lifetime; a doctor determines the life or death of thousands of people in a lifetime; and an engineer determines the life or death of billions of people in a lifetime.”◆
Deuk-Jin Cho is a senior staff writer for Forbes Korea.