Entrepreneurship: The unknown inventor

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 8, 2018 - January 14, 2018.
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Bruce Soh was already at the peak of his career in his mid-twenties. He was living in the US and working as the chief engineer of Mercedes-Benz, managing all of the company’s engineers in the country. But his success at such a young age came as no surprise to those who knew him well. Soh had always been determined to immerse himself in advanced technology and gain exposure outside Malaysia.

“I wanted to study overseas and become a mechanical engineer. After completing Form Five, I told my friends that if we failed [to go overseas], let’s hop on a ship and sail around the world to start our journey. That was in the 1970s.

“We grew up in Klang and we used to board the boats docked at Port Klang and play on them. This could be done back then as there was no tight security system for ships like today,” Soh tells Enterprise.

When their Form Five exam results came out, Soh was the only one among his friends to gain admittance to the Kitson College of Technology in the UK to study automotive engineering. He was given an air ticket and a sum of money for his first semester fees. He would have to earn everything else by himself.

This was why Soh started working in different workshops in the UK before going to college. He also interned with international car manufacturers, including Rolls-Royce and Honda, accumulating vast amounts of knowledge and experience as a mechanic. Upon graduation, Soh went to Germany where he was hired by renowned car manufacturers, such BMW and Mercedes-Benz, as their main engineer.

“Later on, Mercedes-Benz sent me to the US as its chief engineer and hired me through Jim Marino Imports Inc, the dealer of its vehicles in the US. All engineers of Mercedes-Benz in the country had to report to me,” he says.

However, a phone call from Malaysia in 1994 changed his life forever. His father was in huge financial difficulties, not due to a job loss but because four of his adopted children were gambling addicts. He had been forced to sell his properties to pay off their huge debts.

“My father said I had to come back. And I did. He transferred to me the title of a property he was holding. I told my siblings that if they wanted the property from me, they would have to box me to death. But they didn’t.

“After that, the Ah Long (loan sharks) would call me, telling me that they would chop off my sibling’s finger to show that they meant business. I would tell them, why bother to chop off an ear or finger? Just shoot him and be done with it. After all, he is a gambler and cannot be helped. The Ah Long used to call me a tough guy.”

He may have talked tough to the loan sharks but Soh was not entirely uncaring. He did help his siblings settle their debts, find them better jobs and put their lives back on track.

His own promising career, however, had been derailed. What was he to do in Malaysia? Soh thought long and hard and decided to make something of himself.


An entrepreneur and inventor

Soh had returned to Malaysia in 1983 when he was 28. He now had to find a new source of income to support himself and his parents. Having spent most of his life working overseas, he had handled machines that were much more advanced than those available in Malaysia. His knowledge and experience were valuable and so he reinvented himself as a freelance consulting engineer.

As grand as the title sounded, Soh was actually something of a foreman. Factories called him when they had problems with their machines. He would pick up his toolbox and sally forth, fixing their “unsolvable” problems then and there.

“I fixed machinery for factories of various industries, including machinery in sugar, plastic and glass factories. I also helped repair aeroplanes and fighter jets,” says Soh.

He says he learnt to fix other machinery besides those related to cars as he had to earn a living. Also, he wanted to challenge himself to see if he could further improve his ability as a mechanic.

It was not until 1993 that he decided to start his own company. That was the year he came up with the idea of inventing large moulds for Proton cars.

A mould is a hollow container that is used to give shape to molten or hot liquid materials when they cool and harden. In car manufacturing, large moulds are used to form different parts of a car, including the doors. “[The earlier model of] the Proton Saga had 32 moulds,” says Soh.

He had the knowledge and know-how to do the moulds after having worked for so many years as an engineer for international car manufacturers. The challenge was money, or the lack of it. As a freelance consultant engineer, Soh earned enough to get by but he did not have enough put away to start a large mould business.

“I went to Proton with my idea. They asked what kind of mould I wanted to do and whether I had done it for other companies before going to them. I said I was a man of science and I knew how to do it. After all, I was with Rolls-Royce, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. I asked them to give me the order, which I could take to the banks to apply for a loan. But they said no.”

Soh says Proton’s reaction was understandable as someone had taken its order, borrowed money on the strength of it and done nothing. “Still, they gave me a chance. They told me they would trust me if I could bring one such moulding machine to Malaysia. And they would come and see how the machine worked. That was a huge challenge.”

He was right about the banks. None of them wanted to give him a loan to kick-start his new venture. He had a good credit history and excellent qualifications but it was not enough for any bank to provide him with the kind of loan he was seeking.

Soh started researching the banks to see which one was more likely to provide someone like him with a loan. “Finally, I went to AmBank and showed them my credit history and told them my qualifications. They gave me the loan.”

He was lucky because one of the bankers he met came from an engineering background. This banker understood what Soh was trying to say and trusted him. Armed with the loan, Soh went to Germany and co-invented a brand-new moulding machine with a German, Swedish and UK company. It took a while for the machine to be completed. And when it landed in Malaysia, Proton was happy with the result and gave Soh the order he wanted.

Why was Proton so happy? “Before my invention, Proton got its supply of moulds from Mitsubishi. It took the Japanese five weeks to make one mould and another two weeks to ship it over. But with my invention, it took only one day to make a mould right here in Malaysia. The cost was much less. It saved them a lot of money.”

Soh also proudly reveals that he has not missed a single loan repayment to AmBank, justifying the faith of the banker in him.

This first success gave birth to his company, Aerocut Engineering Sdn Bhd, in Klang. It has survived and grown through the years with Soh and his team continuing to solve machinery problems faced by factories in various industries. It has also continued to develop new designs and inventions to solve human problems and enhance work efficiency.

Another product that Soh is proud of developing is the wall panels for operation theatres that have been adopted by many hospitals across the nation, including the Putrajaya Hospital, Sunway Hospital and general hospitals in Johor, Ipoh and Sabah.

“I came up with this new design in 1998. Before that, hospitals’ operation theatres were equipped with panels that used locks and keys. People in the theatre, including surgeons, theatre nurses, anaesthetists and administrative staff, had to unlock these panels to take out things during the surgery and then lock them again. But with my invention, they just have to press a button and the panels open up. After the surgery is completed, they can lock the panels without using a key.”

With these newly designed wall panels, hospitals have also been able to clean up the theatre within half an hour of the completion of an operation compared with two hours in the previous design.

While this may look like a minor improvement, Soh says it was a new invention, nevertheless, and one that helped many people 17 years ago. “I’m really proud of this as it has helped hospitals save many people’s lives.”

He also designed and manufactured the space bridges for the Kuala Lumpur International Airport that link air flight passengers from the airport to the planes. “In the old days, you walk into the bridge and you can’t look outside. With my design, you can look out the windows of the bridge. KLIA has 28 of these bridges that were all made by me.”

Another interesting product that Soh has come up with is the special component of the Proton Waja’s engine. The component allows Proton Waja’s engine to operate long hours without breaking down.

“If you still remember, the Proton Waja was having a big problem back then. The car engine saw some failure and the first 50,000 units of Proton Waja was recalled. After that, they sent the engine parts overseas to solve the problem, but were unsuccessful. So they turned to me. I took just two hours to design the new part,” Soh recounts gleefully.

He did not only help with the Waja but also solved an engine problem in the Gen2, a compact five-door hatchback made by Proton that was launched in 2004. “This time, I supplied Proton with parts for the car.”


Designs and inventions unprotected

With all his new designs and products, Soh has made a fortune for his company and family. However, he is upset that most of his ideas and products, which are unprotected, have been used by others to make money.

“They used my ideas and products to benefit themselves. More often than not, I didn’t find out until someone told me.”

For instance, Soh could have supplied large moulds to Proton for a longer period but one of the companies that supplied him with steel (the raw material that would later be cut into large moulds in Soh’s factory) stole his idea and replaced him as the large mould supplier to Proton.

How did that happen? The company sent its salesman to track a lorry of Soh’s company all the way to Proton. Then, the salesman talked to some of the people in Proton and was surprised to find out that Soh’s factory, small and simple, in Klang was manufacturing large moulds for the Proton Saga.

Later, Soh received a call from someone who worked for the steel company, saying he would like to pay Soh a visit to collect some receivables.

“I said, okay no problem. Please come and I will hand you the cheque. So that day the person came. And while I was writing the cheque, he took out his camera and took photos of my machines and factory. I said, hey, why are you taking pictures? He said, I really like the way you have placed your air compressor. But that was not true.”

Not long after that, Soh received a call from an engineer friend in Proton to tell him that Proton had given its new orders for large moulds to the company that was Soh’s supplier. That was when he connected the dots and realised that his idea had been stolen.

“I said, okay, I can accept that. But let’s just be careful. You’re talking to an engineer and inventor. The company is a steel seller and it has no skills in making moulds. If you want to take their orders, you should have your engineers check to see if the measurements [of the moulds] are correct. They checked and the measurements were wrong. So, some of the orders came back to me.”

However, Soh lost the order a year later. “It was expected. I knew very soon they would refine it until they got it. And sure enough, I lost my orders to them. The reason is simple. I had to buy the raw material, which is steel, from them. But they buy it directly from overseas. They can produce a mould at a lower cost and sell it cheaper.”

Soh’s hospital wall panel design was also stolen by another party. According to him, a British company that designed and built hospital operating theatres had used his design in the Philippines and he only found out about it much later.

Soh explains that the British company was invited to design and consult on the set-up of the operation theatre of Hospital Putrajaya back then. And he was invited as a contractor to set up the theatre according to the technical drawings provided by the British company. However, Soh came up with his own design during the process, which was accepted by the director of the hospital.

“Some time later, I received a call from a Filipino doctor, who was one of the people invited to attend the hospital’s opening ceremony and had seen the design of my wall panels. He thanked me and said the newly designed panels installed in the operation theatre of his hospital were very nice and useful. I didn’t understand what he meant at first. After that I knew that the British company had used my design and was selling it in other countries.”

So, why didn’t he patent his designs and inventions? Firstly, says Soh, it would cost him more than RM10,000 easily for one product. Secondly, it takes time for a product to be patented.

“Also, when signing contracts with some companies, they demand that I not patent my ideas and products. They want to use them quickly, and I need the money.

“Even if I patented my ideas and products and have the right to sue someone or a company for using them illegally, how would I take action against them if they’re outside Malaysia? That takes a lot of time and money. I would rather do other things.”

There is no simple solution to this problem. Moving forward, Soh hopes that he can get a sponsor, preferably a large corporation with strong financial backing, to support him. He would provide the company with his ideas and products and, in turn, it would pay him and help him patent them.

“And if anything happened, for example if a third party made money out of my ideas and products, this company could act against it as it would have the resources to do so. I think this would be a better way going forward,” he says.

In fact, Soh is looking for a buyer for one of his inventions — a robot with four legs and a cleaning device that can attach itself to a building. This robot can move up and down buildings, cleaning glass windows. Soh has six international patents for this product.

“In many parts of the world, people are still cleaning the windows of buildings using a gondola. It is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. Sometimes, accidents happen and lives are lost. My robot can help save lives. Also, some companies, such as property companies, could use my robot to clean the curvy surfaces of their buildings,” he says.