Lighting up all the right places

Jin Zhang
Jin Zhang

WHEN Jin Zhang arrived in New Zealand from Inner Mongolia a decade ago he was hoping to get invaluable work experience to boost his career chances back home.

The 32-year-old now has both qualifications and work experience but he has no plan to return to his birthplace right now.

Instead Jin is using his skills to make ground-breaking products for Porirua-based firm Vega Industries, which has a worldwide reputation for its high-precision, high-performance marine navigational lights.

Designed and manufactured on site, Vega's lights provide safe guidance in major waterways, ports and harbours all over the world, from the English Channel, Panama Canal and Congo River to supporting the US Coast Guard.

As one of Vega's two specialist optical engineers, the father of 18-month-old daughter Amy is proud of the fact his work can be found on navigation lights that light up famous landmarks all over the world.

For instance, he's had a hand in designing a unique new optical lens for the rotary beacon used to replace older lights for lighthouses. One of them is off to Singapore to be mounted on one of its most famous lighthouses, the Raffles Lighthouse. Another is installed in the Voltian lighthouse above Lake Como in Italy.

Even the range lights used to control the flood barriers on the River Thames in London feature Jin's optics designs.

''That range light has the latest technology in it. I designed the optics for it. It's an LED system, not a halogen one, so it's far smaller but more efficient than what was in there.'' As for the lighthouse rotary beacons, Jin says they also feature LED lights, not halogen bulbs.

''Lighthouses usually use a halogen bulb with huge optics glass to get the range they need - roughly two metres of optically engineered glass in diameter, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and needing regular maintenance probably every three to six months,'' he says.

''But that is the lighting of the past - the LED bulb is super-efficient, long-lasting and is much smaller.

''The optics we design are less than half a metre in diameter, yet very efficient - the light we built for Raffles Lighthouse takes 30 watts at most, not 300 watts, so it consumes much less power but it's still effective and more efficient in that you can get more light output and you don't need to change it as often since it's designed to last for 12 years.

''The outcome is that the new rotary beacon costs significantly less to purchase and importantly significantly less to operate AND the light performance intensity is about five times better than the old rotary beacon.''

As a project engineer, Jin says he was excited to have been in charge of that entire project, from start to finish, and hands-on in the mechanics design, optics design and electronic wiring processes.

''There is a lot of teamwork involved in every product that goes out the door, and it's very exciting to be part of it all.

''You develop something from scratch and when you see it completed it's a good feeling. And to know your work is in lighthouses like Singapore's oldest - it was built 150 years ago and is really famous - makes me feel really honoured.'' Jin is one of about 40 staff at Vega, the only company in New Zealand supplying this highly specialised global market. Vega exports more than 90 per cent of its products to North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia and increasingly Africa and the Middle East. The work is challenging - Jin and the Vega team have to design and produce to meet rigorous requirements including high visibility, high precision, high efficiency products that must operate in salt-laden environments and extreme weather conditions while dealing with wind-blown sand and the challenge of bird droppings.

By undertaking all critical steps on site - from prototyping and testing to creating the finished product - engineers like Jin can keep tight control on the high-precision, highly technological processes involved in making the complex, mission-critical equipment.

A case in point is the work Vega has done fine-tuning optics to maximise the performance of LEDs, core components in its equipment due to the combined high performance and high efficiency. Jin will next work on a way to use LEDs in Vega's flagship product, the PEL sector light, used to mark the required sailing line of a vessel, such as the entry to a port or harbour.

''The optics for that is going to be really, really challenging, it's the most complex of the lights at Vega, but I love a challenge, it's all part of my job.''

This is the only job Jin has had since he came to New Zealand, armed with his mechanical engineering degree from North China's Institute of Aerospace Engineering. He got an electronic engineering degree from Wellington's Massey University and then spent the last six years climbing the ranks. He started out as a student intern, moving on to a fulltime job as an electronic engineer after graduating. Having shown an interest in optics, Jin was sent to Singapore to take an optics course and came back to specialise in that area.

''With an electronics and mechanical background as well, the work is varied - early on I made a serial number database that records all products shipped; before that we recorded it in a book. ''I've also made some online tools for helping customers to choose the right product as per their requirement and there's still paperwork, product documentation mainly.'' Growing up in Inner Mongolia, Jin knew from a young age he wanted to be an engineer.

''I wanted to work for a car manufacturer and design some automotive stuff, that was always my dream. I liked mechanical stuff and I was always making things - I made a remote control boat for physics in high school where you could change the speed and reverse it. It won an award for best creative project.''

After finishing his degree at Aerospace though, Jin realised moving into car manufacturer mightn't be his best career move.

Looking back, he's rapt he chose ''beautiful'' New Zealand to enhance his job prospects.

''It's a very fulfilling job developing a concept and being involved in its development, and it's very rewarding to see your idea through to completion.'' Outside of work it seems Jin's brain never rests.

''I've got another little project at home to do - modifying my daughter's broken stroller into a remote-controlled lawnmower.''