He is managing director of a $4 billion company with 17,000 employees, but Dr Harry Lee Nai-shee always comes to work in a shirt that is unironed. Dr Lee of Kowloon-based TAL Apparel likes to be a walking advertisement for his firm's process - protected by five patents - that produces men's cotton shirts that can be worn without ironing. Comparing his wrinkle-free shirt to the ironed but crumpled mess worn by the Post reporter, he adds: 'Also, on mine the seams are flat, not wrinkled like yours. That's also a patented technology.' His family-controlled firm with plants in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan and the mainland ploughs one per cent of its turnover into research and development. The Hong Kong factory employs 1,100 staff and is being automated to make the sewing staff more productive. The firm also makes extensive use of electronic links with customers that allow shirts to be shipped direct from a factory in Asia to a store in New York without the retailer holding a warehouse of stock. 'During the boom years one of my friends laughed at me and said: 'Why are you still in manufacturing? A real estate deal can make more in a week than you make in a year,' ' he remembers. But while the property firms now bleed red ink, TAL is making one in eight of the men's dress shirts sold in the United States, about 20 million a year, for labels such as GAP, Boss, Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani. The Chief Executive's Commission on Science and Technology held up the firm as proof that Hong Kong-based firms can make a success out of technology even in traditional industries - although it admitted examples were few. Another success story is the creation by the government-funded Hong Kong Productivity Council of a process to make the big, hollow ornaments now found in gold shops across Hong Kong in many shapes including Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse and lucky peaches. Dr Kinny Yeung Lee-kin, general manager of the council's chemistry and metallurgy division, recalls that in the early 1990s the sector was a craft industry suffering from labour shortages. His team developed an automated process to produce very light, hollow gold ornaments by dipping wax shapes in a solution of gold and pumping electricity through to make the gold stick in a paper-thin layer. The wax is later boiled out. The ornaments are cheap and light because the gold is just 0.1mm thick - but when he talked to gold firms they said they wanted it 10 times thicker, because their traditional business was based around selling each customer as much gold as possible. 'I asked them 'why not try to create a new market, for ornaments',' Dr Yeung recalls. In 1992, one took the plunge and paid $500,000 to develop a line. The firm got its investment back in three months. Now the industry is worth $1.2 billion a year, making up 70 per cent of the turnover of some local jewellery chains.