24 November 2009
Phil Mayo, managing director, Premier EDA Solutions
Phil Mayo, managing director, Premier EDA Solutions speaks with Chris Shaw
UK innovation, R&D and the effects of the recession
CS: In the past 18 months, you have spoken to over 500 engineers across events throughout the UK. Is there an underlying mood you have observed that may not have been expressed by the electronics media?
PM: We all know that engineers by their very nature are creative beasts. 100% of those that I've seen regard themselves as creative and regard creativity as an important aspect of what they do. When asked however how much time do they spend here and 96% admit to spending less than one day per working week being creative.
Now you can of course argue that this is subjective, and indeed it is. Yet I feel there are two questions that need to be asked here. Firstly, if an engineer considers him/herself to be creative, what job satisfaction do they gain (and therefore what perception do they give to others of their profession?). Secondly, if they are not being creative, what actually are they doing?
CS: What has been the recession's biggest effect on research and development programmes?
PM: I've seen literally hundreds of companies which have taken often radical steps as a result of the recession. Clearly, each company is affected differently and has different strategies. I have however seen two common threads. One is that R&D budgets and especially training budgets are frozen – forcing engineers to 'make do' with old design tools, methodologies and approaches. The other is that these companies often don't ask the question 'what happens if we survive the recession?'
CS: What additional challenges will emerge when the upturn arrives?
PM: My fear is that the lack of investment in skills and R&D infrastructure, coupled with the UK's late emergence from recession (relative to other territories), will result in UK electronics companies not having sufficient differentiation in their products to compete on a global scale. We spend significant time worrying about time to market and clearly this is important. Sustainable success however is reliant on having differentiated products – the 'value add' that will discriminate UK design from the rest of the world.
Skills shortages and the roles of the trade associations
CS: What are your thoughts on the approach of groups such as Intellect, IET and EKTN to address the skills shortage problem?
PM: Each of these groups recognise the diversity of electronics, yet they work in isolation from each other and fragment their members into special interest groups. There is also a tendency to mistake training for education and therefore many initiatives are launched without any relevance to industry needs. We need of course to invest in the future and the industry does need new lifeblood but the time for this was 10 years ago.
We now need lightweight programmes that provide effective training for engineers – who cares if a course is IET accredited if I can solve my problem today? That's why I was so disappointed with the support offered by these associations for our Design Innovation Conference at this year's National Electronics Week. We put together a fantastic programme of free training, avoiding sales pitches and concentrating on practical solutions. Yet none of these groups even invited their members to the show, instead they preferred to send their membership scouts!
CS: What initiatives would you like to see implemented to address the problem?
PM: We need to review existing programmes and bring them together. Any focusing on education should be clearly differentiated from those that provide training. From this we could establish a basic national framework which could provide the long term strategy.
The biggest issue with the short term need for skills however is timing – an engineer facing a thermal problem (say) would consider additional training, if he's just solved a thermal problem then the training is deemed irrelevant (especially if he's now got an EMC problem).
So, in the short term, we need to solve two challenges – relevance and timing. This is why at our Design Innovation Conference, we offered multiple sessions on a wide array of subjects and, with the backdrop of National Electronics Week, we had a platform where engineers could address their immediate needs for knowledge, plus toe dip other interesting subject areas, plus visit the exhibition with suppliers spanning EDA software, component suppliers, semiconductor vendors, test and production equipment. Oh, and by the way this was FREE – solving the Engineering Management requirements!
Now I am not saying that National Electronics Week is the solution to the skills challenges facing the industry. Consider however a £2million investment in something along these lines – we could have the first day open to students as a showcase for the industry, then a three day conference/exhibition. Backed by a small amount of funding and with the trade associations taking the lead, the event could provide a superb platform for the industry. Further, it would actually celebrate the diverse nature of electronics rather than try to constrain it into special interest groups.
CS: Is there a need to focus on short term or long term solutions at this time?
PM: I honestly believe that we may have gone too far, foreign owned electronics companies are already moving design off shore. This said, it's never too late and I, for one, will not abandon the industry lightly.
An estimated 60% of UK design engineers that I've met have not been on any training for 12 months. Self teaching and Google searching are the principle methods used by these guys to address new challenges. Couple this with the current economic climate - plus the incessant drive to deliver projects quickly - and we see an overwhelming need to solve problems rather than create.
So, even if we had an excellent short term programme available free of charge, there would be a large number of companies who wouldn't send engineers due to the pressure of project timescales.
This is why we need multiple compelling reasons for engineering management to recognise the benefits of any skills programme and we need to recognise that the success of this programme will be judged on outcomes not number of attendees.