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Outlook 2014: How the maker movement could reinvigorate UK electronics

Earlier this year, I read a statistic that truly pointed towards the future for technology and, in particular, the future for manufacturing.

It said: 'The digital economy represents $20trillion of revenues. The economy beyond the web, by the same estimate, is about $130trillion'.

In other words, the economy of the real world of 'atoms' is more than five times greater than that of the economy of 'bits'.

Whilst the digital revolution has transformed business models for publishing, broadcasting and communications, it has not yet had the same 'democratising' impact upon traditional manufacturing industries.

The quote is attributed to Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, and author of 'Makers: The New Industrial Revolution'. Put it on your book list today.

'Makers' describes the future of manufacturing and, more importantly, how developed economies in the West will counter the low labour costs of emerging economies.

The fledgling Maker Movement shows how a number of ingredients will come together to enable the Third Industrial Revolution. What is particularly interesting – and exciting – is that a number of the technology and business areas that converge to enable this Movement form the cornerstone programme for The Electronics Network at techUK.

The UK Government has finally realised that 'serious countries make stuff' – another Anderson quote. However, current initiatives address a 'me too' agenda whose goal seems to be to catch up with the German economy.

There may be unintended consequences with the current initiatives, which undoubtedly will fund automation and lead to greater productivity, but will not necessarily the creation of new jobs. The focus is also on sectors where multinationals are 'assembling' in the UK (automotive and aerospace), hence the drive for automation. I'm not sure the community of SME manufacturers is receiving the same level of attention – and this is where real growth will come from.

The UK electronics industry today contributes £80billion to the UK's economy – 5.4% of GDP – but is only a fifth the size of its German equivalent, according to Reed Electronics Research. The UK's CEM and PCB manufacturing supply chain has opportunity for growth in a stable European market, provided that it can promote its capability for design, quality and engineering excellence – and this is where the industry needs support.

Initiatives that stimulate design activity will create both wealth and jobs in the UK. It's quite a simple formula – from Design to Products to Manufacturing to Sales to Global Brands. The UK has established a reputation for designing and manufacturing niche, low volume complex products. We now need to stimulate the front end of this process and strengthen our electronics design community to capitalise on these capabilities.

Looking at the trends predicted by Anderson and the Maker Movement, we would appear to be on the brink of the Third Industrial Revolution as technology begins to make the same impact upon the real world of manufacturing, as it has in the digital world.

Manufacturing is typically an expensive enterprise; the entry cost is high, as are the risks.

The digital revolution has changed the printing, media and music industries by creating desktop tools that allow anyone to set up a commercial enterprise in the global market. The next 'real world' tool set will enable manufacturing to embrace the digital revolution, lowering the cost of entry and bringing about this Third Industrial Revolution.

This 'real world' toolset enables rapid prototyping and will be a significant catalyst for the design community: indeed, Anderson believes we will all be designers in the future.

Most significant for the electronics industry is the development of design tools such as Arduino, mbed and Raspberry Pi, all aiming to engage a wider community in the process of designing electronic systems. They enable inventors to realise proof of concept, and reduce prototyping development costs significantly. Furthermore, they all promote an 'open' knowledge base, where sharing and collaboration is the norm, where code blocks can be reused to solve new problems or drive new ideas.

The more ideas we can get through to proof of concept, the more likely we are to develop products that have global appeal, and have control over their manufacturing supply chain.

These tools also demonstrate the basics of electronic design, including embedded system design, and being used to develop our skills base –most notably, Raspberry Pi in schools and Arduino in academia. ARM recognises the value of the mbed programme, arguably aimed at the more serious designer, and with its acquisition of Sensinode, has demonstrated its intent to promote the mbed project as a development toolkit for connected devices – the Internet of Things.

Moving from the digital world of bits to the real world of atoms also means the UK must nurture analogue design skills – often cited as a 'black art' of electronics design. If the UK is to take a lead in the product design space, we need to further develop our analogue design engineering skills.

Getting your product manufactured is the next crucial step. Unless you are prepared to commit to a minimum batch run, it is unlikely you will convince a manufacturer to tool up your project. This is where the next revolution starts. The emergence of 3D printers, and their integration with CAD systems, enables very small batch manufacture.

Today's 3D printers may be crude, but they are probably at the same point of evolution as the dot matrix printer was three decades ago. They will get faster, use a wider variety of materials and will become more widely accessible.

If we are to invest in automation, it should be in design automation, where reducing the design cycle is the value driver. Tooling and setup times will be almost negligible, since engineering change will be managed at a software level using the CAD tools.

These tools will not replace small to medium sized manufacturing. The economics of volume will always prevail, but they will enable our design community to amplify their efforts. We will see niche, micro brands emerge, some of which will grow into global brands.

Open Innovation is the growing business phenomenon that will enable the budding inventor to become the successful entrepreneur. Moving micro brands at a niche level to a global level requires effective channels to market; channels that are usually occupied by traditional brands.

Interestingly, Global Brands increasingly recognise the innovative capacity of the SME and the entrepreneur and are engaging in 'technology scouting' to develop their product ranges. These two 'needs' complement each other. We will see a lot more open innovation and collaboration from those global brands who want to remain at the top of their market sector.

Next year will see growth and development in all of these areas. The Electronics Network programmes at techUK will enable companies to better understand and exploit these opportunities, but we need to act fast; President Obama has already launched a programme to bring 'Maker Spaces' into 1000 US schools over the next four years, aimed specifically at creating a new generation of system designers and product innovators; what is our edge? The British knack for creativity!

techUK
techUK is the trade association for the UK's tech sector. With over 860 member companies - including major multinationals, mid-sized firms and small businesses - our membership directly employs more than half a million people in the UK andtheir products and services are used by every part of the UK and global economy.

Ashley Evans is director of electronics for techUK.

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Ashley Evans

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