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Outlook 2014: What's in store for the UK's electronic systems community?

NMI, the trade association for the electronic systems, microelectronics and semiconductor communities in the UK, has been working hard to address the issues facing industry since its establishment in 1996. It aims to provide a home for the industry reliant on the full spectrum of electronic engineering expertise, inclusive of embedded software.

So what does it take to support an industry with such diverse needs?

There is not a simple answer. However, activities are focused in these key areas:
• Encouraging innovation, communication and collaboration
• Improving operational and engineering efficiency
• Supporting skills development, education and training, and
• Representing and promoting the industry as a whole

So much for the talk – what are we actually doing?

Perhaps the best way to illustrate action is to give examples of activity in each area. Let's start with representation.

In 2010, the NMI board decided to embark on a new strategy to engage and influence Government; an important stakeholder with a mutual interest in our industry's success. NMI approached Mark Prisk, at the time Minister of State for Business and Enterprise and, after several private meetings, he asked NMI to lead a report on the size, shape and outlook for the UK's electronic systems industry.

That led to the development of the ESCO Report (www.esco.org.uk), where NMI worked with a number of partners from other associations, stakeholder bodies and industry leaders. The resultant report is unique in that it sets out a blueprint for industry to own for itself whilst co-opting Government as an important stakeholder. The report has identified an industry comprising 856,000 jobs that contributes more than £78billion to the UK's economy. Not only that, there is significant opportunity for growth if a coordinated plan to take full advantage can be executed. This has led to the establishment of an industry council, co-chaired by Warren East, ex-CEO of ARM, and Michael Fallon, Minister of State for Business and Innovation.

The Council is chartered to drive forward the action plan contained in the ESCO Report. This alone is significant progress for an industry that felt completely unrepresented at senior levels and provides a platform for strategic engagement with Government. NMI looks upon it as its job, as an active member of the Council, to make sure it delivers on the opportunities.

Innovation, collaboration and communication: NMI has held a keen interest in this area for many years, viewing this as a sustainable source of competitive advantage.

Electronic systems is the common denominator, creating disruption in conventional markets with significant future opportunity for new companies, products and services. While innovation cannot be mandated, it can be encouraged, supported and accelerated. NMI underwrites these processes by bringing the right stakeholder groups together, clustered around themes of common interest and opportunity. An exemplar is the Automotive Electronic Systems Innovation Network (AESIN, www.aesin.org.uk), launched in 2012.

The automotive industry is going through both evolution and revolution at the same time and the UK hosts all elements of the supply chain, from materials to OEMs such as Jaguar Land Rover and Lotus. As one commentator put it 'the car is the biggest mobile device most people will buy and is now a complex computer system on wheels'. AESIN brings an electronic systems specialism alongside programmes run by the Automotive Council and sector trade association, the SMMT. NMI has led the creation of a similar network in Power Electronics (www.power-electronics.org.uk) and will have news in the near future about more.

Innovation needs fuel. Businesses cannot be built on ideas alone and funding has to come from somewhere. NMI believes the best place to get funding is the marketplace, but there are times where public funding can, and does, make a significant difference. It's perhaps counter intuitive, but the real value of engaging public funding is more likely to be realised through strategic business development partnerships than the money itself. It is with this understanding that NMI has built the capability to ensure greater impact. It is engaging more members than ever before, informing their understanding on what is available to them and their thinking as to where the true value lies. We are actively promoting collaborative opportunities – we are often well positioned to understand and see such potential for A2B and B2B partnerships.

NMI is also well placed to provide a platform for the industry to communicate its needs to the research and academic base and, by virtue of strong industry networks, NMI is frequently consulted or asked for evidence to support new investments. With all this happening, NMI can say with conviction that the impact of this initiative is measured in multiples of tens of millions of pounds so far and the long term importance to the wider community should not be underestimated.

Operational and engineering excellence has long been a staple of NMI's activities. On the manufacturing and production side, there is mature, yet vibrant, activity with its LEAN network, Supervisor Development Workshops, Manufacturing Excellence conference, Fabless Operations Forum, Plant Managers Forum and other activities. Design related 'technical networks' cover system design, verification, design for manufacture, quality and reliability, IC packaging, embedded software and more. Two flagship biennial conferences – The Future World Symposium (www.tiny.cc/UKFWS) and EStech – cover the market and engineering ends of the spectrum.

Whatever technical field we find ourselves in, one subject area is mentioned continuously: skills. Skills are genuinely the lifeblood of the industry. In 2009, driven by member concerns, NMI identified a trend of significant decline in UK Electrical and Electronic Engineering degree applications. We spent several months looking at potential solutions to address this strategic issue and launched, in 2010, the UK Electronic Skills Foundation (UKESF, www.ukesf.org).

This collaborative initiative was instigated and is led by NMI. With financial support from industry, BIS and Semta, UKESF is established as an independent charity, working with NMI, industrial participants and 11 university partners to:
• Interest secondary school students in careers in this industry through a specifically developed project
• Attract more of the brightest young people to study Electrical and Electronic Engineering degrees
• Develop an industrial scholarship program that provides undergraduates with work experience through vacations and a better understanding of the needs of industry.

But that's not enough. We also realise that home grown graduates cannot fill all our skills needs immediately and that's why we petitioned the Migration Advisory Committee to ensure they recognised the skills shortages affecting our industry. Fortunately, it accepted the evidence and made recommendations to the Home Office that have led to a number of Electronic Engineering jobs being placed on the shortage occupation list, reducing bureaucracy and making it simpler for companies to recruit and retain international engineering talent here in the UK.

You may be sceptical about trade associations – indeed, many of us were when we were in your position. But NMI doesnn't just talk about challenges facing the industry, it responds actively and takes them on. Today, it has more than 250 members and is looking to build a bigger, stronger and influential community. We invite you to get behind our collective mission to drive the innovation agenda and keep the UK at the forefront of design, development and delivery of electronic systems. How? It's simple – join and take part.

NMI
NMI is the trade association representing the UK electronic systems, microelectronics and semiconductor communities.

Its objective is to aid the development of a sustainable, world-leading industry by building a strong network and acting as a catalyst and facilitator for commercial and technological development.

A not for profit organisation funded by its members, NMI is the home for a membership that spans the supply chain and includes electronic systems design and manufacturing companies, integrated device manufacturers, fabless semiconductor manufacturers, semiconductor foundries, semiconductor suppliers, electronic design services, intellectual property providers, research and academic institutions, national and regional government agencies.

Dr Derek Boyd is chief executive of the NMI.

Author
Dr Derek Boyd

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