03 November 2010

Oulook 2011: Challenges on the agenda

How a challenge based approach is set to solve problems in 2011 and beyond.

The ESP KTN integrates the work of the Electronics, Sensors, Photonics and Plastic Electronics KTNs, that have been merged to provide synergy and collaborative opportunities for business development and engagement with academia.

Key objectives for our programme are networking, collaboration and establishing new partnerships to bid for R&D projects and UK and international funding.

Electronic technologies and science are a vital corner of the ESP triangle: key for the development of innovative solutions to meet our challenge led agenda and delivered through our Electronics Knowledge Centre by our partner, the Electronics Technology Network (formerly the Electronics KTN).

Despite the recent economic uncertainty, we see significant emerging opportunities; not least in the areas of power conversion, MEMs, medical and healthcare, RF Technologies, Embedded Design and 'big iconic science' projects, such as the Square Kilometre Array.

Across the ESP's research and development fields, we know that we already have some undisputedly world class academic research institutions for Electronic and Electrical Engineering and we recognise the potential still to be realised through improved performance to commercialise this work for the benefit of the UK.

Our job is to bring together the multidisciplinary aspects needed to develop innovative products or systems that meet opportunities and solve problems; hence our 'challenge led' agenda.

Building on success
The KTNs have done a fantastic job building their networks of contacts and though we will continue to seek out and encourage new members in our technology sectors, we have a real opportunity to capitalise on the networks we have by reaching out to new contacts. The big pay-off comes as we do more and more to link problem owners – be they architects, doctors or whoever – with solution providers in the UK. Engaging 'demand' and 'supply' is what we're all about.

To guide us in this, we have selected five themes corresponding to national and international initiatives. Each of these depends on ESP technologies – with electronics underpinning all of them. Considering the general electronic and photonics technologies, around 10% of the gross value-add in the UK economies is attributable to these communities, which employ about 6% of the workforce.

Electricity for the future
This challenge is about both generating electricity and creating devices that use less of it. This encompasses PV technologies new and old, of course, but increasingly there is demand for power convertors: the feed-in tariff in the UK stimulated power convertor demand to such an extent that many UK installations couldn't be used in the summer of 2010 owing to a shortage of the single source of these … from Germany.

The increasing use of mixed ac/dc supplies and devices has really moved the spotlight onto this area and there's a real opportunity to build some UK supply chains. The need for lower power consumption devices is also interesting and not just from a 'green' point of view– users of hand-held and portable devices want to see longer battery life and more functionality.

Connected world
Back in 1985, the fledgling internet was connecting only about 1000 hosts worldwide and there were a mere 300,000 mobile phone subscribers across the globe. Ten years later, the term 'internet of things' was first used by Kevin Ashton in describing the potential for improved logistics supply chains through the use of tiny, low-cost rfid tags. It was Birmingham-born Ashton who cofounded the Auto-ID Center at MIT, which created the first global standard system for rfid.

Switch to today and the internet links billions of people through computers and it is forecast that there will be at least 5billion mobile phone subscribers by the end of 2010. During this brief period of history, technology has enabled the building of infrastructure and devices that connect not only people and computers, but also objects, machines, vehicles, goods and cities. Electronics innovation is key to our vision of a future internet based on standard communication protocols that will see the merging of computers, media, services and things into a common IT platform.

We are starting to see the evolution from the internet of things into a truly connected world. Simple decisions directly affecting our lives will soon be taken by a variety of previously unlinked devices and objects: but when are these ideas useful and what is the real market opportunity for UK companies?

Smart moves
Moving people and goods around is expensive and time-consuming: what are the opportunities to make vehicles better, their exploitation more efficient – and what can we do to reduce the need for them? The ESP is working closely with the Transport KTN and the Modern Built Environment KTN to pull out the challenges – and to ensure that UK companies' capabilities are properly understood in an environment where much of the innovation is falsely assumed to come from the Far East.

Quality of life
This theme encompasses the obvious medical applications, but includes the wider issues concerning all manner of aspects of life – access to food and water, accessibility and so on. Many of the opportunities here include opportunities to meld sensor and electronic technologies in novel ways and the range of expertise now included in the ESP KTN greatly facilitates this.

Secure world
Amongst all of the defence related activities – which remain a sizeable market in the UK – there is a newly emerging awareness of civil resilience.

There is an interest in providing systems to better protect our critical national infrastructure, improve our resilience, protect our crowded places and improve detection of explosives and chemical, biological, radiation and neurological threats. Upgrading of communications and surveillance systems are also integral to the work of law enforcement and security and intelligence services. And, finally, technology also improves our ability to manage our response following an incident.

Knowledge base support
We recognise that not everything fits within a challenge theme and we want to ensure that there is always a route for low technology readiness level ideas and technologies to feed into the innovation pipeline. Also, there are some underpinning interest areas, such as imaging, which span many disciplines and in which it's really useful to collect together different people to share experience and application needs.

A web community with reach
Some of the best outcomes that can be achieved by a network happen when people who don't usually meet get together: which is the key to why we are taking this more 'challenge led' approach; reaching out to new contacts who have problems to solve and bringing this information back the technology communities with which we work. A helpful step in increasing our reach has been the creation of the new web platform for all of the KTNs to share. This is not being delivered in the traditional style, but is more along the lines of a mySpace for technologists. All KTNs are using the site and its structure is emphatically more Web 2.0, with the encouragement of user generated content.

An immediate pay-off for this is the way that it is now easy to find links and contacts across the whole KTN spectrum. Signing up to the KTNs is free and once you have done so it is very quick to join any group in any KTN that is of interest.

Steve Welch is chief executive of ESPKTN/ UK Electronics

Steve Welch

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UK Electronics Ltd

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