26 July 2010
Flower of Scotland - UK Electronics Scotland
Scottish electronics has transformed into a range of competent, world class companies.
Scotland, like Wales, was one of the main beneficiaries of inward investment in the 1970s and 1980s. Not only did a number of semiconductor manufacturers set up in Scotland, there were also pc manufacturers and a range of contract electronics manufacturers.
At one point, the old Compaq plant in Erskine was producing more pcs per day than any other facility in the world. But the bubble burst and much of the manufacturing activity has gone elsewhere, although ems companies such as Jabil and Plexus remain. In its place is a thriving electronics design and development sector. Alongside such familiar names as National Semiconductor, Freescale and Wolfson, are newer names such as Design LED, Optos and Elonics. And semiconductor manufacturing is still undertaken by National Semiconductor and by Semefab, a main centre for MEMS and nanotechnology development.
Gerry Watt, chief executive of Electronics Scotland, said the origins of the Scottish electronics industry lay in the defence business – companies such as Barr & Stroud and Ferranti. "Today, there are many thousands of people involved in high tech industry – design, manufacture, pcb assembly, electronics assembly and the whole supply chain."
One of the continuing Scottish success stories is its optoelectronics industry, based on research performed in universities such as Strathclyde. "There have been quite a few spin outs from two or three universities," said Watt, "some of which have been very successful."
An example was Microlase Optical Systems, which developed and product solid state and diode pumped solid state lasers. Now part of Coherent, the business had what Watt described as a 'fantastic year' in 2009, largely due to the security plans of the Obama administration in the US.
A more recent success story is the deal announced earlier this month establishing mLED as a vehicle to commercialise its research into GaN based micropixellated arrays.
Simon Andrews, business development manager at Strathclyde's Institute of Photonics, said: "The Institute recognised some time ago that microLEDs were a very promising area of technology and considerable research investment was made by public sources while we continued to develop the equipment. Research in new areas will carry on and we look forward to working with mLED in bringing this advancing technology to rapidly expanding marketplaces."
Meanwhile, Strathclyde is leading SU2P, a venture between academic institutions in Scotland and California aimed at extracting economic impact from their joint research portfolio in photonics and related technologies.
The three year programme is designed to create new businesses in Scotland and to reinforce industry links by offering businesses in the UK and the US a platform for exploring new prospects for translating university research into commercial opportunity.
"Another area of specialism is sensors," Watt pointed out, "but that word alone doesn't really tell you very much about what's going on."
A sensors network is in the process of being established in Scotland to link its broad range of sensor companies. "Work in this sector is about to take off," Watt predicted.
Some of the sensor work could be seen as more traditional in nature; Thales' (the inheritor of the Barr & Stroud mantle) work on optical and infrared sensors and Selex' work in rf are examples, as is NCR's work with cash machines. "Honeywell has helped to set up a degree course at the University of the West of Scotland," Watt continued, "addressing sensor design; how to convert the technology into real products. The devices that are being designed in Scotland range from traditional thermostats to systems that are part of the landing gear of passenger aircraft."
One initiative which could be seen as a blot on Scotland's technology heritage is the Alba Centre. Established in the late 1990s, the Alba Centre was intended to transform Scotland from a 'screwdriver' economy into one of the electronics hot spots in Europe. But timing, amongst other issues, was wrong and Alba Centre is today a shadow of what it might have been.
But Alba does house innovative technology businesses, as well as being home for the Institute for System Level Integration (iSLI), a partnership between leading Scottish universities.
Elonics, a current Alba Centre tenant, recently introduced a reference design for multistandard tv and radio reception in conjunction with comms specialist Realtek. This design, featuring its E4000 cmos rf tuner, allows the device in which it is used to be reconfigured. Not only does it has low power consumption (650mW fully active), but the low component count also brings low production costs.
Another Alba tenant is Design LED Products. It believes that new lighting technologies that support more sophisticated user interfaces and persuasive branding are critical for OEMs seeking to differentiate high tech products in increasingly competitive markets.
Design LED's solution is a 'light guide sandwich', comprising a flexible pcb, side emitting leds and printed light guides and an upper graphic. This allows designers to create thin layers of light or illuminated graphics on the outer surface of their product. Printed light guide technology allows designers to create segmented patterns of light in a choice of colours – or even continuously changing colours.
Founded in 1998, iSLI was one of the Alba Centre's first tenants. It was the first centre of excellence to concentrate on postgraduate education and research in the methodology and applications of SoC design, system level integration and related software and hardware technologies. Mark Begbie, iSLI director, said: "In the early days, there was a strong focus on teaching support because there was a need to deliver trained engineers. Today, we have a broader interest. Alongside delivering engineers, we're offering other services, such as consulting and technology transfer."
Away from the Alba Centre, Optos is developing a reputation as a leading provider of retinal diagnostics equipment based on its wide field imaging technology.
According to the company, eye and non eye diseases often first exhibit in the periphery of the retina and these signs are difficult to detect with conventional examination equipment and techniques. Optos' devices image approximately 82% of the retina, providing optometrists and ophthalmologists with enhanced clinical information. That scan takes just 0.25s.
Optos has a range of devices that support different customer segments and patient levels: the P200 device is concentrated on wellness screening carried out by optometrists and ophthalmologists in primary care; the P200C device is designed for more exacting clinical imaging in secondary care; while the P200MA supports retinal specialists.
Part of Scotland's manufacturing heritage, Semefab makes microelectronics and MEMS products, supplying wafers, die and packaged devices. Through its volume foundry business and product commercialisation business models, Semefab can support customers through the full technology cycle and into volume.
Alongside its fab, Semefab also supports wafer and package test. Of the 100million die produced a year, more than 60% of products are exported. And National Semiconductor is investing in Greenock, rather than in the US.
Summing up, Watt said: "There is a backbone of defence companies which have been in Scotland for decades, as well as a range of competent small companies, many of which are world class in their outlook."