Herding cats?

4 min read

Are our industry associations moving in the same direction or is it still each for itself?

Industry bodies probably came off worst when the Electronics Innovation and Growth Team (EIGT) published its report in December 2004. They were effectively dismissed as little more than talking shops. The EIGT found more than 30 organisations in the electronics value chain and saw 'no rationale' for the range and diversity of those bodies. Few of the companies the EIGT talked with believed trade associations offered value for money; others saw the choice of trade association bewildering, preferring to join none rather than several. What was needed, the EIGT believed, was 'strong leadership and vision', 'an industry wide alliance' and something that allowed 'powerful influence on Government policy'. Alongside recommending the establishment of the ELC, the EIGT said there should be a UK Electronics Alliance. 'This should', it contended, 'work in a way that builds and sustains trust across all parts of the industry …'. Derek Boyd is chairman of the UK Electronics Alliance (UKEA), an umbrella organisation with 10 constituent bodies. He said progress towards achieving the targets outlined in the EIGT report had been slow. "I don't think politics is the problem," he said, "it's more about organisation, picking up on the things to do and aligning resources." Less charitable observers may compare getting all elements in the electronics industry to pull in the same direction with the herding of cats. Like many others, Boyd puts skills at the top of the 'to do' list. "As an industry," he says, "we're making progress." He points to the sector skills agreement and the electronics skills compact. "There's £2million available to companies in England and Wales," he continued, "and we're beginning to see uptake." UKEA is addressing a number of issues, including: regulation and legislation; skills shortages; supply chain issues, including counterfeit components; sharing best practice; marketing and image building; and public procurement. Roger Rogowski, UKEA executive, said more needed to be done in the area of building the industry's image. "We expect our recruitment programme for the STEM Ambassador scheme should help raise awareness – and the appeal of – electronics as a career among young people," he noted. As far as combating counterfeit components is concerned, Rogowski pointed to the development of an online directory and component database – due to go live shortly. "We are also working to improve detection of shipments at the border and to raise awareness within the supply chain of legal obligations and rights." Boyd sees UKEA as being an ideal focus area for UK electronics. "It's good to bring people together from different parts of the industry," he claimed. But he recognises that, beneath the UKEA umbrella, his members are active in different ways. Boyd wears two hats: alongside his UKEA responsibility, he's also chief executive of the National Microelectronics Institute (NMI), which is a UKEA member. "The NMI is working on two fronts," he claimed. "Firstly, we're looking to ensure a supply of good graduates. Secondly, we're looking to boost high level specialist skills." However, Boyd says it's not a numbers game. "What we need is a smaller number of quality graduates and to get them into employment." Ashley Evans is chief executive of the Electronics Knowledge Transfer Network (EKTN), established following the EIGT's report. "The UKEA has helped to unify the industry, but only 15% of companies join a trade association," he said. "A lot of companies don't engage in networking, so can't learn from each other. The EKTN's role is to fill that gap." He admitted that trade associations had regarded EKTN 'with suspicion' at first. "But we have been reasonably successful, adding 4500 members in just over two years." And he notes that two thirds of these have engaged with the EKTN in some form. Having connected the community, EKTN is now moving onto to working out what it can do to 'make a difference'. "We have clear ideas on what our technology agenda should be," Evans asserted. "We are focusing on issues around electronics design – such as rf and embedded systems – as well as market sectors such as medical devices and autonomous systems." EKTN is also looking to link academia with industry. "We've got business to business working. Now, it's academia to business," he noted. Areas to be exploited here include the Square Kilometre Array. "It's an iconic demonstrator," Evans continued, "and covers every technology area of interest to EKTN." But EKTN will also be working to channel companies into the Grand Challenges, including Batteries Not Included, Building Brains and Silicon Meets Life. However, John Higgins, chief executive of Intellect, believes the industry was 'still in the foothills' when it came to relationships between university R&D and the needs of industry. "There's a lot more that can be done on both sides. Universities could be better at understanding how markets work, while companies could better understand the opportunities which universities represent. We need to create value from our national R&D investment." The Technology Strategy Board (TSB), sitting above the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), also has a role to play. Nick Appleyard, lead technologist for electronics, photonics and electrical systems, pointed to schemes such as Artemis. "The budget was £3million, but we've spent £3.6m. People are putting together proposals and there's strong academic interest." He noted that while companies are still doing development in house, they are now looking for funding assistance. "Lots of SMEs are interested in Artemis, but they wonder how they fit in. The answer is they have to have bigger companies alongside." TSB is now looking to promote more interaction between the various KTNs. "We can help companies to offer solutions to other sectors," Appleyard continued, "and we're finding that interesting things happen in the overlap areas." Higgins believes that, in the future, the UK will be a better place for small, capital intensive, well managed 'tech savvy' companies. "The UK has capacity for innovation," he said. "We are natural pragmatists born out of being a trading nation, so are naturally global. We're well connected into major markets, but have probably been slow in developing relationships in Asia." Has the industry become more coherent? Higgins said that looking for one voice may not be the correct approach. "There's natural complexity in the industry and it's more about the different parts of the ecosystem working together with a common vision. Calls to reduce fragmentation are missing the point; we need to get people behind a common view and get them working for the future." Despite calls for less fragmentation, a new industry body has appeared recently. The Electronic Components Supply Network is aiming to embrace the industry from concept to end of life and, according to chairman Adam Fletcher, the organisation is looking to 'promote positive collaboration throughout the electronic components supply network to benefits members and the economy'. However, Fletcher emphasised that ECSN will complement, rather than compete with, existing trade associations. "Intellect, for example, is a lobbying organisation and we'll be providing information to it. But we don't want to compete with Intellect." So how does Boyd see the current state of industry? "The recession has been a sticky patch, but we haven't seen full scale closures. Companies are hanging in there and will emerge stronger. It's easy to be pessimistic about the future for UK electronics," he concluded, "but why should we?"