The critical issues facing the UK electronics industry

6 min read

Electronics is a challenging sector in which to work. It's certainly a challenging sector when it comes to running a company.

The industry moves at a pretty fast clip; a rate of change which increases as you get closer to the consumer end of the market.

Keeping pace with technology is just one of the daily challenges, but it's not the only one which electronics designers and electronics companies face. What are the 'bumps in the road' which slow companies? What are the factors that affect the industry as a whole? New Electronics asked these questions in its latest Reader Survey and got a range of interesting answers. And the answers form the basis for this special issue of the magazine, addressing what can be termed 'critical issues' for companies and the industry alike.

We asked you about these critical issues in two ways. We offered you a 'tick the box' question, with a number of preselected topics, but also gave you the chance to outline exactly what you saw as the important issues through 'write in' options.

The results from the 'tick the box' question can be seen in fig 1. Here, R&D and access to technology were the two 'hot topics'. But when we asked for the one issue which was important to you, the picture was slightly different.

Asked about the one critical issue affecting the electronics industry, by far the most popular reply was focused on business issues (56%). Skills concerned 14% of responders and competition/regulation worried 11% of you.

However, the picture changed when we asked about the one issue affecting the company at which you work. Still most popular were answers relating to business issues (26%), but skills (24%) and the supply chain (19%) were perceived to be more important factors (see fig 2).

New Electronics will be taking a look at the broader business issues in a later publication, but one theme within these answers related to new product introduction (NPI) and getting products to market quickly. These themes are a major focus of this special issue of New Electronics, along with articles addressing supply chain/obsolescence and skills.

It's a people business

Whether you take an industry or a company based view, skills remains a bone of contention. From an industry perspective, readers are worried about where the next generation of electronic engineers will come from. When they look at things as they affect their company, readers see an ageing workforce and an inability to recruit the staff they need.

John Boston, managing director of Custom Interconnect (CIL) and a contributor to the Manufacturing section of this issue, believes: "The under investment in engineers of the future in the 1980s is now impacting the sector." You suspect he won't have too many people arguing with him.

Here's what one reader said: "My company is very fortunate to have skilled and experienced engineers who use common sense; these people are a scarce resource. We need to encourage and educate people to get involved in engineering and manufacturing."

Another comment related to the status of engineers. "It's very hard work to study the subject yet, when you qualify, all too often in the UK you find the status and earning potential are more akin to someone who fixes broken domestic appliances. Whilst this is changing, it is hard to ignore basic human nature; if you can earn a lot more money/status from a lot less effort, we shouldn't be too surprised that the number of engineering graduates is falling."

Efforts to redress the falling number of undergraduates are underway. While the UK Electronics Skills Foundation (UKESF) already targets those who have elected to study electronics, it is also focusing efforts on those who have yet to make a choice.

Dr Wendy Daniell, UKESF manager, said: "The problem from the employer's perspective was – and still is – they can't source enough quality graduates."

Looking to encourage A level students to select electronics as a career, UKESF is working with the Engineering Development Trust to deliver summer schools before the point where students make decisions about degree courses.

"We've moved into a new phase," said Dr Daniell, "in which we're looking to encourage younger students to think about engineering as a career. To support this, we've developed a series of project challenges for 12 to 14 year olds."

UKESF held its third annual Summer School recently at Imperial College London, sponsored by ARM, CSR, Dialog Semiconductor and Imagination Technologies. The four day course for A level and Scottish Higher students features design competitions, lectures and lab sessions, looking to inspire attendees to consider electronics as a career.

"But we need more employers to participate in this programme to secure the industry's future and we invite interested parties to contact us to find out more," said Dr Daniell.

Boston is hopeful for the future: "While we have to deal with the current conditions, there is good news for future generations. With the financial crisis and resulting economic conditions highlighting the need for the UK to rebalance its economy, we are now seeing real signs that bright young people once more see a future in engineering and manufacturing."

While UKESF is looking to the future, there still remains the issue of skills amongst today's engineers.

This is one opinion from the survey: "We have a shortage of skilled employees. But it's not just skills we need; we need people that are committed to the business and their careers, people who are prepared to put in what it takes to achieve success."

As technology gets more complex, engineers need to increase their skill levels. One way of doing this is through Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

"We don't stop learning," says Dick Bacon, the IET's manager of Professional Development, "and CPD is quickly becoming the recognised way of making sure our professional competence can be demonstrated throughout our careers. The practice has become more widespread in recent years as both individuals and companies begin to realise the value of good CPD practice."

Working with the chain

UK design companies are working more closely with the distribution sector than ever before. More than 40% of components are now supplied by authorised distributors, compared to 25% a decade ago. Distributors are also gaining more responsibility for demand creation and customer support.

Despite this, our survey threw up a number of issues, ranging from getting practical advice on new technologies to dealing with unpredictability of supply. One reader said: "Access to innovative electronic components that have a stable future is critical to my company."

Solutions to these issues can often be found by working more closely with distribution specialists. But the supply chain isn't just distributors; a range of other companies are there to support companies through the design cycle.

But one theme is less easy to solve – obsolescence. It's a growing problem, with manufacturers moving products out of production much earlier than before.

Here's some of the comments:

"Obsolescence is the main problem I deal with, especially on products that are a few years old."

"It's a critical issue for us to guarantee that components are available for the intended lifetime of a product."

"Obsolescence; specifying a mainstream part today which could become obsolete in 12 months."

And a consequence of obsolescence is counterfeiting.

"Counterfeit components are a critical issue," said one reader. "They are recycled, remarked or just 'wrong'."

Stuart Kelly, chair of the Component Obsolescence Group, discusses the area. "More companies are realising they have a risk and understand they need to do something about that risk. While military projects were an early driver of obsolescence management, COG is now dealing with issues in the oil and gas, rail and nuclear industries, amongst others. These industries face the same issues, as do any with long life projects."

If components become unavailable, a redesign – often costly – may be needed. "Being a small design team, it takes time to make changes," commented a reader.

When it comes to counterfeiting, Kelly said: "Obsolescence drives counterfeiting; it's a high risk area and managers looking for alternative products need to be careful."

Tools are available to guide designers and procurement managers through a potential minefield, but counterfeiting remains an issue and it is a case of 'caveat emptor'.

Getting it to market

Designing your product is one thing; getting it to market on time and within budget is another. With outsourcing now the rule, rather than the exception, most design companies will be working with a partner from the EMS community.

Here's what you said.

"We have to compete with the Far East on price and quality."

"Our problem is getting designs right first time and to market in the shortest possible time."

"We need to compete with emerging countries."

"We need to balance high demand with a lengthy production cycle."

So should you partner with a specialist? John Moylan, process engineering manager with Flextronics in Cork, should know. "The question is not who does it, but who does it best. However, cost is not the only driver. Manufacturing processes and execution contribute significantly to product quality and with it to both revenue and reputation."

Outsourcing of design is a newer idea, but growing in popularity. Sometimes, it can help to smooth the workload; other times, it can bring specialist skills. It doesn't imply outsourcing the whole project, however. Marc Lafferty, managing director of Acal BFi UK, noted: "The underlying trend is based on customers focusing on their core competencies and working with trusted partners to provide solutions around these competencies."

But the partner doesn't have to be in the Far East. One of the workstreams contributing to the recently published ESCO Report (Electronic Systems Challenges and Opportunities) examined the issue of manufacturing. Its conclusions? Manufacturing is healthy in the UK, adding high value and securing brand value. Many of those who have offshored have brought manufacturing back to the UK, the report notes, but recognise the cost of manufacture in the UK is still and issue.

"Companies making highly differentiated or high added value products," the report notes, "find locating their manufacturing in the UK of great technical benefit which can offset the increased cost."

CIL's Boston suggests the transition is underway. "There is currently a tangible move within the UK [for design and production engineers] to work together to put UK manufacturing and its products back on the world map," he notes. "The real secret to truly world beating products is when you can get these two departments to work together."

Our industry sees many issues as 'critical'. The good news is there are many solutions to the issues available.