Outlook 2014: Growing the UK's power electronics sector

4 min read

The UK is one of the leading players in the field of power electronics. It's a sector which contributes more than £50billion to the UK's GDP and which supports – directly and indirectly – 500,000 jobs in 25,000 companies. And it has the opportunity to take an even bigger share of the global market, estimated to be worth $135bn a year and to be growing at 10% per annum. If the sector's development meets expectations, UK power electronics companies could be contributing more than £100bn a year to the economy.

Looking to build momentum and to increase employment, the industry, government and academia have come together to create PowerelectronicsUK, a forum enabled by NMI. At the launch of the forum earlier in 2013, Steve Burgin, recently appointed Alstom's vp of sales for northern and central Europe, said: "It's an eye opener to appreciate how important power electronics is to everything we do in the UK; it's like a gold nugget." A review of the power electronics sector was published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in 2011. Essentially, the report concluded the sector 'could do better' and PowerelectronicsUK is the body which is intended to drive the industry forward. One of the issues highlighted in the BIS report was the sector's lack of cohesion and representation. But it also pointed to another two issues of concern: keeping the UK at the forefront of innovative power electronics design and manufacture; and the need to ensure a continuing supply of power electronics engineers. PowerelectronicsUK is looking to address these issues, with the aim of ensuring that the UK is recognised as a world leader in power electronics, is creating jobs and attracting investment. It's understandable that power electronics in the UK lacks cohesion when you consider the definition of the sector developed by PowerelectronicsUK – 'semiconductor devices which perform an energy switching/conditioning function, together with associated circuitry, including passives and energy storage, and higher level power management, including signalling and control systems'. Put more simply, it's about electronics applied to the control and conversion of electrical power. And things are made more complex by the sector not only involving cross cutting technologies, but also its multidisciplinary nature. Dr Paul Taylor, chief executive of Dynex Semiconductor and vice chair of PowerelectronicsUK, believes that, while things are in good shape today, there is room for improvement. "Innovation is in good shape," he said, "with disruptive technologies such as GaN, SiC and diamond well funded. R&D expenditure is high compared with other industries and the innovation ecosystem is healthy. But the UK's power electronics sector needs more support, otherwise it might miss out." Dr Taylor says 'power is everywhere'. "It covers the whole gamut and technology can spread from one sector to another. While the basic principles are similar, we want to encourage more sharing of 'know how' between sectors." He also pointed out the UK has a 'huge' legacy in power electronics and a lot of current activity. "There's investment in the semiconductor end of the business; companies such as Dynex, International Rectifier and NXP, supported by sets of academic research. Even those in the power electronics industry are surprised when they stand back and look at what's going on in our universities." Professor Mark Johnson from the University of Nottingham gave an indication of the academic activity. "There are 31 higher education institutes in the UK with established power electronics research activity, with a community of more than 550 researchers. It's strength in depth and the work is covering most topics." PowerelectronicsUK's ambitions are being supported by an £18million investment by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which has established a National Centre of Excellence for Power Electronics. The investment will be in the form of a series of grants, each involving a number of universities. A central coordinating hub, led by Prof Johnson, will be accompanied by four technical programmes addressing devices, components, converters and drives. EPSRC chief executive Professor David Delpy said: "This £18m six year research initiative is part of EPSRC's response to BIS' Strategy for Power Electronics in the UK." Despite being an enabler for other industries, power electronics relies on a range of other technologies. In fact, PowerelectronicsUK's technology working group has identified 42 critical areas – ranging from semiconductors and passives to manufacturing and test. Of these, 10 technology challenges have been set – six semiconductor related and four systems related. Semiconductor related functions include the development of higher voltage devices with lower on state losses, higher switching frequencies, better integration and reliability and better thermal management. When it comes to system targets, the working group has identified heat conductors, reliability management, sensors and advanced converter topologies. Devices and systems developed to meet these challenges will be suitable for application in four target areas: energy; automotive and transport; aerospace; and consumer products. Underlying all the objectives of PowerelectronicsUK is the need to attract more employees into the sector. Professor Bill Drury from the University of Bristol, believes the sector could increase direct employment by 20% over the next few years, to a potential 100,000 jobs. But this needs to be part of a wider focus on engineering. Prof Drury outlined the scale of the problem. "It's an industry with a diverse range of companies; from big internationals to SMEs; and smaller companies have different needs to larger companies, who can invest more." He said that if you're trying to recruit skilled power engineers, there's a shortage. "Based on an increase in demand of only 2.4% a year and factoring in the need to replace retirees, we will need to double the number of engineering graduates. And the position is worse for the power electronics sector, where the number of graduates will need to be tripled." At the launch of PowerelectronicsUK, Alsthom's Burgin illustrated the problem. "We currently have vacancies for 200 power engineers," he claimed. David Willetts, minister for universities and science, believes power electronics is a very important sector of the UK economy. "I welcome the creation of this forum," he said. "But a crucial part of the delivery is getting all groups together." He noted the Government had a 'clear understanding' of how much progress can be made if leading players are brought together and pointed to such bodies as the Automotive Council and the Space Leadership Council, both of which have been established to move their sectors forward. "Power electronics is an enabler for all vertical markets," he added, "but we need to remember it's a cross cutting technology." Dr Taylor noted a great deal of work has already been done to get PowerelectronicsUK to its current position. "But there is a great deal more to be done." How can you contribute? PowerelectronicsUK invites all interested companies to join the organisation. Free to join, the Forum requires only that members are committed to growing the UK's power electronics sector. To find out more about PowerelectronicsUK and to participate in its activities, contact alastair.mcgibbon@nmi.org.uk or join the PowerelectronicsUK group on LinkedIn. More information, including a downloadable capability directory, is also available at www.power-electronics.org.uk.