Outlook 2014: UK companies push to be at the forefront of their fields

4 min read

Trying to divine the future – even things only a year out – is a risky business. Nevertheless, we all try it at one time or another. Trying to perceive the future of electronics is at the riskier end of the spectrum. While we have a good idea of where process technology is headed and what devices might be made on those processes, we have a much hazier view of the applications which those devices might enable.

In the introduction to Outlook 2013, we talked about Moore's Law and how process technologies continued to be developed that enabled the number of transistors in a given area to double every 18 months. While the industry is just about on track to move to the next node, the challenges are mounting. And where they were once more process related, today's problems are very much materials based. It's a development that has seen the acronym laden world of electronics having to recognise a range of obscure chemical symbols and abbreviated names of compounds. Things like TDMATi, PDMATa and TBTDETa don't trip off the tongue, but the use of these organometallic compounds is now an important step along the way to depositing the ultra thin layers of compounds such as HfO2 to make the gate electrodes on 20nm devices. But it seems that silicon has only a few years left before the progress demanded by Moore's Law cannot be provided. What then? Graphene is stealing many of today's headlines and is receiving significant funding around the world. Europe has just opened its Graphene Flagship, likely to receive €1billion in funding over the next decade and in Manchester, the National Graphene Institute is home to 120 researchers from around the UK. What about nanotubes? We've recently seen the first computing device featuring 178 transistors made from carbon nanotubes. Ultra low electron mobility and low leakage are just two factors making nanotubes a potential replacement for silicon. The challenges get larger, the dimensions get smaller and the investment becomes immense. Aart de Geus, Synopsys' chairman, has seen a few things in the 27 years since he founded the EDA company. He talks in this issue about helping electronics companies to 'catch the train' towards the next market opportunity. It's part of what he's been describing over the last year or so as 'techonomics' – where technology and economics combine to fuel demand for more capable, less expensive consumer devices. New devices 'push' companies to develop more sophisticated products, which 'pull' demand from consumers for even more exotic devices. EDA has traditionally been the enabler for the chips, but it's more than that today; helping the integration of complex IP blocks and the development of software. EDA, says de Geus, is now all about dealing with complexity and making sure the 'push' of technology and the 'pull' of applications help to build even more capable products. Moving to the centre of our focus is this nebulous 'Internet of Things'. In many people's opinion, recent growth in the embedded market may well be dwarfed by the build out of the Internet of Things (IoT). The size of the IoT varies, depending upon who you talk to, but there could be 50bn devices connected by 2020, with applications ranging from smart metering to connected homes to industrial automation. If this is to happen, there will need to be more capable, less expensive components. There will need to be more sophisticated connectivity; whether over the traditional GSM network or via emerging technologies such as Weightless. And there will need to be sensors everywhere. Development of the wireless connectivity and the sensors required play to a UK skill: analogue design. There is also the opportunity for analogue capability to be integrated into digital devices. These integrated devices will sense, control, actuate and communicate with the analogue world in which we live while consuming less power and operating more efficiently. Chips, as we still fondly call them, are made by a relatively few companies. Products are made by a significantly larger number. How can these companies – often small, but with good ideas – be supported as they try to grow? This area has been in the spotlight over the last couple of years as the industry looks to reassert itself. The recently published 'Electronic Systems: Challenges and Opportunities' report lays out a way forward for an industry that has traditionally hidden its light under a bushel. The ESCO Report says the electronic systems (ES) sector contributes £78billion to the UK's economy and employs 850,000 people directly and indirectly. But the opportunity is there, it believes, to boost the GDP contribution to £120bn and employment to more than 1million people by 2020. It thinks this can be done by building recognition of the sector, accelerating growth in the vertical market sectors through the use of electronic systems developed in the UK, and developing and exploiting the capabilities of UK electronic systems companies. Target vertical markets include the smart grid, smart healthcare and smart transport. 'Smart' is the keyword. Delivering these goals won't be easy, but there are a number of trade associations and similar bodies looking to assist. NMI, for one, says that as an active member of the ESCO Council, its job is to make sure it delivers on the opportunities through encouraging innovation, improving engineering efficiency; upporting skills development and representing and promoting the industry. techUK, the new name for Intellect, is also involved in the effort. It believes open innovation is a growing business phenomenon which will help entrepreneurs become successful globally. One interesting trend it sees is how 'global brands' are looking to small companies to give them the 'edge' they need to stay at the top. And it believes the UK's reputation for designing and manufacturing complex products – its knack for creativity – will play well here. A related strand is PowerelectronicsUK, enabled by NMI, but looking to build on the UK's existing strengths. It's a sector that's also looking to grow its contribution to the UK's GDP beyond the £100bn mark. This effort is being underpinned by significant investment from EPSRC to create a National Centre for Power Electronics; focusing academic research towards development of devices, components, converters and drives. Common to all sectors is the need for skills: not only more engineers, but also more capable. One academic has said that, based on an increase of 2.4% per year in head count and factoring in retirements, UK industry needs double the number of engineering graduates. It's not something which will be solved overnight; efforts need to start with young school students. But one of the things which industry can do is to make itself more attractive to potential employees. Not every engineering graduate will want to take up a career in engineering, but it is incumbent upon companies to make sure as many as possible do. Will the UK's electronics sector rise to the various challenges? In some instances, it's too early to tell. But with the support of Government and industry initiatives and with a range of opportunities available, there's every chance for UK companies to be at the forefront of the markets they address.