Electronics, the UK’s vital spark

Posted on 17 Mar 2015 by Ruari McCallion

The UK’s electronics business is relatively small but it’s a big hitter. It has developed a global reputation for high quality, specialist equipment and solutions, and its leading lights have plans to greatly increase its size by 2020. Ruari McCallion reports.

Rosetta and Philae at the comet
Rosetta and Philae at the comet

The electronics industry in the UK is not very big, by global standards, but it has a pretty long reach.

“We were the first company to take a photo of a comet in deep space,” said Roger Pittock, outreach engineer with e2v, which is based in Chelmsford.

He was referring to the Rosetta satellite mission, which succeeded in placing the Philae lander on comet 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in Autumn 2014.

While the whereabouts of Philae may not be currently known for certain, there is no doubt about the importance of the UK to European Space Agency (ESA) projects, including Mars Express and Rosetta.

The satellite itself was designed and ultimately assembled at Airbus Defence & Space (ADS) in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. E2v supplied imaging equipment and collaborated with partners in developing appropriate control systems.

“The imager is similar in concept to the camera you have on your mobile phone,” said Pittock, but he points out that my smartphone camera would not survive even a rocket launch, never mind a ten and a half year trip through space, experiencing temperatures that swing from +200C to -150C, as well as radiation, dust, debris and everything else the cosmos can throw at a small assembly of metal, optics and electronics as it flew through the solar system.

Rosetta imaging sensor
The Rosetta imaging sensor created by UK tech company, e2V.

Ten UK companies were involved in Rosetta. Imaging instruments were made by Chelmsford-headquartered e2v. Stabilisation of the lander during its descent was provided by an ultra-low power momentum wheel developed by Surrey Satellite Technologies Ltd and the lithium-ion batteries were developed and produced by ABSL Space Products of Oxfordshire.

The tiny chemical analysis instrument in the miniature Ptolemy laboratory was designed and built in the UK by RAL Space, the Open University and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Airbus Defence and Space (ADS) was a major contractor for the spacecraft platform; European Space Tribology Laboratory (ESTL) was involved in the development of mechanical systems and designed and supplied the lubricant for an atomic force microscope.

Moog developed the helium storage tanks for the Ptolemy instrument and supplied specialist valves. SciSys developed the ground control software systems along with highly specialised systems for flybys, the comet approach and the landing itself; and Telespazio VEGA developed the mission training simulator and co-developed various sub-systems.

But all that was in what is the dim and distant past for electronics. The Rosetta Mission was first mooted in the early 1990s, ESA agreed the mission in 1993 and the design was essentially complete by 1997.

Construction began in January 1999 and, three-and-a-half years later, Rosetta was ready for launch – which took place another two years or so later, in 1995.

Electronics Worth UK GDPToday’s electronics industry in the UK presents a very much different landscape. Twenty years ago semiconductor manufacturer Newport Wafer-Fab Ltd, in South Wales, was looked to as the future of advanced electronics in the UK; three years later it was in administration, its business model ruined by a downturn in the market and by the rise of lower-cost manufacturers in the Far East.

A game of two halves

“Chip manufacturing is now mostly in Taiwan but there is still a lot of electronic manufacturing in the UK,” said Derek Wallis, programme director with Cambridge Consultants.

The industry is now definitely split in two: low-volume, local suppliers occupying particular niches, and very high-end and advanced technical businesses with a global reach.

While 14 of the world’s top 20 semiconductor companies have established design and/or manufacturing operations in the UK, the needs of the higher-end have led to less outsourcing, so it is inevitable that the supply chain will look a bit emaciated.

Electronics Workforce UK“Avionics in the UK, for example, tends to be conducted in-house because of the need for traceability and process control,” said Wallis. Security is paramount. He cited the example of a company based in one of the country’s regions that is working in the medical sector.

The need for security is such that it cannot even be identified and something like the ‘Grey Market’ that is found in other industries is a definite anathema. The UK has some very good manufacturers and they don’t even have to be super-advanced in technology.

“Their niche can be about service – fast response and the ability to turn orders round quickly,” he said. Or it could be about accumulated expertise and technology. Eaton Ltd, based in Fareham, Hants, makes pumps, pump systems and other equipment for a range of aircraft, from the Airbus A380 and Boeing Dreamliner to the Eurofighter Typhoon.

It was recently announced that Eaton’s digital fuel gauging technology has been selected for Gulfstream’s G500 and G600 business jets. These represent highly advanced technology and the UK’s strength in the electronics sector is that it has expertise and a pool of knowledge that is deep and extends across different sectors.

A question of scale

Electronics PQ“There is still wafer manufacturing in the UK but it is at the high-tech end,” said Wallis. What we do not have is massive scale. “Without huge facilities you will not get volume business. Wafer manufacturing is not commoditized as such but scale is challenging.”

What we do have is design capability, which suits both ends of the operation. “The amount of capital required for manufacturing is huge; design’s needs are very much smaller.”

There is a lot of talk about the Internet of Things, or Industry 4.0, and the UK’s strength and history in design, from games to aerospace, would seem to make it an ideal place to look for the ideas that will take industry forward, would it not? Maybe, maybe not.

“My view is that we are still searching for the ‘killer app’, the thing that makes you wonder how you ever did without it,” he said. “Various schemes are available to, for example, control central heating when you’re out. Or you can start your media player, or activate your webcam from anywhere in the house – but it is a bit ‘so what?’

The idea for the killer app may come from the UK – but it will probably be built somewhere else.” One of the hurdles to developing a ‘killer’ Internet of Things app is the cost of entry and IBM and ARM may have come up with the route to get over that.

As for building things elsewhere, the loss of IP that had become so bad that it was becoming viewed as a cost of doing business is becoming better controlled, Wallis believes. “We are becoming much savvier and separating things out,” he said.

“In consumer durables, for example, the people who make the product cannot provide the service. Take Internet radio; you need a portal provider and they won’t deal with you if you have a reputation for ripping people off.”

The Internet of Things may be the transformational technology of the decade but it needs to be more accessible. ARM thinks it has the answer.

In November 2014, Zebra Technologies Corporation announced the results of a survey that appeared to demonstrate that the majority of businesses are either thinking about or are actively deploying the Internet of Things (IoT) as part of their business strategy.

When Zebra undertook a similar study in 2012 it found that 15% of firms had an IoT solution in place; that number had risen to 25% in 2014. In the UK, no less than 60% of surveyed businesses have already deployed IoT solutions and a further 30% said that they were intending to do so in the following 12 months.

Among the key findings were that Wi-Fi, real-time tracking, and security sensors are important elements of IoT solutions, and that ‘improved customer experience’ is the top benefit that IoT can help to deliver.

However, until there is a ‘killer app’ then it may be the case that the Internet of Things will not be taken to heart. Where will the killer app come from? It may come from the research labs of major companies but true adoption, across the board and reaching into the smallest operations, depends on accessibility – and access has, hitherto, been dependent on cost.

The ARM/IBM IoT starter kit will be priced at less than $200.
The ARM/IBM IoT starter kit will be priced at less than $200.

Technology company ARM, which designs processors and related technologies and whose IP is found in most of the world’s mobile phones, has launched something that might be the door opener that will enable truly global adoption.

The key feature for any company or even individual developer is that it lowers the cost barriers. The ARM mbed IoT Starter Kit (bit.ly/ARMIoT) will be available for less than $200. It also – crucially – cuts the cost of storage and access to an ‘as used’ model, rather than requiring large, upfront investment.

The IoT Starter Kit consists of an ARM mbed-enabled development board from Freescale, powered by an ARM Cortex®-M4 based processor, together with a sensor IO application shield.

It is designed to enable the user to channel data from Internet-connected devices directly into IBM’s Bluemix cloud platform. ARM and IBM say that the combination of a secure sensor environment with cloud-based analytics, mobile and application resources will allow fast prototyping of new smart products, as well as other value-added services.

IBM observed that, in order to make the IoT work for businesses, it needs to be simple to connect physical devices into the cloud and to build applications and insights around them. This joint project is designed to facilitate that effort.

Everything a developer needs comes inside a 6’ x 4” box: processor, development board, USB connection and access to storage and development space on the Bluemix cloud.

The two companies are certainly confident that the Starter Kit will be rapidly and widely adopted; they expect the first products developed using the kit to enter the market in 2015.

Cambridge Consultants’ Solitair is a wearable health-tech device that is designed to help users avoid damaging exposure to sunlight.

Cambridge Consultants 2
The smart hair clip is small enough to blend in with the current fashion.

Solitair is a smartphone app that is linked to a small sensing device that could be clipped to a bag or worn as a brooch or hairclip.

It monitors users’ sun exposure and combines the information with skin type and schedule for the day to give real-time recommendations about when it’s time to cover up or move indoors.

The user takes an image of their skin with their smartphone, to give a pre-suntan level of pigment. The Solitair app analyses the image and combines the information with the user’s location, the weather forecast and their schedule for the day to give individual guidance on optimum times in the sun with and without sunscreen with different sun protection factors (SPFs).

The sensing device monitors actual sun exposure and gives real-time updates via the smartphone throughout the day, with alerts when the user is nearing the recommended maximum time.

Strength in depth

TECHuk, the umbrella organisation for the sector, has set a target of growing 55% by 2020. That will create another 150,000 jobs and boost its value to £120bn.

The ESCO (Electronics Systems: Challenges and Opportunities) Report, which was created for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, calls for a number of specific measures by government and industry, in order to stimulate growth.

The Report compares the UK with South Korea, which has a similar size, GDP and population, but has a much stronger global presence and bigger brands. The UK is home to two leading chip IP firms (ARM and Imagination Technologies) and many of the world’s leading research universities, but there is no UK equivalent of Samsung, for example.

ESCO was chaired by Pond Ventures’ Jamie Urquhart. Among the Report’s key recommendations are measures to improve supply chains and strategic procurement, the skills pipeline and the formation of a think tank to identify future growth sectors.

It warns that failure to take immediate action in these areas will have implications for the competitiveness of every industrial sector and the UK economy.