Compound semiconductors are the driving force behind many of today’s most exciting technological advancements – 5G super-fast communications, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things.
The Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult’s mission is to ensure that the UK retains its global leadership in this vital technology. Dr Paul Stead interviews its CEO, Stephen Doran.
I’ve always been fascinated by the promise of new technologies that enable the next wave of new B2B applications – none more so than with compound semiconductor technology.
Although these materials are still in relative infancy, the UK currently leads the world; so I was excited to meet Stephen Doran in Central London, which is a long way from his Scottish home, or his office in the recently opened CSA Catapult Innovation centre in Newport, South Wales.
However, what we soon discovered was that our career paths had intersected on many occasions. My first big break in my own business was working with Motorola in Schaumburg, Illinois, designing their fledging consumer portfolio.
Stephen likewise worked with Motorola around the globe, on many of the same projects, but from the supply chain, manufacturing and network operator fulfilment perspective.
Both of us worked on the Flare product (Motorola’s first consumer handset) and both have extensive first-hand experience of the challenges involved in bringing new products to market.
What are compound semiconductors?
Put simply, compound semiconductors combine multiple materials to make the core ingredient of chips operate far faster, and at far higher temperatures than current silicon chips, as well as having multiple added functionalities, mostly to do with light and motion sensing.
For instance, the reason your smartphone knows to turn your screen off when you hold it to your face is down to a chip based on a compound semiconductor. Indeed, the smartphone revolution and the advent of 4G – and now 5G – arguably have given CS a once-in-a-lifetime boost.
The problem is that while the UK leads the world in making the core compound semiconductors, we have allowed manufacturers elsewhere to capitalise on their power and value. And that is why the Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult was created – to encourage UK-based companies to develop products that add value to this great technology.
Looking back, Motorola clearly lost the mobile phone ‘war’ to Nokia; what lessons do you take from that experience?
Yes, Motorola’s downfall is well documented, but you have to remember their technology leadership drove market adoption.
I recall when we had a product strategy meeting, we had all the customer, consumer and market trends – we’d built an OK portfolio but nothing special. We asked the lab what they had in the pipeline and they brought out the RAZR.
I was there, and you could have heard a pin drop! So, you need to remember genius comes out of the lab.
After Motorola, I worked for Wolfson Microelectronics, where we rebuilt a product portfolio. This meant rather than going head-to-head on pin-to-pin compatibility (leading to a price war), we switched mindset to sell on benefits.
We sold upstream to the engineers and designers working on the next-generation of product where we could deliver unique end-customer benefits. The same lessons hold true for compound semiconductors.
Given these points, and most of the marketing materials I’ve seen are very high level, please can you give some specifics.
You mean ‘how the rubber hits the road?’ We need to go back a couple of steps to the origins of the UK’s High Value Manufacturing Strategy, the government’s £33m investment through the APC to advance the UK’s low-carbon automotive capability and the need to develop the next-generation of low-carbon vehicles.
The CSA Catapult was formed to create competitive advantage for the UK manufacturing sector, by supporting the delivery of next-generation semiconductor technology and along the way build competency, a world-class ecosystem and an SME supply chain.
We know for real change to occur in any market we need to work across all players in the value chain. Therefore, in the automotive sector, we are working with the car manufacturers, their key stakeholders, the concept and electronic designers, the chip foundries, the connector manufacturers –the Tier ones, the OEMs and most of the players in-between.
The first example I can share is the ESCAPE project (End2end Supply Chain development for Automotive Performance Electronics), led by McLaren Applied Technologies and 12 other partners, including AESIN operated by TechWorks, Clas-Sic Wafer Fab, the, Compound Semiconductor Centre, Exawatt, Lyra Electronics, MaxPower Semiconductor, Tribus-D, Turbo Power Systems and the University of Warwick.
This collaborative way of working is being adopted to create the next-generation of standards/architectures so the UK can be a key player in this new global market.
What does this mean? In the current marketing materials, you mention potential to significantly extend the range of an electric vehicle… How?
The whole of the automotive sector is going through a massive transformation, from ICE (internal combustion engine) to electrification; from a low level of autonomy to endeavouring to achieve level 5 (full autonomy); from power generation to power re-generation and over-all vehicle efficiency.
What we know is that the vehicle of the future is going to have thousands of chips and controllers distributed across the vehicle, controlling and sensing not only the performance of the vehicle, but also what’s happening in the external environment in real time. And all connected with 5G infrastructure.
We know that for real-time communication to occur, the speed of processing in some of these functions is going to have to increase massively, which in current silicon systems would mean additional heat, which means an additional cooling requirement – which in turn would create additional power consumption and additional weight.
We also know that if these new systems are designed using an agreed open architecture, there will be savings in weight, from the reductions in the multiple sub-systems, from simplified wiring to simplified charging rails. There will also be savings in power consumption as sub-systems work together.
So yes, we believe that moving to compound semiconductors will deliver a massive increase in power efficiency across the whole system and therefore the potential to significantly extend the vehicle’s range.
So, is the role of the CSA Catapult to be the innovator, facilitator or educator? – perhaps all three?
First, we need to help the industry ‘see the light’, see that these innovations can indeed deliver increased functionality, performance, and efficiency. The big ‘but’ here, as with any new innovation, is to drive volume so we can bring the price down to be cost competitive.
Second, ‘the facilitator’, yes! We have built deep competency and developed simulation tool kits, evaluation modules and accelerated life-testing systems so we can de-risk uptake and adoption. All this reduces the cost of implementing new products.
And yes on ‘the educator’! That’s probably our greatest challenge on a number of fronts. Not only are we trying to showcase the new technology, new applications, new features, new efficiency models – but also to do this we are having to realign the supply chain, while at the same time the automotive industry is struggling to move away from its ICE legacy.
It’s an exciting time to say the least, but we need to build this competency and infrastructure in the UK to prevent the industry looking to offshore solutions.
With all these moving parts – why is the new Catapult in Wales rather than the North / Midlands?
That’s easy, we are in the centre of a world-leading research base, alongside a cluster of delivery partners, (including our nearby foundry partners) and we’ve built strong delivery capabilities in the region.
It’s critical within the innovation centre that we build the core competency which we can replicate as market demand grows. The next phase will be to build a campus-like infrastructure, where all the key supply-chain ecosystem players are together on the one site. That way we will truly be a global centre of excellence.
So, who are you looking to attract? And what should anyone interested in becoming part of ESCAPE do next?
ESCAPE is in its infancy, but ultimately, we’d really like multiple players from a broad cross-section of the current supply chain. Plus, let’s not forget that electrification harnesses a raft of new competencies so we’d also like to attract new players with new experiences, including: supply chain, devices, charging, packaging, inverters and DC/DC converters.
Therefore, anyone wishing to understand more about the opportunities ESCAPE offers should definitely reach out to the project manager from AESIN Paul Jarvie at firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2018, the UK automotive industry had a turnover of £82bn, produced more than 1.5 million passenger vehicles and 85,000 commercial vehicles. Including the supply chain, it employed around 1 million people.
So, there is a big opportunity, but also there is a big threat from existing but fragmented supply chains in the US, Japan and China.
As an early adopter of a Tesla X, I understand some of the consumer issues faced, from range anxiety (lack of range, charging infrastructure and speed) to total cost of ownership and build quality. I also see huge growth opportunities, with the roll out of the Model 3, the electric semi and the Cybertruck; plus of course the new Tesla factories in Berlin and Shanghai.
Finally, I’ll leave you with have several thoughts, on which to ponder.
First, given the pressure on the industry to rapidly change from ICE to electric, is this all too little too late? Can the multiple government and privately funded initiatives mesh to deliver cohesive solutions?
Can the new ‘ESCAPE’ supply chain react fast enough to meet demand? Can the new architectures, new IP, new platforms leapfrog the current market leaders and deliver the promise of range-doubling, self-driving autonomous, affordable vehicles?
Second, having worked with Intel on several projects, they fund, create and test reference platforms with their partners in order to prove technology and create demand. Crucially, Intel also own the core IP; there are global standards, global alliances, global partners and they have created brand awareness – brand pull.
Third, 10 years ago we created a market pull strategy for Eastman Chemicals, an open access portal (www.eastmaninnovationlab.com) showcasing applications and final products from designers, engineers and brands. Still, this took three years to gain traction, but now is recognised as a world-class marketing, design-thinking way of activating an eco-system.