Insatiable Demand for Data Pushes Electronics Forward

Sectors: Electronics

Above: Timeline of electronic component performance. Credit: Intel

Andy Pye explores the driving forces behind the continuing growth of electronics and argues that the main driver is digitalisation, supported by data management, communications and smart technologies.

Pioneering new technology enables The Royal Mint to recover precious metals from discarded electronic devices such as mobile phones and laptops. Credit: The Royal Mint

Above and right: PragmatIC has developed a range of low-cost, flexible integrated circuits built on plastic substrates. Credit: PragmatIC

Where else to start a review of progress in electronics than Moore’s Law? In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors on a chip would double roughly every two years with a minimal rise in cost. The more transistors or components on a device, the cost per device is reduced while the performance is increased.

Almost 60 years later and Moore’s Law is alive and well, both through innovations in electronics process, packaging and architecture, and driven by the demand for processing ever-increasing data. Partly triggered by the Covid pandemic and enabled by innovations in the semiconductor industry, global rates of digitalisation have surged over the past two years.

“At this time, we see no end to the demand to push the electronics industry to maintain the pace of Moore’s Law,” says Intel CEO, Pat Gelsinger. “Intel’s next great architectural innovation is RibbonFET, a brand-new transistor architecture which delivers faster transistor switching speeds with the same drive current in a smaller footprint.”

Supply chain challenges

Despite the demand, electronic component shortages continue to hinder booming electronics marketplaces. While new orders roll in and production remains steady, there simply haven’t been enough capacitors, resistors and other parts to go around. Some major chip manufacturers have announced massive investments to onshore new chip-manufacturing plans, but that will take years.

The just-in-time build-to-order model that the electronics supply chain has been utilising for more than two decades wasn’t built to handle the sudden rise in demand for consumer electronics at the beginning of the pandemic. Expect the problem to persist until 2023 at the earliest.

UK develops low noise photonics

Zero Point Motion is an early-stage semiconductor company based at Bristol University’s state-of-the-art Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre. It is using low noise photonics to redefine the limits of high precision inertial sensing to develop an affordable chip-scale inertial measurement unit (IMU) for ultra-precise motion-tracking and indoor navigation.

Initially developed to detect collisions for airbag deployment, IMUs enable electronic devices to monitor their relative position, motion and acceleration. Today, these devices, based on Micro Electromechanical Systems (MEMS), are mass-produced at low cost and embedded in a wide range of industrial and consumer electronics including smartphones, cameras, health wearables and IoT devices. Their ubiquity has resulted in an annual market size of approximately $15bn, growing at around 10% a year.

But the IMUs used in consumer electronics are relatively inaccurate and suffer from excessive ‘drift’. To overcome this issue, many devices rely on multiple data sources to pinpoint their position – ‘sensor fusion’. However. this technique increases cost and energy consumption. Conversely, high-precision IMUs, currently used in the defence and aerospace sector, are bulky and cost tens of thousands of pounds, making them unfeasible for mass-market applications.

Zero Point Motion was founded in 2020 by award-winning physicist Dr Ying Lia Li (Lia). An initial round of funding from Foresight Williams will enable the company to create engineering samples to be assessed by initial customers and designed into their products, with a view to commercial sales commencing in 2024.

“The UK has a fantastic legacy in producing defence grade inertial sensors and strong expertise in commercialising optical devices,” says Lia. “We are excited to combine these capabilities to bring higher performance
navigation to industrial and consumer markets. We are ambitious to scale to high volume and transform motion capture, stabilise AR/VR and other image-based systems, and increase the integrity of sensor fusion to enable improved indoor and autonomous navigation.”

Upgrading wafer manufacturing

Chris McComb is managing director of ITech, an automation systems integrator based in Irvine, Ayrshire. The company works closely with established multinationals such as Siemens, Honeywell and Rockwell to deliver upgrades, expansions, migrations and fully greenfield systems. Recently, ITech has moved into the digital arena.

“Shin Etsu manufactures silicon wafers for the semiconductor industry. Many organisations that deliver the machinery to do this type of project have stopped trading and as such the machinery is becoming difficult to maintain and the tight manufacturing tolerances are not being met,” McComb explains.

“ITech is working to update and modernise these machines for Shin Etsu, having completed 12 upgrades in Scotland and eight in America, with many more still to be updated.”

Upgrades include new control systems and an enhanced user interface to allow greater control, flexibility, reliability and accuracy. The company also has the ability to support these machines remotely and deliver software updates in the same manner.

McComb is on the steering committee of Profibus, the standardised, open digital communications system commonly used in manufacturing and process automation. IO-Link is also used for connecting digital sensors and actuators over short distances, using wired or wireless industrial communications, using the networking standard IEC 61131-9.

“We are starting to see a big move to an Ethernet base for everything,” McComb adds. “It’s a flatter structure, but it does give us a more robust structured network. “

Surface mount drives…drives

Based in North Wales and since 2017 part of the Japanese headquartered Nidec Corporation, Control Techniques and Drives has been designing and manufacturing variable speed drives since 1973. It is both a producer and consumer of automation products.

“We have just invested nearly £20m in surface mount technology machines,” says president Tony Pickering. “These machines have capabilities like the Lamborghini of the motor car industry, so fast, so efficient. But although we haven’t wrapped a massive data collection programme around them, going forward, predictive maintenance is a requirement – the customer doesn’t actually want to pay extra for it!”

The company is also introducing near-field communication (NFC) for its drives. With an app on a smartphone or similar device, it’s possible just to touch the drive, read the motor profile and upload and download data and program revisions.

“NFC costs fractions of pennies to apply, but it allows you to programme the product with the smallest device,” says Pickering. “It’s ideal for those who don’t want to read the manual of a drive which may have as many as 3,000 parameters to set, and we think it is a game-changer.”


News in Brief

  1. The Royal Mint is building a world-first plant in South Wales to recover gold from UK electronic waste. When fully operational in 2023, the pioneering plant will process up to 90 tonnes of UK-sourced circuit boards each week, generating hundreds of kilograms of gold a year. “We estimate that 99% of the UK’s circuit boards are currently shipped overseas to be processed at high temperatures in smelters. As the volume of electronic waste increases each year, this problem is only set to become bigger. When fully operational our plant will be the first of its kind in the world – processing tonnes of electronic waste each week, and providing a new source of high-quality gold direct to The Royal Mint,” says chief growth officer, Sean Millard.
  2. Cambridge headquartered PragmatIC Semiconductor has made its largest investment to date with the construction of PragmatIC Park in Country Durham. The site will be home to its second assembly line for producing ultra-low-cost flexible integrated circuits, with space for at least four additional lines to support continued growth in demand for electronics in everyday objects. “As well as providing an ideal home for our second FlexLogIC fab, we will also be inviting selected ecosystem partners to work with us at the Park to create a centre of excellence for flexible semiconductor design and integration,” says CEO Scott White.
  3. Somersham’s Paragraf, a pioneer of graphene-based electronics technologies and products, has raised £45m in funding to help boost its R&D capabilities, expand its manufacturing infrastructure and scale the business globally. “Our increasing desire for continually improving electronic device performance paired with the absolute necessity to reduce our power requirements, and hence carbon footprints, demand new technology solutions – next generation materials will be at the heart of this,” says CEO and co-founder, Dr Simon Thomas.

“IMUs enable electronic devices to monitor their relative position, motion and acceleration”

“We are starting to see a big move to an Ethernet base for everything”

Above and below: Nidec has unveiled what it believes is the first microdrive to provide programming, diagnostics and other functions using NFC. Credit: Both Nidec Control Techniques Limited