Thursday, August 11, 2011

24: Holding up the walls of society

In 2011 the NMI, instructed by its Board of Directors, announced an expansion of its remit to open membership to companies involved in Electronics Systems. In this article, Prof. Ian Phillips gives a personal account of why he sees it as a natural progression for NMI and what’s in it for existing and new members.

NMI’s role has always been to deliver personal value to you, through the catalysis of non-competitive domain knowledge and experience from others in our community; and by representing your wishes and concerns to Government and other policy makers, using the mandate you entrust in us. At this level our mission today is the same as it was yesterday.
However there has never been a domain in human history that changes as much and as quickly as the electronic-based one 'we' have created. The simplest valve radios appeared around a hundred years ago and just fifty years later the discrete transistor was replacing it in commercial products. But it was the integrated circuit exploding onto the scene in the late 1960s which started the flood of new consumer products, many of which had simply not been possible before. It started the 'electronics revolution' that continues to this day; giving us all exciting careers and great business opportunities; whilst delivering huge value to society at large.
So today electronics is everywhere; but like sand, whilst it holds up the very walls of our society, it has lost its individual value! As we have striven to make technology less intrusive in our products, we have at each baby-step, taken away its public identity. What is out of sight; is out of mind. Today’s people buy functionality: The "where" and the "how" is unimportant; it's the "what" that matters! They buy tangible products like Phones, TVs, Cameras, PCs, Lights, Cars, White-Goods, etc; but also intangible ones like Security, Food/Water, Money, Jobs, Transport, Reliability, Environment, Safety and so on. The technology behind all of which has disappeared from public perception.
In some ways what 'we' do hasn't really changed in this time; we are still designing circuits with transistors. However those circuits have grown from 2 (two) to 20 billion on a 'chip', and not surprisingly, what can be done with them has also changed a lot. With two transistors applications were more or less limited to the super-alpha pair, the cascode and a local oscillator/mixer pair; but that was enough to allow transistors to replace valves and truly enable portable radio. By the time we got to 16 transistors it enabled the majority of the 74 series logic devices and the first transistor based computers. By a thousand transistors (LSI!), it was push-button telephones, pocket calculators, digital watches; digital memory and the first super computers. The pattern of doubling transistors every 12-18mth was established; an exponential growth rate ... exceeded only by the higher order growth of their applications! And through the increased deployment of ever more sophisticated Electronic Systems every delivered function or service was superior to its predecessors.
Whilst these Electronic Systems are undoubtedly dependent on the monolithic transistor, there are now many new high-order skills and disciplines involved throughout their creation, reproduction, installation, configuration and maintenance. And whilst in no way under-valuing the skills involved in producing ever smaller transistors in ever increasing quantities; these additional roles face technical challenges just as great and with a contribution just as significant, in delivering that final product functionality, whose ultimate sale ‘pays’ for all of us. Today’s Electronic Systems are the result of multi-discipline, trans-national, team-working; and the NMI Board & Management believe that we can now offer the greatest valuable opportunities to you and all of our members by improving the networking of those parts of this community in the UK. Bring the technology researchers together with the manufacturers; the software developers with the chip developers; the system companies with the PCB manufacturers; the developers with their customers; etc. As well as the business people to understand aspects of 21c innovative business models, legal issues, finance and international operation. Whilst NMI has an overtly UK focus, we are not insular. We specifically recognise the roles and value the UK operations of international businesses, and recognise the needs for all of our businesses to operate in international markets. We also recognise the important role of Research communities in establishing the Technologies and Capabilities that our businesses will need to maintain their growth.
... At present we divide ourselves in many directions. Some around long-standing traditions of our own making (HW, SW, etc) and some institutional (SIC Codes, Academia, etc). Some the result of being embedded in businesses with ‘Foreign’ owners; or business’s with a higher-level or service product (Logistics, Aeronautics, Defence, Telecoms, IT, etc). Some through association with the demise of long gone UK manufacturing industries; or with different business models which do not align with those of a simpler, non-globalised, era. Fragmentation to this degree is not constructive to the wellbeing of this UK community; and yet by all accounts, we are doing quite well in our global markets ... Just think how much better could we be!
So Electronic Systems is a new flag beneath which we can all gather. If you are involved in science, technology, products or services which contribute to their creation, then you know you are part of this community. But equally important, Electronic Systems describes a level of 'technology' whose significance can be expressed to the consumer at large ... A label to illustrate the importance of our technologies to society; and through its context, the significance of our many and varied roles within them. Of course there are other terms in common use across this space like IT, ICT, Manufacturing, Computer, Embedded, (Micro)Electronic, Transport, Aeronautics, Logistics, Security and Space; but none so accurately bounds the domain that we are trying to encourage here in the UK. 
No doubt by now you will understand why NMI is the Industry Association for all those operations in the UK who make their business within the life-cycle of Electronic Systems. And also how through this evolution of our networking, facilitating and representing activities, we will enable the development of this already globally successful, but largely invisible UK community.
So please, take a closer look through these pages and the NMI website to see what's going on. But I'm not asking you to get involved ... I am asking you to grasp the opportunity that we are presenting for you to help yourself. 
Together we really are better!