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!

Monday, March 28, 2011

23: When is a rock, not a rock?

Of course you love your new phone's cool, steel bound obsidian line. But any thoughts it might be cut from raw volcanic rock are soon dismissed when a gesture brings commanding images to its face. A few more and you talk 'through' it to people anywhere, or conjure up memories of your family and hobbies. Small print on the back reveals it was designed in American and assembled in China ... by magicians no doubt; how else do you explain it!

Fortunately humans did not need to know how grass grows, to grow grass. A little more knowledge was required to make a lawn; a lot more to make a modern iGadget...

Its creation involved re-ordering and manipulation of the same basic atoms it shares with that rock; to deliver a function of value to our Cro-Magnon needs. It demonstrates the power of human ingenuity, but it is not magic, neither is it a fraction of complexity of the simplest plant or insect.

It is based on the transistor, a concept only discovered in 1947, where putting two materials together in a certain way enables their electrical properties to be manipulated. The 64 years that followed took early circuits of just one or two transistors, to the hundreds of billions that ‘power’ you phone today. That evolution was created by the independent, global, baby-steps of thousands of researchers, scientists, engineers, mathematicians, chemists and production engineers; and continues today. But a simple concept multiplied by hundreds of billions, represents a colossal design challenge; and one growing rapidly every year with that continued evolution and the race to deploy ever more of them in smaller/better/cheaper products, demanded by the insatiable end-customer ... you!

      ... Inside that phone, the billions of transistors are distributed amongst tens of Components none of which grew on trees, so each needed a team of specialist engineers for its design and manufacture. Many Components have smaller Components within them, which also had specialist design and manufacture. This mesh of specialist capabilities is too great to be bounded by any single company or nation today; but thanks to the Internet, the WTO and International Contract Law; designers and manufacturers can use their specialist knowledge or abilities on their piece of the puzzle wherever they are; contributing to their local economy as they do so ... which is what ARM does. Such iGadgets are "children of the world". They are examples of the Smart Electronic Systems our modern world has become dependent on: Visible ones like Phones, Cameras, TV's, Card readers, GPS’s and Computers; with many more invisibly managing Energy, Transport, Logistics , Finance, etc.

Let’s look for ARM's Intellectual Property (IP) inside a product like this. Prise the front from the back and all is exposed. Ignore the flat re-chargeable ‘plastic’ battery, the micro-miniature vibrator, the tiny 5x8x8mm camera and lens module, the active matrix LCD display, the capacitive touch sensor ... each a wonder in itself ... and focus on the Control Board. This small slim circuit board has about 20 Integrated Circuits (ICs or Chips) and 100 small components densely affixed on both sides. I select one Chip. Like all the others, it has a specific role to fulfil and its architects decided that the best way to achieve it, was to use an efficient configuration of transistors known as a Compute-Engine (CPU or Processor).

      ... Like the card-loom, the Processor reads instructions then acts on them, but it does so more than 100 million times per second; fetching its instructions from another Chip with an efficient configuration of transistors called Memory. Creating the Processor and the Memory are both complex design challenges, but ones that can be shared across many products. Creating the correct sequence of instructions to make the Processor do something useful is another challenge and special languages and tools are created to make this easier and more productive. People spend years becoming expert in parts of this process! The Processor; the way to put it into the chip; the way to program it; and tools and utilities to make it all as easy as possible ... is the highly valued IP Product that ARM contributes to their Life-Cycle.

But one Processor doesn’t fill a Chip these days, in fact a large one takes just a few million transistors, of a Chip with an economic capacity of a few hundred million. So the chip designer will include other functions as well, and will use other sources of IP to achieve it. It is not uncommon for one such Chip to have 10 large Processors, whilst another might have just one small one. Typically such a Chip will incorporate IP licensed or purchased from 5 suppliers, as well as re-using IP from earlier designs.

So such a Chip has many parents as well :-

  • Parts of it designed in the UK; with other parts designed in Europe, India or the USA.
  • Software that runs on it (most is “embedded” and inaccessible to the user) written in the UK, Europe, and America; frequently using tools independently designed and produced in as many different locations.
  • Fabricated in Japan, USA, China or Europe; and packaged in Malaysia, Japan or Taiwan, on equipment of European, Japanese and American origin.

      ... By the time we include manufacture, around 10 companies will have been involved in its creation. The other Chips in the system will have similar but individual stories, and many will also include ARM IP!

More than 30B ARM Processors have been shipped to-date ... That's more than 5 for every person on the planet. How many you can touch right now?

There's just time for an experiment. Pick up a rock, set it on the table next to your phone ... and wait! When one rings, hold one to each ear and say hello ... I bet the rock doesn't tell you something that you didn't already know! (Unless it was a large rock and you brought it to your ear rather too quickly!)

Developments in bridges and sky-scrapers can be seen and appreciated; whilst advances in Electronic Systems technologies are invisible, but much much greater. These are at any time the peak of human achievement; but a stellar accolade only held briefly as year by year they are eclipsed by their successors.

      ... And as we rush to incorporate them in our lives and services, our economic and personal dependence on them just grows and grows.


Friday, January 14, 2011

22: The case for "Electronic Systems"

The EngineeringUK 2011 Report highlighted that whilst 60% of people surveyed couldn't think of a single thing that engineers had done in the last 50yrs to effect their lives; more than 90% considered they would be instrumental in finding the cure for climate change! Clearly a significant failure of the education system ... Or is it? It has always been the case that more successful we are at our jobs, the less troublesome the raw science/technology is, and the more invisible (and undervalued) it becomes to its users. Yet we scientists are as guilty as the next of under-valuing the contribution made to our lives by the skills of others; and thank goodness it isn't necessary to know how grass grows, to grow grass.

... These people are your children, spouses, economists, teachers, politicians, bus drivers (etc); the things they buy pay our wages and set the priority for future investment; and they base their purchasing decisions around form and function, not technology. The counter-intuitive conclusion is that we need them to understand us; but they don't need to understand technology!

So if we want our activities to be recognised, valued and supported, then we have to sell them to Joe/Jane Public in a context they will want to engage with and in a manner they will understand. They need to know inside, that supporting them is the right thing to do! Nanotechnology, global warming, big-physics and bio-tech have all succeeded in creating a compelling public image, and many and varied sub-activities profit by aligning with their respective parent.

So whilst the Atomistic Modelling of transistors; Deposited oxides; Asynchronous logic; TCP-IP stacks; CMP; Moore's law; Operating systems; Compilers; Communications protocols; SoC Architectures; Components; Design & Automation Tools ... and Business Models inside the various design-cycles ... are very exciting to us (well some of us :-), but they have has no real meaning to more than 99.99% of the population. But if we link them to the things that they value: their iPhones, Digital TVs, Computers; their Food, Heating, Transport, the Economy, etc; then they will understand their context. We know that all these are dependent on underlying Electronic Systems, so it is a logical stage on which to create a compelling story and captivate that audience. It is an exciting story of how these immensely complex things are the result of an international cooperation of teams of people across many disciplines; how our 'detailed roles' are an important part of this today, and how they will be even more-so tomorrow.

The term Electronic Systems is particularly good, because it is not over-used and its intuitive public meaning is more-or-less correct (Other terms like IT, ICT, Electronics, Software, Systems, and Manufacturing are either erroneous type-cast or excessively technical). It is a broad term allowing a wide range of disciplines to feel included, as long as they contribute to the life-cycle somewhere. That's engineers, scientists and businesses working at the System-Level, but also on the technology; Hardware, Software, Systems, Sub-Systems, Components, PCB's, RF, Analogue, Electro-chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, etc.

... Electronic Systems doesn't trivialise the underlying technologies but gives them a context, so its message should resonate through all our work and work-programmes: Electronic Systems are our raison d'ĂȘtre!