The changing face of a career in flexible electronics
Over the years there have been some significant developments in electronics. Gillian Ewers gets technical and looks back at how things have changed since she began her career in electronics and the exciting opportunities available now for those starting out.
When I started in the early 1980s, the curriculum for A level electronics included valves, simple transistors and machine code programming. As a university student, I submitted punch cards one day and returned to collect the results the day after, we were all reliant on a central mainframe computer.
In the 1990s, semiconductor technology really started to accelerate – I was working for Texas Instruments who pioneered and patented the first working IC (Integrated Circuit) by Jack Kilby – for which he won a Nobel Prize in 2000. Most of the company’s products then were ASSPs (Application Specific Standard Products), for example the TMS32010, a DSP (Digital Signal Processor) and the subsequent variants that were the heart of all Nokia and Ericsson mobile phones. But they also had ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuits) which were growing at an incredible rate, representing about 20% of the total IC market in 1991 with around 21,000 ASIC designs carried out per year. ASICs enabled the design of customised circuits that exactly matched application requirements, this optimised the price of the solution by reducing unused functionality that was associated with generic ASSPs.
As silicon technology matured it became possible to integrate more and more functionality into each device, and the cost of designing what were now very complex ASICs and ASSPs rose significantly. The pendulum swung back and it became more economical to buy an off-the-shelf programmable ASSPs again and use software to configure the solution, so the number of ASIC designs and companies offering the service reduced considerably. These highly complex ASSPs are perfectly suited to the incredible electronic gadgets we use today – ultra-thin laptops, mobile phones and tablets, plus compact smart watches and fitness devices. Not to forget the computing power that is now contained in TVs, other white goods and cars. But they are not well suited to the edge of the growing IoT world – if an application requires only a small amount of functionality, the cost of a silicon IC is determined by the number of inputs and outputs required, or even by the smallest size the machine used to assemble the IC can handle. When that happens it becomes difficult to get the price low enough for cost sensitive applications.
What we need to start a new chapter in the IC story, that works for the IoT world, is a completely different approach that focuses on simplicity and cost, from manufacture to implementation. That is what PragmatIC’s is doing and it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for designers to think of innovative ways of using our platform. This is a very exciting time, and we have a diverse range of exciting career opportunities for electronics engineers, ASIC design engineers, process engineers and project engineers, to help us bring our technology to our customers.