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The invisible technology that’s everywhere

14 August, 2013

The UK electronics sector is twice the size of the automotive sector. But, as Steve Brambley, Gambica’s deputy director* argues, with more support from Government this “invisible”, yet vital, industry could become much bigger.

On the 27 June 2013, the profile of automation and instrumentation in the UK was raised with the launch of the ESCO report.

The Electronic Systems: Challenges and Opportunities document was co-authored by Gambica as a means to represent the views of the electronic sector to government. This has successfully resulted in a government-backed leadership forum, with Michael Fallon as a ministerial co-chair – proof that this is now seen as a key technology for the UK and the economy.

But what is the electronic systems industry in the UK? Here, I will dispel a few myths about it all being off-shored to low-cost economies around the globe.

Let’s start with a few facts and figures. There are currently 850,000 people employed in the electronic systems industry in the UK, with a turnover of £80bn contributing over 5% of the GDP. That makes it one of the largest industry segments in the UK – almost twice the size of the automotive sector. About half the people are employed in electronic systems suppliers, with the other half being embedded in businesses that integrate electronic systems into their products, such as aerospace or power companies.

We may no longer have the UK electronics industry of 30 or 40 years ago, but it didn’t just disappear, it has evolved. In that period, cars have gone from largely mechanical products to complex systems that depend on electronics to control almost every function within them. Electronics has gone from something that used to be a product in its own right, to something that is so embedded in almost everything we do that it is taken for granted. It has become pervasive, yet invisible.

While the government has been concentrating its embryonic industrial strategy on vertical markets such as automotive, aerospace, defence, life sciences, energy and so on, it has overlooked electronics, represented by technologies such as microprocessors, embedded systems, sensors, automation and instrumentation, without which none of the verticals can function or be competitive.

Clearly, it is likely to put these UK verticals at a significant competitive disadvantage if the suppliers of electronic items that they use only create products and innovate in the backyard of their overseas competitors. We need a strong UK supply chain of key enabling technologies such as electronics and automation to support all UK businesses in all sectors.

We may no longer have the brands of GEC, Marconi or Plessey at the forefront of electronics in the UK, but we do still very much have an expertise and manufacturing base, albeit perhaps less visible and identifiable than in the past. Companies such as ARM and Imagination Technologies are designers of chips that go into millions of products around the world.

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