Electronic Design

Talking Electronics For A Few Days In Sunny Wales

Just recently, I was invited by International Business Wales (IBW) to visit several electronics companies operating in Wales, U.K., as well as attend the S2K conference. Leaving JFK airport late on a sunny day, I expected rain and gloom during my stay. Surprisingly, the weather was as nice in Wales as it was when I left the U.S., and it remained that way for the duration of the trip.

We began our tour with a presentation on sustainable energy technologies given by Eurig Thomas, a marketing executive at IBW. The opening slide proclaimed Wales as a “world class location for business.” This piqued my interest, since I would not immediately think of Wales as a great place for electronics and other companies to do business.

Thomas dug right into the presentation, talking about offshore wind energy and the country’s goal to develop 25 GW of wind power by 2020, though he said that 10 GW was a more realistic target. He also discussed other forms of renewable energy, such as wave energy. One of his slides pointed out that the Severn estuary in Wales is the second highest tidal range in the world, providing many options for gigawatts of energy extraction. With all of this emphasis on power generation, Thomas explained that in Wales, power engineers are in high demand.

We spent the next day visiting several companies: International Rectifier, IQE, and Zarlink. International Rectifier is a company I know well, having visited its facility in Temecula, Calif., once before.

I had forgotten, though, that there was also a facility in Newport, Wales, that manufactures both discrete power components and integrated circuits. In fact, Newport is IR’s only 8-in. wafer facility, the most advanced in the IR group. A 6-in. facility is also on the grounds, and due to its unique design, it has been given landmark status.

The main markets served from the Newport facility are enterprise power, automotive, and energy-saving devices for white goods and lighting. Research and development activities at this location include IR’s new gallium-nitride (GaN) technology, GaNpowIR.

Our next stop was a company called IQE. It’s been in business for 20 years, but I hadn’t heard of it before. The company calls itself a global leader in wafer outsourcing, specifically compound semiconductors like gallium arsenide (GaAs). It develops wafers for four markets: wireless, optoelectronics, energy, and electronics. The presentation, given by a technically inclined CFO named Phil Rasmussen, covered compound semiconductors and what the company was doing with them.

With regards to wireless, he said, compound semiconductors have exceptional high-frequency RF performance, which is why GaAs chips can be found in mobile handsets. But he also mentioned that 3G handsets contain several times more GaAs chips than previous generations due to new features plus the need for backward compatibility.

For optoelectronics, compound semiconductors are extremely efficient generators and detectors of light. They’re used extensively in all solid-state optical applications. In the opto market, IQE is concentrating on solar, solid-state lighting, and advanced lasers. For solar, IQE is riding the third-generation wave of GaAs concentrator photovoltaics (CPV) wafers, which are rated at greater than 40% efficiency.

The last stop of the day was at Zarlink Semiconductor in Caldicot, South Wales. We’ve been covering Zarlink for many years, but mostly deal with its team in Ottawa, Canada. Unlike the Zarlink of some years ago, the company sees itself today as a specialist niche manufacturer. In addition to communications products, the company has its hands in the optical and medical markets.

Martin McHugh, business and technology manager at Zarlink, explained that although the company makes low-power radio chips, it’s now producing modules as well. Plans are to sell the modules instead of the chips for applications such as wireless medical implants. He also said that Zarlink is looking for companies who stand to gain from making electronics smaller. He mentioned Zarlink’s prowess in 3D packaging, SHIFT (Smart High-Integration Flex Technologies), and SIMM (Self-energizing Implantable Medical Microsystems).

That evening, we walked over to the opening event at the S2K conference—a networking dinner with the conference attendees. The dinner, as well as the conference and exhibits, took place at the City Hall in Cardiff, a remarkable building. I thought the ceiling of the Assembly Hall, which housed the exhibits, was just exquisite. But the Council Chamber, where the conference took place, was quite impressive, too.

The final day, for me at least, since I had to return a day early, was the S2K event. You can read more about this at electronicdesign.com. Ironically enough, when I touched down at JFK here in New York, it was pouring rain. Go figure.

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