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In the market today, different products are produced in different industries but what they all have in common is electronics. The terminology may be different, for example, in automotive, a processor is an ECU, and in a cell phone, it’s a CPU; but whatever we call it, they’re all designed, manufactured, tested, and connected in the end product in the same way.
Electronics can mean the chip on the board, the board on a module, the module in a system, the system in a system of systems—in these multiple levels of hierarchy, the chip is the foundation. Whatever the product, electronics are a crucial to the entire life cycle of that system. Chips are part of that continuum. Many large companies today are developing systems of products that span across industries. And device and product complexity doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon.
Today’s challenges can be tomorrow’s opportunities
In this environment, what kind of challenges are companies looking at today and the near future? Besides the issues with a lack of incoming skilled workforce, electronics manufacturers are faced with expanding into new markets, ensuring quality products while dealing with increasing complexity, supply chain volatility and resiliency, reducing and managing their carbon footprint internally and externally throughout a product’s lifecycle. Safety issues and smaller forms add further challenges.
For example, every portable piece of electronics on the planet has a battery, not just vehicles, planes, or drones. Batteries are ubiquitous and they are required at different scales and sizes and chemistries; the volumes are huge in consumer electronics compared to other industries and markets. I think the challenges and opportunities in this area are often overlooked or taken for granted.
Not to pick on Apple, but the recent iPhone 15 overheating was a software issue, not hardware. It wasn’t the electronics. After product release, there were situations where some people were using apps that overloaded the battery and the circuitry. This issue wasn’t considered in their software simulation of the hardware. However, if simulations were done with different corner cases such as this—the effects of software on the hardware—they would have caught the issue before release, and we wouldn’t be talking about it.
Today it’s difficult running simulations and ensuring that the right version of the software is paired with the right version of the hardware. For example, maybe the software was updated, but the simulation was performed on the hardware without the latest update in the hardware design or components. This is a synchronization problem that can be addressed through product life-cycle and data management.
But even with these challenges, being software-driven can open up new markets for product manufacturers, by including features and capabilities to be added and optimized over the product’s life cycle.
The potential of AI
The electronics industry continues to deal with the repercussions of global changes over the past three years; some of them are sticking around but new opportunities are on the horizon. Augmented and virtual reality technologies, as well as artificial intelligence applications, have the potential to change the way we make products dramatically.
AI is not new—EDA companies have been using AI and ML for years to assist with complex tasks and analysis—but it’s undergoing a significant evolution as AI is being infused into the metaverse and the cloud. However, one of the biggest challenges that remains is ensuring the right algorithms are implemented to address the unique needs of each of the domains: software, electrical, and mechanical.
To leverage the full potential of AI, it cannot be used as a standalone tool, but must be incorporated into a company’s digitalization strategy. By weaving it into their overall digital transformation journey, companies can ensure they have incorporated the right combination of usability, verifiability, and analysis to bring real improvements to engineering processes—design, testing, verification, manufacturing and eventually reach the maturity level of closed-loop optimization.
Embarking on the journey toward digital transformation maturity
From our customers’ perspectives, they’re looking at what they can realistically do short term and long term. Leveraging the digital twin, to connect domains and manage the entire product lifecycle, has to be an evolutionary, step-by-step process: take the technologies that are available, incorporate those, figure out the gaps, and use a phased approach.
Recently, my colleagues and I have spent some time developing a road map for digital transformation centered around five key milestones (Figure 1): configuration, connection, automation, generative design, and closed-loop optimization.
Figure 1: The digital transformation journey includes five key maturity milestones.
Many companies in the electronics industry have stalled in the early stages of configuration and connection. Configuration is the switch from a document-based to a model-based data framework. Connection is when companies begin to break down siloes and connect model-based data across domains. While taking these steps is vital to realize the full potential of digital transformation, companies must continue to push toward higher levels of digitalization, especially to leverage the growing power of AI.
The higher levels of digitalization—automation, generative design, and closed-loop optimization—use AI to completely transform engineering processes, starting with automating mundane tasks. As companies mature their digital transformation, they can evolve the automation to take on more complex tasks and eventually reach stage four, generative design, at which point AI could use the digital twin and company data to create designs of entire subsystems and eventually even products. It could use simulations to run the product through a closed-loop process of generation, evaluation, and iteration, before selecting the most optimized design or designs to the engineers for final decisions.
2024 and beyond
In addition to the continued increase in device and product complexity, supply chain volatility is likely to continue to affect the global economy and manufacturing tremendously over the next few years. Geopolitical disruptions present new challenges, but also new opportunities. As companies are moving to onshore their manufacturing and into new areas such as India and Vietnam, markets also open for reaching new customers.
Security and data provenance and trusted traceability from a genealogy perspective are and will continue to be a challenge, which goes hand in hand with sustainability and compliance when companies must prove that they’re compliant and sustainable based on differing regulations. This also ties in with the changing expectations where customers are expecting more from companies, that they work to include being good corporate citizens and their effects on the global environment as part of their bottom line. While a challenge, it’s also an opportunity from a business perspective as technology companies and electronics manufacturers learn how they can save money through sustainability.
About the Author:
Alan Porter is the global vice president of Electronics for Siemens Digital Industries Software. Porter joined Siemens in 2020 after spending more than 30 years in the semiconductor and electronics engineering domain across multiple industries, including consumer electronics, military and aerospace, automotive, and network infrastructure. He has worked for Apple and Huawei, EDA software companies including Mentor, Synopsys and Cadence, as well as in start-ups and professional services roles for both high and low volume products. Porter has extensive experience in digital transformation architecture and implementation from both a customer and solution provider viewpoint.
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