Where is the R in R&D?
Are companies investing enough in R&D? Or have we reached peak innovation?
Technology companies like to talk about the amount of resources they apply to research and design. If you want to be a leader in today’s fast-growing market segments, you need to constantly upgrade existing products or introduce new ones. Research is the wellhead of new technologies, while design results in the creation of new products. Given the pressure for short-term profitability today, one wonders about the balance between R&D.
Years ago, manufacturers of interconnects faced a number of technical challenges in terms of reliability, manufacturability, and application. Corrosion, even on gold-plated contact surfaces, would cause a connector to fail. Connectors installed in extreme environments exposed to temperature shock and vibration could literally fall apart. Contacts crimped on aluminum wire would cause it to cold flow and fail.
In order to address these issues, leading connector manufacturers invested in basic interconnect research, spawning the science of contact physics. The principals of contact resistance, bulk resistance, constriction resistance, and super-temperature were established and their effects incorporated in new connector designs. Plating materials that ranged from tin to heavy gold were evaluated, as well as the critical role nickel underplating plays. When tin-plated connectors began to fail after a few months of service, research uncovered the failure mechanism of tin fretting, resulting in the introduction of stable, gas-tight interfaces. Research into the failure of gold-plated contacts revealed the role of pores and resulting creeping corrosion.
Certainly, there is no shortage of research going on in the electronics industry. One of the largest organizations that funds research is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This is an agency of the US Department of Defense that funds military-oriented projects, many of which have resulted in industrial and consumer products. NASA research brought us memory foam as well as advanced supercomputer modeling and simulation capabilities. The government also funds pure research projects at colleges and universities across the country. Their focus is often on research that can be rapidly applied to product developments. The future of US government support of research has become clouded, however, as President Trump has proposed slashing budgets for a host of federal research programs.
Although it is difficult to separate funds spent on basic research as opposed to product development, commercial technology companies seem to be accelerating the pace of R&D being done today. The general impression is that there is more spent on development rather than basic research. A few examples:
- Alphabet, the parent company of Google, maintains their X Lab to explore new technologies and materials that range from energy storage to autonomous transportation.
- IBM is the perennial leader in number of issued patents, most of which relate to software.
- General Electric has one of the largest basic research labs in the country, employing thousands of scientists. One recent fruit of their efforts is a new lightweight ceramic material that is now used in jet engines.
- Apple Inc. spent $11.2 billion on R&D over the past 12 months, with investments in self-driving cars, healthcare, and augmented reality.
- Open AI, a research company founded by Elon Musk and Sam Altman, is focused on development of artificial intelligence.
Rather than make the necessary long-term investment in people and equipment, some companies have chosen to take advantage of others’ research initiatives by acquiring a license or outright buying a company. In addition to spending billions of dollars on internal materials and process research, Intel acquired Mobileye, a leader in computer vision systems. Connector companies are no strangers to this trend. One example is TE Connectivity, which is becoming a leader in the sensor industry thanks to some strategic acquisitions of sensor companies. Buying expertise accelerates the process of becoming a player in a new industry.
Countries around the world are recognizing the value of investing in basic and applied research. Asia is making significant investments in R&D and seeing payoffs. Scientists in China recently sent information to a satellite using linked pairs of light particles, a significant advancement in quantum communications. Asian corporations are making this priority clear.
- Samsung spent 7.3% of its total revenue on R&D in 2016.
- Japan and Saudi Arabia have teamed up to create the world’s largest technology fund, targeting cutting-edge technologies at startups worldwide.
- Fujitsu and Toyota have active research programs aimed at developing safer and longer-lasting automotive batteries.
- Foxconn chairman Terry Gou offered to bring his company’s advanced technology to the US to revive American manufacturing.
The days of large, dedicated, basic research organizations funded by connector companies are, to a large degree, gone. Today, research is mostly focused on specific customer needs, with time-to-market driving the development process. Another factor is simple economics. Customers are generally unwilling to pay for the cost of their suppliers maintaining permanent research facilities as long as their current and next-generation interface requirements are being met.
Interviews with several leading connector suppliers indicate that in some cases, there may be pockets of corporate advanced research teams that are available to support the technical needs of business units. Collaboration among multiple engineering teams provides a channel by which information is shared. Samtec takes this one step further by maintaining a group of dedicated scientists that are chartered to conduct basic research in material science, optics packaging, plating materials, and processes. Resources and results of research are shared across the company. Where internal resources do not exist, a connector company may utilize outside consultants.
Similar to the purported suggestion raised in 1899 that the US patent office should close because everything had already been invented, is basic research focused on electronic connectors no longer necessary? Given the ongoing connector requirements of higher speed, greater contact density, increased power rating, and thermal management, research into improved materials and connector design remains essential. The ability to conduct internal research can provide the key differential when selecting an interconnect partner. When the laws of physics make optical interfaces the most economical and possibly only alternative to copper, research into planar optical waveguides and silicon photonics will pave the way to next-generation interfaces.
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