The Race to Technology Leadership
As technology innovation becomes the engine that reshapes economies, a new group of countries is making the investments necessary to come out ahead of the pack.
A sage once observed that a turtle makes no progress until it sticks its neck out of its protected shell. That could certainly apply to companies involved in the development of the amazing array of new technologies we are seeing today. Companies committed to making the necessary investments in people and resources are finding entirely new business opportunities while threatening the survival of entrenched suppliers. Sticking one’s neck out by investing in innovation incurs a degree of risk, especially when stockholders demand immediate return on their investment. The difference between thriving and dying is increasingly dependent on the commitment to espouse and fund innovation.
Technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things continue to mature while new network infrastructures such as 5G and IEEE 802.11 AX will greatly improve high-speed connectivity. Today’s driver-assist capabilities will evolve to fully autonomous cars and will begin to appear on our roads within the next few years. Robotics on the factory floor are a critical element of the manufacturing 4.0 revolution, or Industry 4.0. Soldiers in the battlefield are being augmented with precision weaponized drones. The list of emerging technologies has continued to grow, as advances in one area enable progress in another. Some of the most exciting technologies now entering the market include:
- Artificial intelligence (AI) is being applied to such diverse applications as anticipating consumer preferences to fact-checking live news broadcasts. AI will continue to take over management of utility grids as well as optimizing levels of inventory. The term “pervasive intelligence” is being applied to a new universe of smart machines.
- Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) will greatly expand our ability to experience the world in entirely new ways. Doctors will be guided to perform new intricate procedures with no prior training, restaurant menus will pop up on demand, and gaming will be raised to a whole new level. Advances in 3D holography will bring live performances into our living rooms.
- Quantum computing has the potential to upend what has been perceived as the limits of computing power, including the ability to crack the most complex passwords now in existence.
- Advances in biotechnology are leading scientists to innovative therapies that offer the potential to arrest the development of multiple diseases and in some cases deliver a permanent cure.
The amount of engineering talent and dollars being invested in these technologies is unprecedented, with the objective of winning the battle for global technological supremacy. This race has moved beyond individual commercial entities and evolved into a political struggle between nations. Achieving leadership in a particular technology can position a country to quickly convert this knowledge into leading-edge products generating revenue, driving employment and providing the tools to exploit additional technologies. Countries that are first to develop a new technology may have the ability to control its future direction, putting followers at a disadvantage.
Manufacturers in Asia have been particularly effective in dominating the manufacture of solar cells, consumer electronics, and computers, but not the core technology that enabled their design. Government and private investments in pure and applied research established the US as the global technology leader, but both segments have experienced funding cutbacks, raising questions about that country’s ability to maintain proficiency. In the meantime, China has implemented its Made in China 2025 development plan, with the objectives of moving China up the value chain and making the country dominant in global high-tech manufacturing, directly challenging the US in such key industries as electric transportation, next-generation telecommunications, quantum computing, robotics, and artificial intelligence. The National Science Board has predicted for the first time that 2018 R&D spending in China will exceed that spent in the US.
To reduce its dependence on US-made semiconductors, China is reportedly investing $150 billion over the next 10 years to develop its internal chip industry. Huawei and other Asian chip manufacturers have been pouring resources into developing advanced semiconductors that rival Intel, Qualcomm, and Nvidia devices. Supercomputers built by China and the US regularly vie for most powerful machine. The expanding trade war with China over issues that include the theft of intellectual property further complicates the situation.
China is not the only country competing for technology leadership. The ability of startup companies to access venture capital has been a prime enabler to foster new technologies. Venture capital investment in China, India, the UK, Germany, France, and Israel is growing twice as fast as in the US. The US remains the recognized leader in space aeronautics but it’s currently dependent on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry personnel and material to the International Space Station. China and Russia have established a joint venture called CRAIC to build a wide-body plane to rival Boeing and Airbus. The recent successful InSight lander mission to Mars, along with development of SpaceX’s Dragon and NASA’s next generation of spacecraft, may put the US back into the leadership position.
The connector industry is taking on the challenge to adapt to and support these rapid changes. The Internet of Things offers great potential for a host of new copper, fiber, and wireless interfaces. The trend toward hardware miniaturization continues, with demand for more computing speed in less space while consuming less power and generating minimal heat. Component packages, such as system in package (SiP) and system on chip (SoC) continue to appear in new devices. Large data centers are adopting the use of servers as defined by open hardware standards such as the Open Compute Project and Open 19 organizations.
Input/output (I/O) channels have long been recognized as a significant data bottleneck and are being addressed with an alphabet soup of copper and fiber pluggable interfaces rated up to 112Gb/s copper and 400 Gb/s fiber performance. Traditional NRZ signaling is being replaced by PAM4 technology that can deliver higher data rates over existing connectors, negating the need for major hardware changes.
The search for new avenues of revenue growth are driving some connector manufacturers, such as Amphenol and TE Connectivity, to branch out of their traditional product segments to include high-performance sensors and antennas. Molex recently completed the acquisition of two industry leaders in FPGA accelerators. Samtec continues to expand its Microelectronics Group to augment its 3D packaging and wireless connectivity capabilities. Connector industry leaders continue to increase collaboration to address challenging business opportunities while beefing up their internal engineering support resources.
In the electronic connector industry, the ability to address increasingly complex system design challenges will determine which companies will lead in the race to achieve technology leadership as well as long-term survival. The race among nations to achieve leadership of global technology is yet to be determined.
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