History of the UK Semi-Conductor Industry and can we learn from it?

 Introduction

This blog post aims to give an overview of the history of semi-conductors and computer industry in the UK. So no all topics and areas will be covered. It will have a focus on the parts I find most interesting. So if you are looking for a detailed history this is not the place. It will use the overview to give ideas of what we could do to better prepare ourselves for the future and current challenges we are facing.

Knowing the history of something be it a place, industry, business, country etc., matters because it gives us insight into why our culture and society does certain things, and how the past has shaped it into what we know now. Also, history is a continuous documentation of our past. It’s a timeline rife with events, with one thing always leading to the next. By examining chains of events, and how one small occurrence can spark countless, invaluable incidents or one devastatingly large one, we begin to understand the nature of change. Our history reveals patterns in our pasts so by being aware of the story behind historical events can help us draw parallels between what happened then, and what is happening now, and what we can possibly do to prevent negative outcomes in the future. Finally, history provides a foundation for change. Only by having a firm grasp on history can we tackle the changes that we want to see happen. If we don’t understand the long, sprawling history behind the issues we are looking to change or maintain, then how can anyone expect to have a leg up against their opponents? History gives us insight into how things came to be, the effects that they have had.  With this knowledge, we can cite the relevant information we need to highlight the problem, better express why change is needed, and to try new things that have not been done before or relearn old things which we have forgotten about to combat it. This is the foundation of change.

The types of things we could learn include what strengths we have and how we could improve them along with identity areas which could be improved, also identify what we have lost and are there steps we can do to bring back those things and finally can use the knowledge of our past to better prepare fo the unknowns that we may face in the future.

Early Years 1940s to 60s

The modern digital computer differs from other calculating machines by having an internal memory of sufficient size to hold a non-trivial program and data. The first of these universal (as opposed to special-purpose) computers to come into operation was the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) at Manchester University, which first ran a program on 21 June 1948. By the end of 1949 there were two prototype stored-program computers in hesitant operation in the UK, with another in the USA and one in Australia. Of these four machines, the most user-friendly was the EDSAC at Cambridge University. 

In the UK, many of the early computer projects benefited from technological developments at the three Second World War R&D centres of excellence, namely: Bletchley Park, the Telecommunications Research Establishment and the Admiralty Signal Establishment. Leading scientists and engineers from these centres formed the nucleus of most UK computer design groups in the late 1940s.

The world's first commercially available computer was the Ferranti Mark I, delivered in February 1951 and based on a Manchester University prototype. The first computer to undertake business data processing was probably LEO (Lyons Electronic Office), based on the design of the Cambridge University EDSAC. LEO ran its first simple clerical program in April 1951.

The market was slow to take off. Most of the pioneering digital computers were, by modern standards, rather large, expensive and unreliable. Most could only be programmed in machine code. Manufacturers provided very little software.

In the early 1950s, analogue computers were preferred, over digital computers, for many applications where speed and compactness were required. Examples are areas such as defence and process control. In the business world, electro-mechanical punched-card equipment was the tried and trusted means for office data processing in commercial enterprises.

Ina collaboration between the Royal Signals & Radar Establishment (RSRE) and Plessey Semiconductors they worked to produce the world’s first model of an Integrated Circuit (IC) for the 1957 International Symposium on Components in Malvern, Worcestershire – a year before Texas Instruments made the chip that was eventually patented as the world’s first IC.

In the 1960s the UK Government funnelled money into Marconi-Elliott Microelectronics, Plessey Semiconductors and Ferranti Semiconductors. In 1967 it gave Elliott Automation a contract to install a metal–oxide–semiconductor (MOS) process (a year before Intel was founded expressly to develop MOS). Government money for chip research was $8m in 1968 – about a third as much as the American government was spending.

However, a Government-sponsored reorganisation of the UK electronics industry in the late 1960s saw mergers between GEC, AEI and English Electric, which had severe repercussions on the UK microelectronics industry. In 1968, the UK’s most successfully enduring semiconductor company, CML Microcircuits of Essex was founded and is still flourishing, making consumer and communications ICs, today.


Problem Years 70 to 90s

In 1971, during one of the periodic chip industry downturns, GEC closed the chip factories of Marconi-Elliott Microelectronics and Elliott Automation, which had been making standard logic chips under licence from Fairchild Semiconductor. That put the UK out of the market for standard, volume, commodity chips.

Seven years later GEC tried to get back into the standard IC business via a joint venture with Fairchild. The venture was abandoned after Fairchild was taken over by the French company Schlumberger.

Plessey was a world leader in ECL (emitter-coupled logic). Ferranti invented semi-custom chips by making the world’s first gate array – the bipolar ULA (uncommitted logic array) – and for many years dominated the world semi-custom market.

However, in the late 1970s, Ferranti’s management failed to make the investments necessary to succeed in CMOS and automated design. It was the start of Ferranti’s decline.

In 1978 the UK government backed an IC start-up called Inmos with an eventual $176m. Inmos’  idea was an ahead-of-its-time microprocessor which it called the transputer. However, the transputer was difficult to use and not oriented to the mass computer market. Eventually Inmos and its transputer were sold to Thorn, after GEC had declined a Government approach to take it over. Thorn passed Inmos on to STMicroelectronics.

In 1978, the UK put $200m into a five-year collaborative research programme called the Alvey project with GEC and Plessey responsible for the flagship project – the development of one micron process technology. Half way through the project, GEC pulled out leaving Plessey to carry on alone. Alvey’s aim of promoting a thriving UK chip sector failed.

The Alvey Programme was the dominating focus of Information Technology research in the period 1983 to 1988.  Alvey was conceived as a response to Japan’s 5th Generation Computer Programme, whose focus on parallel computing was seen to pose a threat to UK industry. The UK national programme was a multi-dimensional initiative with sub-programmes on Software Engineering, Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) in microelectronics, with a significant defence interest, Man-Machine Interface (gender-laden terminology that was rightly left behind in that decade) and Intelligent Knowledge-Based Systems – which was a deliberately coined synonym for AI.

The Alvey Programme produced mixed results.It has been judged that its technological objectives had largely been met.  To some extent, its structural objectives were also achieved in that it grew a large community of researchers and formed a template for academic-industry cooperation that was replicated both nationally and in the EU’s archetypal ‘ESPRIT programme’ which lead to Horizon. Despite this, the overall conclusion of the evaluation was downbeat. The leading UK participating firms such GEC and Plessey were losing ground and embarking upon a series of mergers and acquisitions that in turn did little to halt their decline.

New Millennium  90s into the 2000s

In 1990, with the UK’s traditional semiconductor industry dying on its feet, the micro-computer company founded by Hermann Hauser, Acorn, spun off its proprietary 16-bit microprocessor ARM as an independent operation.  Unlike most traditional microprocessor suppliers, such as IntelFreescale (the former semiconductor division of Motorola, now NXP Semiconductors), ARM only creates and licenses its technology as intellectual property (IP), rather than manufacturing and selling its own physical CPUs, GPUs, SoCs or microcontrollers. This is often called the Fabless-model. This model is similar to those of fellow British design houses ARC International and Imagination Technologies, which have similarly been designing and licensing GPUs, CPUs, and SoCs, along with supplying tooling and various design and support services to their licensees. 

Though while UK has produced during this period many globally successful fabless companies. Limited but specialised chip fabrication still occurs in the UK. In Scotland’s longest-living fab, owned by Raytheon in Glenrothes used the material silicon carbide to hew out a niche for itself as more standard silicon processing moves to foundries in the Far East. The material is not just extremely hard; it will work happily at much higher temperatures than those of silicon with the added benefit of having a wider bandgap. This difference in energy levels between insulating and conducting states makes transistors and diodes made out of silicon carbide less prone to break down under high voltages than silicon counterparts. The work is mainly on specialised devices for safety-critical industries such as aviation and in other harsh environments. With Raytheon operating the fab as a foundry service, providing manufacturing for other companies, many of them based outside the UK. 

Current 

At the moment the areas of the semi-conductor industry in the UK is roughly made up of businesses which focus on are: Fabless (design and licence chip architecture); Research & Development  (either through universities or company labs); Limited fabrication of specialist products; along with PCB manifactuing and final assembly of equipment. 

Learning from the Past to prepare for the Future

So, at the moment industry, companies and governments are looking at ways to future proof the semi-conductor industry as crisis such as COVID-19 and the recent blocking of the Suez Canal have shown the vulnerabilities in supply/logistic lines along with the ability to react to sudden changes in demand plus concerns over security of supply chains from interference by malicious actors. This is where having an understanding of history can help. To reduce concerns over long supply chains have fabrication of commonly used computer chips in the country would help but would take unto several years for new fabrications plants to be built and operational. For example, in the UK the market for chips include cars, consumer goods, ICT products etc,. Returning a capability that was lost over time. In the shorter term strengthen and support companies in the UK be it manufacturing, specialised fabrication, R&D along with the people who provide the knowledge that allow these companies to run.  If you don't look after what you have there is the risk that when you need it most it will no longer be there or function as you expect. 

Conclusion 

Hopefully, this has been an interesting post. This only skims over the history of the UK semi-conductor industry but hopefully provide a few interesting points of information. In my opinion we can learn from it to help build upon the industries strengths and mitigates its weaknesses. Along with rebuilding what we have lost. If you have found this subject interesting I would recommend reading further about this topic and discovering more about it for yourself. 


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