“LLC defined” highlighted an electronics market segment whose end products have an expected useful life over 5 years and “LLC electronics ecosystem” explored the challenges for the support for these products today. The technical challenges involve issues of reliability and obsolescence, but these are driven by business challenges of the relative size of the LLC electronics markets as compared to the overall consumer marketplace. Will this continue to be the case? To explore this topic, it is useful to look at broad mega-trends in the electronics marketplace.
Over the last 70 years, computing solutions have fundamentally shifted major parts of the world economy. As shown in blue in Figure 1, the first wave of electronics consisted of centralized computing and the leaders in the field included companies such as IBM, Digital Equipment Corporation, Wang, and others. Fundamentally, these technologies provided productivity solutions for the administrative (G&A) functions for the global business enterprise. With this shift, the finance, human resources, and administrative functions of global business were disruptively impacted. Gone were the days of a sea of admins doing paperwork.
The next wave consisted of edge computing devices (red in Figure 1) such as personal computers, cell phones, and tablets. With this capability, companies such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and others could add enormous productivity to the advertising and distribution functions for global business. Suddenly, one could directly reach any customer anywhere in the world. This mega-trend has fundamentally disrupted markets such as education (online), retail (ecommerce), entertainment (streaming), commercial real estate (virtualization), health (telemedicine), and more.
Today, we are at the beginning of the next major disruptive cycle caused by computing. This cycle consists of embedded sensory devices (sometimes known as Internet of Things), local intelligence systems (sometimes known as machine learning), and global intelligence (sometimes known as cloud resources). Broadly called AI/IoT, these three technologies will disruptively impact nearly every market segment where in-field sensing with computing can solve interesting problems. Medical, mining, agriculture (land or ocean), space operations, and of course autonomous vehicles, are examples.
What are the core characteristics of the AI/IOT “smart” devices? They are fundamentally LLC products with slightly different characteristics. Let us examine with some examples:
- Active maintenance: Automobiles are an example of products with a long lifecycle but with an active maintenance business model. With autonomous vehicles, the expected lifetimes are well into the ten-year range, and there is an expectation of maintenance and upgrades. Today, automotive is considered to be a large size in terms of volume (80M yearly worldwide), but relative to consumer devices, it is relatively low volume (1.5B cell phones yearly worldwide). Further, the average utilization of an automobile is less than 5% and the combination of mobility-as-a-service and autonomous technology may well lead to significantly lower volume in the future.
- Iterative updates: Medical devices go through an extensive and expensive certification cycle. Once they are through qualification, it is not desirable to change the products, and so they take on the characteristics of LLC products. In this use model, the system design is fixed, but under the umbrella of certification, equivalent functionality changes have a much lower barrier to recertification.
- Smart infrastructure: The notion of smart manufacturing, smart cities, smart roads, or smart buildings consists of embedded electronics (typically sensors) in infrastructure which is subsequently used for higher level optimizations. Once embedded, the cost of updating is extremely high. In this world, not only are obsolescence and reliability critical issues, but some thought towards future requirements volatility is also particularly important. If one can update function through software into the infrastructure, this becomes a powerful tool for innovation.
Overall, electronics has driven mega-trends which are changing the face of society worldwide. The next wave consists of the combination of the use of electronics embedded in edge function and system designs which are fundamentally Long-Life Cycle (LLC) in nature. However, to be effective, clear solutions are required for the fundamental issues of semiconductor obsolescence, reliability, and in many cases future requirements volatility. What are the business and technology techniques which may address this problem? Could an age-old financial structure of insurance close some of the gaps in the current electronics ecosystem? A topic for the next column.