Last month’s news from Longbridge reignited the now familiar debate about the UK’s engineering future: is there any way we can compete with low labour cost economies, or should we just concentrate on the specialist stuff?
With the consensus being that intellectual property and high-value products are the way forward, there can be few companies more qualified to carry the UK baton than Chelmsford’s e2v technologies.
e2v, which leads the world in the development of high-powered microwave and sensing equipment, appears to tick all the right boxes. Its products, designed and manufactured in the UK, find their way into everything from the latest dental equipment to multi-million pound space telescopes.
Its technical advice is regularly sought on some of the world’s biggest science projects and, most recently, it formalised an already healthy relationship with academia by opening a centre of excellence at Brunel University.
And if this isn’t enough to get trade and industry ministers slavering, e2v has even bucked an apparently irreversible trend by exporting products to China.
Technology director Dr Trevor Cross is charged with continuing this success. An affable and enthusiastic advocate for UK technology, Cross has been spearheading the company’s technical direction for three years, but has been with e2v since 1985.
He initially planned to stay for just a couple of years but the breadth of applications for the firm’s technology quickly had him hooked. Cross explained that e2v started life as the English Electric Valve company (EEV), which during World War II began manufacturing vacuum electronic devices used in radar equipment to generate microwave pulses.
While this technology is still at the core of much of e2v’s work, today’s systems are considerably more powerful than their forebears. The company now produces devices capable of extremely high-power, high-frequency and high-quality microwave pulses, a set of properties, said Cross, that makes them ideal for a variety of communications or analytical processes.
‘Vacuum electronic devices are not going to go away,’ he insisted. And although the technology itself is quite mature, new applications are appearing all the time. For example, the company recently joined forces with Nottingham University and mining companies including Rio Tinto to develop a machine that uses high-power microwave pulses to help break up ore-containing rocks more efficiently than current methods.
With up to five per cent of the world’s annual electricity bill spent on milling technology, this development could have important environmental ramifications.
e2v is also likely to be a key player in the construction of the first of a new generation of synchrotron machines, the 4th Generation Light Source (4GLS). Expected to be constructed at the Daresbury Laboratory, near Warrington in Cheshire, this machine will generate extremely high-intensity pulsed beams of UV and X-ray light, around a trillion times brighter than a light bulb, to enable researchers to view chemical reactions as they happen.
The project, expected to be completed by 2010, could lead to the development of better drugs or electronic devices.
Cross explained that he has formed a collaboration with the Daresbury Laboratory to develop the high-power radio frequency drive pulses required for the machine. Further into the future he also expects to be involved in the hotly anticipated international linear collider project, a proposed particle accelerator expected to cost around $10bn (£5bn).
‘We’ll be developing particular new product variants for that — there’s probably $2bn (£1bn) worth of RF equipment to be supplied and we have high hopes of contributing in the design phase and sharing some of the manufacturing,’ he said.
The other core area of e2v’s business is image sensing, and Cross presides over the development of some of the most sensitive imaging devices in the world. Much of this work is focused on extremely powerful versions of the charge coupled devices (CCD) chips found in digital cameras.
‘Digital camera chips do a great job, but hundreds of millions are made a year and they cost just a few pounds each. If you’re doing the best science in the world, you need to have the most sensitive detectors and that’s where we come in,’ said Cross. ‘We make devices that cost £1m each, and could fly on something like the Hubble space telescope.’
An important project for this side of the business is ESA’s Gaia mission. Slated for launch in 2011, this European space telescope will make the largest ever map of our galaxy and much of the key technology for the instruments is being developed by Cross’s team.
‘We’re developing around 170 individual eightmegapixel devices which, when placed side by side, will form the biggest focal plane array ever built,’ he said.
The challenges in designing products for this kind of mission are immense: if the device fails, the mission fails, and the conditions in space are unforgiving.
‘When you’re making instruments for satellites that cost £350m you have to have a very sound science case — your instrument has to be the best that’s ever been planned to do that job. And although you’re pushing the boundaries, there’s a balance, and you don’t want to push them so far that you risk it being impossible to do,’ said Cross.
One of the keys to ensuring that the devices will do their job properly is the exacting simulation and testing carried out by Cross and his team. For instance, during the development of imaging devices for space missions, individual tiles are hooked up to simulated spacecraft electronics and tested in vacuum chambers at temperatures as low as -100°C.
Away from the space industry, the roll call of application areas must make managing e2v’s R&D activities a complicated business. From breast cancer screening equipment, to CCD-based devices used by dentists to replace X-rays, the medical sector is an increasingly important market.
And in a heartening reversal of current manufacturing trends, the company has even exported technology to China for use on its LAMOST spectrographic terrestrial telescope. Part of the reason for this wide spread of activity is that Cross makes sure that his department is already anticipating potential trends.
His team keeps a close eye on sectors such as nanotechnology, MEMs-based devices and, one of the biggest potential growth areas, automotive technology. Here, e2v supplies the tiny microwave source for Bosch’s Adaptive Cruise Control units. With this system expected to become a standard feature on more vehicles and with longer-term forecasts for automotive technology suggesting an ever-greater use of sensing technology, Cross is very positive about the potential of this application of its technology. T
his proactive approach to hunting out technology is exemplified by e2v’s recent decision to invest a large part of its R&D budget on opening a new research centre at Brunel University. The centre for electronic imaging (CEI) will, said Cross, enable the company to share its facilities with academia, farm out some of its R&D activity and, perhaps most importantly, get preferential access to highly skilled engineers.
‘A lot of people in industry say the university base is going the wrong way, and not giving them the people they want. My answer to that is if you get out there and talk to people you can usually find a way to do what you want — it’s a great model,’ he said.