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How automotive power electronics are a hotbed for innovation?

19/03/19 Adam MacCionaoith Consultant, Contract & Interim

Power Electronics in the UK is driving significant innovation across a range of industry sectors including the automotive, renewable energy generation, energy networks, transportation and industrial processes arenas. 

The automotive industry is experiencing unprecedented change, with an explosion in features and functions which are growing at a rate we have never seen before. This is driving continued demand for in-vehicle automotive electronics both in the small signal and power electronics domains. 

Adam MacCionaoith, Redline’s Contract and Interim Consultant discusses how automotive power electronics are a hotbed for innovation in the UK. 

Last year saw a boom in the power electronics semiconductor market, mainly due to the increase in IGBT devices (Insulated-gate bipolar transistor) for electrical and hybrid electric vehicles (EV/HEV) and motor drive applications. These semiconductor devices are primarily used as an electronic switch which is designed to combine high efficiency and fast switching.

The automotive sector is stimulating growth in the power electronics market whilst inspiring further transformation. For an electrified vehicle, power electronics play a crucial role in controlling voltage levels, ensuring power is supplied to the electric motor and enabling plug-in vehicles to charge from the electricity grid. As the number of electrified vehicles on the road increases, the value of the semiconductors in a vehicle is anticipated to grow 15-fold when compared to a conventional version.

MOSFET demand is also being driven by EV/HEV and by networking and telecommunication suppliers. The market is expected to grow 8.3% CAGR between 2017 and 2023 assisted by the  development and installation of 5G networks.  

Yet despite the promising increase in value, the number of electrified vehicles on the roads still remains relatively low with automotive power electronics currently comprising a fraction of the wider electronics market. Additionally, as you venture further down the automotive power electronics supply chain, it is largely dominated by non-automotive companies who have innovated products for adjacent sectors. Many of the historic innovations in power electronics have emerged from sectors such as aerospace, renewable energy, consumer electronics or rail – current automotive technology has largely borrowed approaches from these sectors. 

Nevertheless, with the advent of electric vehicles, the tables are beginning to turn. The challenging requirements of the automotive sector are creating a demand for higher temperature materials, faster switching frequencies, improved reliability and more power dense solutions. More importantly, these solutions need to be scaled up to meet the demands of the automotive sector which creates a host of new technical challenges. 

Complex design and integration process for advanced technological devices are restraining the growth of the power electronics market. The power electronics industry is focusing more on the integration of multiple functionalities in a single semiconductor, which results in complex design constraints. Design and integration of complex devices and electronic assemblies require a special skill set, robust methodology, and toolset for integration, which increases the cost of the devices; thus, the current high cost restrains users to switch to more advanced technological devices. 

Power electronics and power supply technology is at the heart of mobility. The potential innovations in this fast-moving sector illustrate the increased level of work for both the R&D and Manufacturing community. More importantly for the UK supply chain, the window of opportunity to act is narrowing. Strong competition from Europe, Asia and the US are amassing considerable capability and IP in automotive power electronics. 

Many OEMs have re-shored their engineering operations to the UK and mainland Europe, increasing investment and production capability, and as a result, there are a great number of job opportunities in the power electronics sector across the UK. However, increasing consumer demand and changing technology in areas of portability means this is placing a strain on other industry sectors who are utilising power electronics engineering thus making it more difficult to find the talent needed. 

In a survey carried out by AESIN – The Automotive Electronics Innovation in the UK Automotive Electronics Capability Report 2018, 83% of (non-automotive) respondents confirmed that they were “Likely to” or “Possibly” start work in automotive electronics in the near future with 44% of respondents employing 1-10 engineers in the electronics sector and 45% of respondents employing 1-10 automotive engineers. 

Employers in this sector have been increasing headcount across the engineering community including automotive systems engineers, embedded software engineers and power electronics design engineering. With the advent of EVs and requirement for lighter chassis to improve range and performance, we’re noticing the demand for lightweight and composite specialists. This, in turn, creates further safety engineering challenges and job opportunities as OEMs strive to make cars lighter whilst maintaining safety standards. 

The scarcity of engineering talent globally, means sectors such as automotive have sought transferable skill sets from other industry sectors such as defence, oil and gas and mobile communication.

Redline are specialists in power electronics recruitment, so whether it's your next contract job or a change in career, please contact Adam MacCionaoith on 01582 878851 or email AMacCionaoith@RedlineGroup.com.