What if Europe made its own Open Microelectronics (Education)?

(background: in september 2012 a “coming soon portal for European Businesses” asked me to write an article with the same title as this one here, expanding on what I had already written on the topic. I delivered that article on October 23, 2012, but never heard back from them, and as far as I know that portal is still “coming soon”. Later on, other people told me that maybe the idea could get some financing from this EU FP7 call. At this point, it is very unlikely that I and the others who expressed interest will be able to send a proposal before that deadline. However, since the general issue will still be there and the delivered article went unused, I am publishing it here, in two parts and with some minor changes. The introduction explains why and how, in general, Microelectronics makes the world work. If you already know why, just read the actual proposal below. Everybody interested to develop the idea, please contact me.

The introduction explains that “those who control microelectronics manufacturing control the world pretty much like those who control oil fields or carbon mines. Maybe more, [and] if you want to bring manufacturing back to your country, you’ll need much more microprocessors (to power robots if nothing else) in almost any factory.

Today, however, most of the control of this technology is outside Europe, which makes European citizens, businesses and public administration pay a lot to use integrated circuits made, or “owned” through patents and such, elsewhere.

This is not a theoretical issue. China considers it so crucial that it recently started designing a national, unified CPU architecture, just to reduce its reliance on foreign technology and products, in a sector as vital today as microelectronics. My point is that Europe may, and maybe really should, do something similar. Here’s what.

How is Europe doing?

Europe is in deep crisis now. It badly needs to find ways to make its citizens earn a decent living doing stuff that makes sense, pollutes as little as possible, is modular, resilient, flexible. Some call all this “innovation”. Oh, and what about that big trend of the moment that is “Smart Cities”?

Smart Cities are cities that consume much less, and are much cleaner, safer and generally pleasant to live in that what they have been lately. To become Smart, european cities will need myriads of sensors and other mostly microelectronics gadgets, coupled with the right software and with residents willing and able to use them.

Apart from Smart Cities, a big part of what may or should be done in Europe requires microprocessors and other integrated circuits. Hospitals, farms, cars, pretty much everything that may benefit from automation or remote control (including bureaucracy and the military…) has to use them. So…

What if European businesses and Public Administrations…

What if European Governments, Public Administrations and private SMEs had access for all their needs new types of microprocessors and FPGAs (that, remember, can become almost every digital circuit one may need, especially in low volumes) designed in Europe, for Europe? In other words, what if all these organizations, from the smallest startups to the EU central bodies, had access to integrated circuits that:

  • are free from both legacy inefficiencies and patents (search online for “patents stifle innovation” to know what I mean)

  • cost less, both for the reasons above or because, in the FPGA case, they make small volume productions feasible

  • help to reduce the current European

    • brain drain, lowering the entry barrier for European SMEs and start-ups in the microelectronics sector

    • reliance on foreign technology and products, with all its associated economic, and sometimes environmental costs

  • large numbers of skilled students and workers, who already know the basics of digital hardware design?

Yes, designing whole new processors and/or new FPGAs, plus the fabs to make them, especially in ways that don’t break any existing Intellectual Property or similar rule, is a huge task. More exactly, it is almost surely a task that may never be finished, not in useful time anyway, if it were undertaken by anything less than a whole continent (or by China…). That’s why I suggest it as a worthwhile mission for the European Union.

Current Europe is full of Universities with software and microelectronics faculties struggling for funds, and in some cases for something meaningful to do. I’m not sure that, even working all together, Open Source style, they could give Europeans a “microelectronics security”. But I’m convinced that such a security would be a great thing for Europe, and that going at it in an Open way would be the only way to succeed.

Separating Manufacturing from Education

In case you’re skeptical about the costs and difficulty of the whole vision (which, I agree, are big), please note that this whole exercise can, and probably should, be split in two completely independent tasks:

  1. making new, Open digital hardware

  2. implement a massive European Education and Training program, that really helps and motivates as many EU students and workers as possible to learn the basics of FPGA and other microelectronics components design

Task 1 would be a real solution to EU microelectronics dependence, but (while still worthwhile in my really humble opinion) it is very complex, expensive and slow. Task 2, instead, is “only” about teaching as many EU citizens as possible to use whatever microelectronics already exists, and too bad if it isn’t european, to build smart cities and many other necessary things now. A hardware development kit for learning FPGA design can cost as little as 100/200 Euros. Therefore, Task 2 is much, much, much simpler, cheaper and quick than the first. It only needs the right support.

If you’re interested to develop any part of this discussion, please contact me. You may also want to read my previous posts on the economic and educational potential of modern open microelectronics for Europe).