Interdisciplinary Integration: the Future of Electronics?

Article By : Anne-Françoise Pelé

Electronics companies must promote interdisciplinary integration across teams. Can't do it? Then "you are dead."

Companies are beginning to understand that agility is not some vague virtue. Agility has specific goals, and there are specific processes for achieving those goals. We recently spoke with Yole CEO Jean-Christophe Eloy, the CEO of Yole Développement (Lyon, France), about what being agile actually entails.

At the strategic level, agility means being able to identify and react to market shifts early and quickly. Meanwhile, product development is becoming exceedingly complex, both because multiple processes must occur in parallel, and also because many new products require disparate technologies combined in new ways. So agile companies commonly form teams that bring together specialists with distinct areas of expertise, and it is sometimes a challenge to get them to speak the same language to solve engineering problems at the intersection of different disciplines.

Achieving an agile transformation requires breaking free from traditional thinking and operations to embrace a more collaborative and flexible model that adapts to the constraints.

Here is a snippet of our conversation with Jean-Christophe Eloy, CEO of Yole Développement (Lyon, France), during which he explained the benefits of taking designers out of their functional silos and integrating them in self-managed multidisciplinary teams.

EE Times: As a market research firm, Yole endeavors to capture the trends, challenges and economic impact drivers. Based on your market observations and research, what has changed in the way companies operate today?

Jean-Christophe Eloy

Jean-Christophe Eloy: What I see happening more and more is the convergence of approaches that were originally viewed as distinct and the integration of multiple disciplines to address challenges at the system level. For instance, image sensors are starting to be placed under the smartphone display. Image sensor companies then rely on the display technologies. And while the packaging was happening after the design of the device, it is now done in parallel. It’s the same for the integration on the PCB. New PCB technologies are using advanced substrates, and you have to design the substrates knowing what you are putting inside and knowing the packaging.

So things that were disconnected before need to be designed synchronously, and that’s super-complex because you need people with a background in semiconductors, optics, and packaging to be able to say ‘hey, this is not compatible with the packaging we are developing in parallel.” Engineers must be aware that what was once done separately is now done synchronously.

EE Times: Have customers shared such concern with you and asked for guidance? 

Eloy: Many customers are asking us how to do that in the fields of processing, memory, image sensors, and photonics in general. If we take the example of sensors, all the data coming from the sensors are processed, but the trend is more and more to process the data near the sensor. Where is the value? Who can handle that? We see a growing movement toward a mix of competencies either across the supply chain, from front-end manufacturing to the packaging, the modules and the integration of systems. We also see it across multiple fields like lighting, sensing, data processing and memory. This interdependency of things is starting to be a real issue for companies.

EE Times: How are companies dealing with this resource complexity?

Eloy: Companies try to hire people with the competencies that they lack, and interesting discussions start between people who just don’t understand what the other is talking about. They use the same words, but their meaning differs.

Integration is essential to collaboration, and multidisciplinarity is an essential contribution. If you put one person in the optics department, the other in the electronics department, you are dead, because they will stay in their own silo and not work together. It’s important to show teams working together, solving issues together, never bowed by the challenge of integrating photonics with electronics or whatever.

Because if you want to couple an optics design tool with an electronic design tool, it’s impossible. You can’t. These tools are not compatible. This is bread and butter for all designers using these tools for their day-to-day work, and it would be interesting to look at the companies that have been able to build a real bridge. How did they build human bonding to push integration, to encourage collaboration for the benefit of the design they are working on, and the success of the project?

EE Times: Who would be in a position to build that bridge? 

Eloy: Actually, some companies have had to build that kind of organization. Take STMicroelectronics, a pure semiconductor business with a big imaging business. Several years ago, they had to define at the corporate level how to hire people specialized in optics. They had a procedure in place to hire people coming from the electronics, from the packaging worlds, but not with an optical background. How do you integrate them into the company? What level of salary to give them? How do you promote them? You have to rethink a lot of different things to make it sustainable.

Sony is another example. Sony established itself in the image sensor field, but one year ago, they started to realize that processing was becoming super-important to imaging. How do you do that in a company like Sony, number one in its business?

EE Times: Is it true to all technology areas? 

Eloy: You see many different, but similar trends. It’s optics with electronics, optics with imaging, processing with memory, packaging with front-end manufacturing, assembly on a PCB, so all the functions that have to work together and more and more closely.

EE Times: How are you handling interdisciplinarity at Yole? 

Eloy: The most complex recruitment we have done was when we hired someone with a pharmaceutical background to work on electronics projects linked to pharmaceutical issues such as drug screening. He was doing exactly what we were asking him to do. He was telling us about the issues in the pharmaceutical industry. Great, but how do you translate that in electronics? It took several months to understand each other, but we all learned along the way.

By putting together people with different backgrounds on the same project, you give them the same goal and help them work together. Not on big projects but on small projects where they can have fast results, and move from one success to the other success. It’s more rewarding than trying to climb a mountain where everybody gets exhausted after two weeks. Being successful together instills a team spirit.

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