Europe invests in talent, says Melexis CEO Françoise Chombar
Françoise Chombar, CEO of Melexis, the Belgium mixed-signal and sensor chip firm tells Electronics Weekly how Europe is leading the world in R&D for in-vehicle electronic systems ranging from CO2 emissions reduction to drive-by-wire systems.
What is the biggest opportunity in terms of technology and/or markets in 2012?
Françoise Chombar: There are some important automotive industry trends for the coming years. Firstly, the industry needs to lower energy consumption and curb CO2 emissions. This requires e.g. more magnetic and pressure sensors and smart actuator components in powertrain and motor management.
Secondly, people start looking at mobility in different ways than in the past. For example, more people on the road means that greater safety and protection from injury is required for vehicle occupants and pedestrians.
Legislation and consumer expectations are driving the use of more micro-electronics to achieve this, from tyre pressure monitoring to cameras.
Finally, new generations of young drivers expect the connection between their car and their mobile devices to narrow. Near field communication (NFC) technology is showing itself as great value in bring greater connectivity to cars.
Europe’s car market is predicted to follow a modest growth path, the US car market is steadily improving, yet China’s automotive market is ramping up considerably.
More importantly, the automotive IC market is already worth over $20bn each year and the semiconductor content per car is due to increase at close to 10% for the next 5 years (according to Strategy Analytics).
Another important potential sector moving forward will be personal health. NFC based wireless solutions for example are being considered for blood glucose meters, while our intelligent infrared sensor devices are finding use in non-contact patient thermometry systems.
What challenges in global markets are keeping you busy at the moment?
Françoise Chombar: Any challenge opens up new opportunities; it’s just a question of making challenges work for you instead of against you. The scarcity of talent, for example, is a worry for many companies.
Another challenge that is considered to be a threat by many Western based companies could be the gradual shift of economic power to Asia. For example, our sales and applications centre in Shanghai is the largest and fastest growing of our offices.
If you had to name one design technology with the largest commercial potential this year, what would it be?
Françoise Chombar: The migration from mechanical to electronic/mechatronic systems could have a huge impact in the automotive sector – completely revolutionising the form that future vehicles take – leading to lighter, more fuel efficient cars, while also helping car brands to reduce the heavy manufacturing costs they are subject to.
Innovation in magnetic sensor technology is now allowing some of the main producers of automotive sensors to develop sensing products and accelerating this migration to ‘x-by-wire’ implementations.
What does Europe need to do to ensure it retains a leading position in the global market?
Françoise Chombar: The fact that countries like India and China are no longer simply seen as locations for low manufacturing facilities, but are now also proving increasingly popular in many industry sectors for the establishing of product research sites shows that the engineering pool available in these places is rapidly maturing.
Nevertheless it is still Europe that really drives innovation in automotive electronics. The safety, powertrain, infotainment and comfort features being designed into high end, luxury vehicles here in Europe right now will, over the next few years, filter down into the lower cost vehicles for the mass market all over the world.
With the amount of semiconductor technology found in each new generation of car models continuing to increase at a significant rate and as a greater proportion of the mechanical parts are replaced by electronics, the chip suppliers who can offer car brands a true competitive edge will prosper. Six of our seven research and development centres are here (four in Western Europe and two in Eastern Europe).
We have budgeted for euro 25m of investment this year on improving our production facilities, with around euro 9m of this going to the refurbishment of our facility in Ieper, Belgium.
In addition we continue to hire – from experienced industry veterans to newly qualified university graduates. If Europe is to keep its position in the world order it needs to nurture its home grown talent.
The governments of EU member states, as well as industry, must all be willing to make the necessary long term commitments. Europe must absolutely step up its efforts in activating talent, both at the bottom and the top of the age pyramid.