Made in the UK: software, electrical and mechanical

The UK remains a fertile ground for tech ideas providing the vital IP building blocks to create some of the most well-known, current digital products in the world. This was reflected by the presence of the largest British companies represented last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, such as Arm and Imagination Technologies.  Witnessing the sunshine and glamour from our wintery shores during this time made me wonder – with such a rich technological history, where are we up to now on the world stage when it comes to consumer electronics?

The majority of British companies at CES were promoting their own branded products. Some of my favourites included a smart baby pacifier from Blue Maestro, a nano camera drone from Torque and a smart coffee maker from Smarter. Also, a company that originally formed at Bristol University (now called Ultrahaptics) that has developed a system that creates tactile sensations in mid air without the use of gloves or attachments.

With our largest tech companies licensing out their IP and the smaller companies manufacturing and branding, it seems to highlight that we can do everything well, other than develop an extensive raft of mega brands. Our technology is in a surprising amount of these brands, but the billion dollar investments required to launch the next Google or iPhone on UK soil still seems just out of reach. I remain optimistic that the UK is in a unique position now for a breakthrough on this scale.

With most of the world’s fintech investment focused on London, software development is gathering at an increased pace. Together with a heritage of high quality electronic and embedded R&D organisations it seems inevitable that a strengthening local ecosystem makes for interesting times ahead.

Simon Johnson is co-owner of Cinche Ltd a cutting edge software services company, primarily servicing the mobile and embedded industry, he says that the UK’s digital investment efforts often misses what we do best.

“Up and down the UK there are any number of small and medium sized enterprises which are built upon the foundations laid by traditional UK engineering firms of past decades, but with the addition of being influenced by the home grown embedded sector, fuelled by the organisations you mention, most notably ARM of course.

These are unique institutions where you can see the software developed on one floor and guys machining metal on the floor below.

These companies rarely get the headlines or appear at high profile events, and yet these guys are churning out real products to customers all over the world whilst sustaining a salaried workforce. Whilst the government are plugging away at Shoreditch’s social media aggregators who frequently make huge losses and rely on venture capitalists to keep going, the backbone of innovation continues in forgotten workshops and industrial estates. These are the kinds of products Britain makes well and these are the kinds of organisations where I believe we’ll see the biggest successes.”

It’s hard to find a large global brand that doesn’t use British technology in their products. As Fabrice Triboix, MD of software house Flacon One Ltd points out, “there are high quality niche companies and products like e2v who are the world leader for space CCD cameras. Virtual all space telescopes are fitted with e2v CCD cameras”. This is a familiar local story, low volume, high quality products – which are a good foundation on which to build. Peter Sadler from MUSIC group says “we seem to do audio very well, I don’t know if this is the heavy influence of our music. We have quite a multi national workforce and I’m told the the enthusiasm for music in the UK is high by “external ” observers”.

From a strong tradition of audio design and manufacture, this has evolved a healthy digital TV and set top box industry making good inroads into the consumer markets. Now that digital is booming on the web it surely makes sense that this world maximises on the value of software, electronics and mechanical. With the imminent arrival of IoT this is inevitable.

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