Material Gains

While the 5G era continues to take hold, materials science must advance for us to move to the next stage.

It's part of the human condition to never be satisfied. We are always looking forward to what comes next, and this tendency is starkly evident in our attitudes toward technology. As our daily lives have become substantially enabled, empowered, and – many would probably agree – enhanced by the technology in our pockets, in our cars, and in our homes and offices, we have become increasingly demanding of more and better. More features and functions, more sophistication, faster responses, less waiting.

Our attitudes toward mobile services illustrate the point. No sooner had 5G networks started rolling out than the focus shifted to 6G and the exciting new opportunities it could bring. But is this a harsh truth about our nature, or simply the reality of a massive scientific and engineering challenge? The mobile industry has established a rhythm that introduces a new generation about once every 10 years: 3G arrived around 2000, 4G-LTE in 2010, and 5G rollouts based on Release 15 of the 3GPP specification began around 2020. 5G evolution has continued, with non-standalone deployments giving way to standalone 5G core and further enhancements in 3GPP Release 16 and 17 to support industrial IoT (IIoT) applications. Release 18 now paves the way for 5G Advanced, which will offer energy savings and greater spectral efficiency, leverage AI to improve network performance, and, of course, enable additional new services and enhanced capabilities.

Read more: Preparing for 6G

Mobile health is a pandemic-driven change that could benefit everyone.

The pandemic has driven countless changes in behavior, lifestyles, working patterns, and our values. Many of us are taking a keener interest in our health than before and we're using the technology in our pockets to help keep on top of our wellbeing. Mobile health, or m-health, is a growing market that already hit $60 billion in 2022 and is predicted to top $300 billion by 2030.

We know that the sooner we seek help with an illness, the better the prospects for a satisfactory outcome. Despite this, many of us, upon noticing any unusual signs, are inclined to "wait and see." That's usually less than ideal and sometimes has dire consequences. M-health not only permits better self-awareness by enabling continuous monitoring of our own vital signs, but can also overcome procrastination by automatically reporting any worrying signs as soon as they become apparent. A suitable response and – if necessary – a care plan can then be configured quickly, leading to faster recovery. Our devices can effectively take us to the (digital) doctor at the first sign of trouble. This should contribute to better health and longer lives for everyone. It may also reduce the overall load on healthcare services by helping more people avoid acute conditions that can be costly and time consuming to treat.

It's also clear that m-health will lead to an explosion in the quantity of potentially sensitive personal data gathered into the systems that manage our care. This is necessary to accumulate digital knowledge regarding the indicators for various conditions, so that systems can become progressively better at detecting illnesses in their early stages and recommending the best course of action. Moreover, this knowledge will be based on real case data and therefore should be accurate and unbiased.

Read more: The Digital Doctor Will See You Now

The rebalancing of high-tech power must involve the entire supply chain – and will increase prices for everyone.

Advanced technology is an important instrument of power on the world stage. Arguably more than at any previous time in history, it's closely linked to economic influence, energy generation and management, healthcare delivery, international diplomacy, and military strength including cyber capabilities. Access to advanced technology is the issue at the heart of the current maneuvering between western nations and China, in particular.

Concerned about the potential for Chinese control over its communication networks, the West has restricted involvement in 5G infrastructure projects. It's currently limiting shipments of advanced industrial technology. Of course, China has responded, announcing export controls on raw materials like gallium and germanium, which are basic ingredients for producing compound semiconductors: a critical enabling technology for future generations of equipment such as optical networking, 5G infrastructure, and high-efficiency power conversion needed to ensure affordable renewable energy and e-mobility.

Read more: The Cost of Reshoring

Adaptability in all aspects is the PCB industry's greatest strength.

“Change is inevitable – except from a vending machine.” – Robert C. Gallagher

It’s an amusing quip (although perhaps increasingly incongruous given the rapid adoption of contactless payments) that lets me comment on some of the transformations we have experienced in the PCB industry over recent years. Some challenges, such as thermal management, had receded for a time but are now back and more urgent than ever. Others, like the constant demand to support faster and faster signal speeds, demand that we continue to extend the limits of performance from the materials and techniques at our disposal.

The PCB’s role has become hugely more significant and influential as electronic systems have gotten more complex, more performance hungry, and more mission critical. It has extended from providing basic mechanical support and connectivity to becoming a comprehensively engineered part of the system.

The electronics industry of today is vastly different from the way things were as recently as the 1980s. Thermal management was a great challenge, largely due to the inefficiency of circuits such as linear power converters and power amplifiers. The adoption of much more efficient switched techniques, as well as exponentially smaller chip fabrication processes, solved that challenge for a while.

Read more: Pushing the Limits

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