MCCI’s world-class research into microelectronics may be difficult for most to understand, but if they knew just how relevant that research was to their own lives, they may be pleasantly surprised, writes Pádraig Hoare.
Research at the Microelectronics Circuits Centre Ireland (MCCI) is changing the way we all live, says its executive director, Donnacha O’Riordan.
Electronic engineering has been a victim of its own success and reinforcements are needed in the industry. That is why there has been a major effort to attract curious young minds, the Tyndall National Institute-based head said.
“We struggle with attracting kids into electronic engineering and getting them to study it. Years ago, I was taking apart radios and breaking them up, when I was a child, and there was actually cool stuff inside in it that you could see. Whereas, today, if you break open your phone, there is nothing in it but one chip, because we have integrated everything. It’s then very difficult for kids to relate to it,” he said.
The initial results of a drive to get more young people into the industry are encouraging, says Mr O’Riordan.
“In primary schools, it is being addressed just by getting them broadly interested in science and technology. If you can capture that in the first instance, it is a big step. In secondary schools, it is through STEM and all those programmes. Then, after Leaving Cert, pretty much all the colleges, if you choose engineering, have a common first year.
“You haven’t chosen yet if you are going to be a chemical, electronic, energy, or whatever engineer. In UCC, we’ve changed tack to make it more relatable, a top-down approach to electronics. We try and start with the why; you’ll start with a module on robotics, for example. They are told ‘go build something that can navigate around a tabletop and get it out of the way of obstacles’. You’re hoping something then sparks in them. We ran that model last year, for the first time, and, this year, doubled the numbers going into electronic engineering. That’s just one data point, but it is now relatable to the graduates and why they are doing it,” he said.
The world-class research into microelectronics may seem a world away from lay folk who struggle to understand the complexity of it all, but if they knew just how relevant the research was to their own lives, they may be pleasantly surprised.
“A big driver for us is Internet of Things (IoT). The internet was, first, connecting computers together; the second wave was social media and connecting us together. The next wave is connecting things together. IoT means putting sensors on things, so they can interpret their environment, and become aware of that environment they are in. That’s got applications in industry — machinery knows what temperature it is on and what kind of vibrations it is feeling, when it is going to break down. Your car, for example, has driver sensors assisting the autonomous driver; all that kind of thing.
“IoT is basically trying to add the five senses we have onto a thing. The hard part of that is converting it to ones and zeros (how data is stored). Once it is ones and zeros, we can throw horsepower at it and process it, and do great things. That’s what our type of research it all about. It is the implementation of physics, essentially: if it works in theory, now we build it.”
The chances are that the smart devices in your home that will be commonplace in five years’ time may well have emanated from the research in MCCI.
“Electronics is so embedded in everything, yet it is invisible to most. Nothing happens without it. Electronics is shrunk down to almost invisibility now. We’ll spend a lot of time doing the research pieces, trying to figure out the solution to the problem we are trying to solve, simulating and modelling it, and coming up with that solution. Then, we build it — it gets manufactured off-site somewhere, and comes back to us. What we are working on is how to build the first 10, so that someone else can build the 10m.”
458 jobs have been created, and €27m in additional revenue generated, by member companies of MCCI since 2015. €150m has been added in value to the economy, a 20:1 return on investment for the exchequer.
MCCI, which brings six Irish universities under one umbrella, has 90 researchers and engineers, collaborating on 50 research projects, and is the single point of contact for the microelectronics industry in Ireland. It aims to be the global leading research centre by 2025, something it can be due to extraordinary collaboration, says Mr O’Riordan.
“You have everyone, from chemists and physicists, modelling and creating those materials, to people making devices out of those materials. We come along and make circuits for those devices. Then, there are people making systems with the circuits we build. That collaboration is what makes it work. The ability for me to have a coffee with a chemist is really crucial. It is a great place to work and research.”
Advances in coming years, in fields such as agritech, medtech and sustainability, will be able to thank the research being done in Cork.
“These outcomes are all achievable; we just need to build upon it,” Mr O’Riordan said.