Where have all the hardware companies gone?

When I graduated in 1981 and took my first job at Mitel, I was debugging boards for the SX200 PABX. That job eventually evolved into building automatic testers which involved both hardware and software design. From there I transitioned to a job where I designed and built hardware for the next generation SX2000 PABX. Analog design then is much like it is now, somewhat of a black art. We used tools like spice to simulate analog circuits and then fabricated thick film hybrids with laser trimmed conductive ink resistors.

Prior to working at Mitel, the late 70’s I watched the emergence of the integrated circuit from companies like Intel, National Semiconductor, Fairchild and many others. My desk was littered with data books describing an endless array of Lego blocks. We would discuss our projects over beers in the pub on Fridays and all of my friends were building something. We built graphic equalizers, light chasers and countless other trivial circuits just because we could. It was fun and the possibilities were endless.

When I think back to the mid 80’s, the writing was already on the wall that there would be a transition to software but I didn’t expect the hardware industry to just disappear. Most if not all of the semiconductor companies have become fab less and with the decline of the telecom industry, analog circuit design has been relegated to the basement hobbyist. I went out to lunch yesterday with some friends and they spent some time talking about building an op-amp circuit to detect current flow, but that was the first hardware discussion that I’ve have had in years.

One of my good friends in the early days of Newbridge used to tell me “Fred, the world is analog and there will always be a requirement to interface with it.” Well that may be the case Peter, but it seems that the interfacing is being done somewhere else. I can’t help but think that there is still allot of innovation to be done in the hardware domain. The world is analog and it would seem that biology is going to play a big part in the next technology wave.

At a Tae-kwon do training session a week ago, one of the guys suggested that we have a contest to see who had the biggest sweat puddle after our sets of push-ups and sit-ups. My wife commented that guys are always fascinated with measuring things, which drew a few laughs, but it’s true. When I run I measure my intervals, heart rate, time per kilometer, etc.

How about a start-up company that concentrates on rugged analog to digital circuits that take biological measurements and feed them back to your mobile device. There are a few of these, but I bet the aging population could use a bunch more.

Just a thought for all you retired hardware guys. It’s time to break back out the Lego.

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