Thresholds and barriers on the road of modern electronics

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Mindaugas VILIŪNAS’ main area of research at Vilnius University, Department of Solid State Electronics is charge carrier transport studies in materials with chaotic structure. Both the research carried out and courses being given (Microprocessor Technologies, Digital Signal Processors,  Application of Digital Signal Processors, and Computerized Physical and Technological Measurements) are directly related to application of embedded systems. In the second conversation with the interviewer, we will discuss the difficulties that arise in the area of electronics in our country.  The first interview with Mindaugas VILIŪNAS can be read here: http://is.mokslasplius.lt/en/iterptines-sistemos-ir-fizika/

How to avoid disappointment

Large number of talented young people wants to work in the area of embedded systems. What are the difficulties they often face, what should they know to avoid the early disappointment?

Mindaugas Viliūnas. The most talented Lithuanian youth face difficulties not because there is a lack of jobs, – they could create a workplace or establish a company themselves. The worst thing is the market that is very small, and getting to the foreign market is not that easy. It is not enough to know certification and other subtleties that may arise. They need to compete with cheap but not very high quality though as if certified goods from Asian countries. I say as if because if we attempt to perform testing and inspection, we often ascertain those goods not to correspond to the declared parameters. When we want to get certificates for our products, they have to meet strict EU requirements. For example, the laboratory of electrical compatibility perform testing and strictly evaluate the product, however findings reported in Germany or any other EU state are considered to be only advisory, and testing needs to be performed anew. Although our laboratory is certified, the test results are not trusted. There is no reason for distrust, however, it persists.

It means that in electronics engineering, we are not considered equivalent members of the Western world?

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M.Viliūnas, photo G.Zemlickas

M.V. We are not comprehensively integrated into the Western system. Science requires funding and subsidies while in engineering designing is simply followed by production and sale. We have fair capacities in the area of designing, and good specialists prepared by Kaunas University of Technology, Vilnius Gediminas Technical University as well as physicists from Vilnius University. We are also good in production, especially with the branches of strong foreign companies operating in Lithuania, and using services of contract assemblers to produce electronic devices. Of course, these products reach the market marked with brands of foreign companies. Lithuanian physicists and engineers are valued because most of them are led by internal interest rather than working from call to a call. On the other hand, marketing and certification issues abroad remain a significant obstacle for us. Patenting is another sensitive issue: a patent pays off only when your items are purchased, and in order for the items to be purchased, you need to be known enough. Therefore, some potential purchasers often wait until the patent expires and then use the intervention without hindrance.

Lithuanian controllers in Japan LED production lines

Developers of Lithuania lasers have earned a significant international recognition. How this helps for Lithuanian scientists and engineers from other technical areas however working in the area of embedded systems to anchor in the international space?

M.V.  As I have already mentioned, Lithuanian engineers are quoted well enough in the international space. The question would be why the sale volumes of well-known Lithuanian products are that low? I myself have worked with designing and producing laser auto-focusing controllers for Japans assembling equipment for LED production lines. These production lines cut out LEDs from semi-conductor wafers. Initially, laser was used for tracing a line for braking.

Similarly as a glazier cuts the glass before breaking it?

M.V. The difference is that a glazier uses a cutter, and LEDs are cut using laser ray. The technological problem lays in the fact that semiconductor surface is uneven, and laser must be focused to the surface at micrometer’s accuracy. Given inaccurate focusing, laser ray on the surface of semiconductor either does not have enough power for the incision, or the incision is formed under the surface. As a result of breaking, the crystal may fall apart thus increasing the losses. We have designed an embedded system that closely follows the surface by 1D (one-dimensional) camera and moves the laser focusing head accordingly. Probably 30 percent of all LED production lines in the world works using this controller that we have developed. As a result, Lithuanian lasers are well-known and valued in the world. However, lasers are not commodities but rather controllers required by certain companies.

Does imperfect technical terminology impede the progress?

What is needed for Lithuanian scientists and engineers to take up significantly larger international projects?

M.V. We need to become a part of international system, and this needs integration according to many different parameters. It might sound funny, but even the issues of international terminology are important. Now, guardians of language attempt to introduce Lithuanian terms in all the areas, however, a technical text written following all the normative requirements of the Lithuanian language, will be hard to understand even for the specialists in the area unless they use a dictionary with the newest terms. We should accept the fact of using international English terms, and start using them.

How then Lithuanian technical texts will look like? They would become examples of barbarisms-loaded texts. We should use approved Lithuanian terms and put English terms in brackets. Professionals will understand one another using slang; however students, engineers, and lecturers must acquire the feeling of responsibility for their native language. After all, we do not want Lithuanian language to turn into Frank Kruk’s[1] slang.

M.V. This is perfectly understandable. Nevertheless, linguists should be more tolerant to foreign terms. In the first place, they should not propose strange and inacceptable Lithuanian terms. Lithuanian terms that are coming to the field of electronics are of agrarian nature (for example, vartyklė instead of driver) and show our agrarian origin. The primary function of a language is information communication. If we are able to transmit information clearly and correctly, then the language performs its function good.

I would agree with this if we talk about technical (or even professional) language only, but language itself reflects national traditions, history, and the entire mental culture. This continuity is a huge asset because language is used for communication of different generations rather than of the people belonging to the same generation, or even specialists of the same profession.

M.V. For this continuity, home language is absolutely enough, and if we want not to stay behind global processes, we need to keep up with the terms also. I have talked on this issue with Japanese people, and they have admitted they are tailing off because their students need to learn a Japanese term for each international word. Until a textbook with all the newest Japanese terms is published, they do not know anything about the subject. Students of technical disciplines are falling behind as much as textbooks are late to be published. And we are talking about the country that is able to allocate considerable amounts of money for textbook publishing.

Our linguists learn those foreign terms only they are encountered with them in our scientific texts.

M.V. I’m afraid they are not encountered with these terms. Specialists suggest several usable terms, and linguists select the most Lithuanian ones from them, i.e. the ones that are closest to the descendants of tillers. We need to wait until those terms settle down, and then accept them or make them more Lithuanian. Students struggle while writing their final paper because they are required to use the “correct” terms. For example, a terminal of a field effect transistor is called gate in English, and in Lithuanian it is called sklendė (meaning ‘valve’). However, Russian translation of this term is затвор. Someone used the word užtūra while translating from Russian into Lithuanian, and eventually this term has settled. A nice Lithuanian term sklendė was replaced by the approved term užtūra. Although sklendė in this case was a quite exact term because it opens or closes the transistor. This term was understandable both for non-specialists, however there are some other cases that could drive to despair.

The above-mentioned term ‘užtūra’ has the meaning of an ice-guard, protective embankment, and one more meaning – restraint in language and patience. Is not linked to agrarian culture, but still sounds weird in electronics.

 

There is no such thing as too much information

What information do you have about the newest projects carried out in the area of embedded systems? What publications in this area would you recommend to read for your students?

M.V. It would make sense to present electronics companies that work with embedded systems in Lithuania. This is what the majority of these companies do. In the first place, these publications could be really useful for students. How do students look for job? Most often they do this through acquaintances, readings, and rumours. If they are interested in some publication or some news, they can go to the company for a talk even though the company is not looking for new employees. Presumably, the student has some ideas that might be interesting for the management of the company. After all, young people usually have fresh ideas. While studying, a young person learns certain things and hears about certain problems, and sometimes he comes up with the ideas of how to solve these problems. Maybe sometimes he lacks capacities; however, the idea may still be valuable. And if he manages to find a company that is interested in the proposal, the results could be quite impressive.

A lot depends on company’s executives, how they are inceptive to innovations, and how they trust idea generators from the street.

M.V. I see at least two types of executors: some of them themselves were students not long time ago; however, some of them are significant exploiters of employees. This is not very bad if a candidate is able to defend his interest. Then he will be able to get a job. Others are typical managers who do not understand physical or engineering processes. However, the majority of executors in Lithuania are qualified enough and receptive to ideas, therefore, I do not see any significant problems as regards managers.

When we see flows of young people leaving to Ireland, United Kingdom, and other EU countries, a question arises regarding the competence of corporate executives.

M.V. Sometimes I meet my former students and talk to them, and usually none of them complains about the years spent in the Faculty of Physics of Vilnius University. To tell the truth, there was one exception, but in that case he admitted to have incorrectly selected the profession. He saw the word management in the name of the study programme (Physics and Management of Modern Technologies) and entered this study programme. In my practice, it was probably the only one case of dissatisfaction with the selected specialty. I notice that after studying one or two years at the Faculty of Physics and later selecting other studies, students do not really regret the time lost. Hence, it is not considered as wasted time. You only need to look how many graduates of physics lead different companies that sometimes have little to do with the exact sciences to understand that a person who has studied these sciences is worth something. Physicists are often seen in unexpected places. The question arises “Why do physicists become so prominent?” It is because physics is a very universal science that is especially useful for working with embedded systems.

How to make Lithuania something else than terra incognita in the world

Where do you see the most favourable perspectives for applying embedded systems in science and engineering?

M.V.  If we take into account the projects carried out in our Department of Solid State Electronics at the Faculty of Physics, such as designing of organic LEDs, investments should be first directed towards research of the very physical processes. For example, we want to develop an embedded system that controls LEDs. In order to offer such systems for the broad market, it is necessary to develop the very microchip or a set of microchips, and this in turn requires higher investments and efforts. As a result, this project could be carried out only in cooperation with some other foreign company. In Lithuania, we do not have manufacturers of semiconductors, and this hinders our efforts in the area of embedded systems because these things are interrelated.

How would you explain the fact that mergers Nuklonas and Venta manufacturing semiconductors that used to operate in Lithuania were very widely known?

M.V. Indeed, Lithuania has ideal conditions for establishing and developing industry of semiconductors. Usually, these industrial companies are built away from intensive roads, airports, and other high-vibration sites. There is a sufficient number of such sites in Lithuania. We also have qualified people that are not tend to strike, and a good infrastructure. However, this requires especially high investments, and in order to attract them to Lithuania, security needs to be ensured. As a result, investors choose such countries as Malaysia or Thailand with frequent floods, tsunamis and earthquakes; however they do not feel they are taking risk. However, they do not come to Lithuania. Why? Let’s leave it for our readers to decide. Why not to mention the Big Brother, especially when he has threatened to come and reclaim everything that belongs to him. By the way, it was done by people holding high positions.

What possible solutions do you see?

M.V.  We need to integrate to the international system of this activity, and to become a part of this world, which is we are striving for. It is not necessary to follow Europe because it is getting old and has some other problems. Good examples can be seen and taken from other continents. Many countries are quite advanced in modern electronics. Chinese have just started developing their semiconductor industry and manufacture their processors. It could seem they have enough money for investments; however they do not flash them around because this is an industry that requires extremely high investments.

When talking about the semiconductor industry we also think about the problems of embedded systems because they are like twin systems that form a basis for modern electronics.

M.V.  We need capable partners to invest into development of the electronics industry. After the territory, resources, and intellectual potential of own country has been exploited, countries starts looking around to other countries. This is the case with Japan, South Korea, and other countries that have achieved much in this area. Therefore, it is important to get interested those that have money and look for new ideas and opportunities. Lithuania could be an attractive place for investors from various perspectives. Europe has the money in hand, however, it lacks people that would be interested in the things we are discussing. In Europe, we have reached the situation that has already settled in France, England, Germany, or Australia when being a physicist or an engineer is no longer considered a prestigious specialty among youth. It requires hard work, and modern youth is willing to live well with little efforts. As a result, these countries are happy to welcome young people from other countries including Lithuania that have acquired this specialty. For example, in Asia, young people struggle more than in European countries because there are not so many people willing to study “hard” sciences.

Investments need to be attracted. Do we have suitable intermediaries, special entrepreneurs? Does anyone assess our ministries according to the criteria of new investors attracted to the country? Most probably, we expect pleasant coincidences rather than working for the results.

M.V. Everyone that departs from Lithuania to work in other countries is like an ambassador or our country. He tells about Lithuania and opportunities it provides, he is able to invite former or present colleagues from Lithuania, or attract the interested persons to Lithuania. In the first place, I talk about people from the areas of science and business. In this sense, everything is going pretty well. Nevertheless, we need integration of science, business, and culture to ensure communication. We need to ensure that those coming to Lithuania do not feel like having arrived to incomprehensible and unfamiliar land.

Integration to the external world is necessary despite the fact we are rapidly losing our intellectual potential – Lithuanian youth is leaving the country.

M.V.  I would not say it is a loss of potential. People are constantly leaving and returning back to Lithuania.

Do you have a single young man in the Department of Solid State Electronics that has returned from abroad?

M.V.  For example, a colleague that has been selling our controllers in Japan for 10 years has now returned to Lithuania and continues doing similar things (only he has already stepped out from a youngster’s age). Such practice is quite common nowadays. In our Department we have Kristijonas Genevičius that has previously worked in Finland, and England, or for example, Professor Darius Abramavicius from the Department of Theoretical Physics, that has also worked abroad. Currently, we have incomparably better conditions in Lithuania than 10–20 years ago. I remember how in 1995–1996 we had to purchase a certain oscillograph, which would have been impossible without the support from G. Sorosas Fund. After Lithuania has joined EU, we give such devices and even those of higher class to our students.

Thus, the funding we have today is not bad; bad are the forms this funding reaches us. Everything is spoiled by the public procurement procedures, which are based on distrust and bureaucracy, and give the opposite effect that is expected even talking about the prices: we buy equipment at higher prices than it is offered by private companies. Not to mention the limitation of freedom of choice and delays that cannot be perceived by common sense. There was a case when a Supplier has withdrawn its tender after learning that the Purchasing Authority was Vilnius University. Later, after being persuaded to participate in the tender it has significantly raised its price because of additional staff to be employed and heavy paperwork expected, and the money being locked up for a half of a year. And eventually, they have won the procurement with the price twice lower compared to the one offered by more experienced competitors.

The simplified procurement procedure applied to small purchases from the winning companies is a good opportunity to purchase materials and tools in a simple way; however, it is defective with respect to the price, because no written contracts will hold a businessman from bidding up if he knows he is the only one supplier. In short, scientists are not politicians or road builders, and they can be trusted more, especially when the amounts of purchases are not that high.

Embedded systems make up an important part of modern engineering that has high potential. How would you describe it?

M.V. It is an area where everyone has something to do: both general engineers graduated form KTU and VGTU, and the Vilnius University Faculty of Physics that also prepares physicists. Maybe our physicists do not have much knowledge about working with embedded systems but they are able to solve physical problems by applying these systems. There are no doubts this area is going to expand in Lithuania in the near future. In the future, every device using electricity will contain one or more embedded systems.

Interviewed Gediminas Zemlickas


[1] Frank Kruk is a satirical novel by the Lithuanian writer Petras Cvirka.