Engine of growth of the 21st century


Engine of growth of the 21st century

Umer Salim, CEO and MD of Dubai-based i4 Technologies, speaks to Khaleej Times on technology trends that will soon change our lives

By Suchitra Steven Samuel (supplements Editor)

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Published: Sun 25 Jan 2015, 2:57 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 8:35 PM

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam (left), Chancellor of Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IISST), with Umer Salim (right) and his father Unnikammu, a retired scientist from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), discussing Salim’s project.

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam (left), Chancellor of Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IISST), with Umer Salim (right) and his father Unnikammu, a retired scientist from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), discussing Salim’s project.

Umer Salim, CEO and MD of Dubai-based i4 Technologies, is an Indian technocrat who is specialised in electronics and communication engineering. He may seem like a simple person from the outside but when he starts talking, he means business and speaks with confidence about futuristic applications that have immense technological growth potential.

Inspired by his father, an ISRO scientist and a team-member of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, former president of India, he was tickled by science at an early age. His significant technological contributions and ability for differential thinking has made it possible for i4 technologies to enter the emerging frontiers of cutting-edge technology and develop highly sophisticated electronic applications.

Salim continues to be involved in scientific development with a team of scientists in areas of physics with implication and application in photonics and communication systems based on electromagnetic waves. He has been living in the UAE since 2006. He speaks to Khaleej Times in an exclusive interview. Excerpts: 

Could you briefly describe what printable electronics is all about?

Printable electronics, aka printed electronics, polymer electronics, organic electronics or plastic electronics, is the cutting-edge technology for creating fully functional active and passive electrically functional electronic or optical components on flexible/rigid polymer/glass substrates by using precision printing and deposition methods. Printable electronics has literally revolutionised the consumer and strategic electronics sectors. Exotic products like bio-medical wristbands and curved OLED TVs are just a few examples. 

What inspired you to work on printable electronics?

My father’s work at India’s Space Agency gave me an early peek into the realm of applying multi-disciplinary science and technology to solution of complex issues. After starting i4 Technologies in Dubai, visiting global technology fairs and conferences became a hobby of sorts and gave me an insight into the cutting-edge research and development taking place around the world — but my primary interest continued to be in electronics and developments taking place in the sustainable renewable energy sphere.

I was always looking for the latest and the best in technology developments and, by the middle of the last decade, there were clear signs that printable electronics would emerge as a game changer in the 21st century. By the latter part of the last decade, we were able to form excellent two-way relationships with leading printable electronics research and development labs in Europe, which has resulted in several ground breaking process developments in energy-saving high intensity lighting and display products as well as solar films using printable electronics technologies. 

Mohammed Khalifa, Associate Director of Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (DSOA), with PH Kurian, Principal Secretary of Industries and IT, discussing the Printable Electronics Project at GITEX 2014.

Mohammed Khalifa, Associate Director of Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (DSOA), with PH Kurian, Principal Secretary of Industries and IT, discussing the Printable Electronics Project at GITEX 2014.

What are the changes you foresee in the years to come?

Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, space travel, 3D printing, display and personal communication, renewable energy generation, autonomous vehicles, cloud computing, health care, and sustainable food production and distribution are going to be the real challenges of the 21st century and printable electronics is destined to play a major role in all these developments. Individual privacy and security of digital data will remain a thorny issue this century. 

What are the pressing environmental concerns that this technology addresses?

One of our biggest concerns today is how to maintain growth while preserving our environment and printable electronics processes, having extremely small carbon footprint compared to conventional populated electronics will play a key role in addressing our environmental concerns while maintaining economic growth. 

Tell us about the current progress being made in line with these concerns.

Environmental pollution is an extremely important issue and all stake holders in the emerging printable electronics sector are actively engaged in promoting extremely environment friendly clean process technologies only. For example, the entire manufacturing process for roll-to-roll printing of solar films has carbon footprint, which is less than 25 per cent for comparative silicone based solar panels. 

Engine of growth of the 21st centuryWhat about the research going on in different parts of the world?

The progress achieved in printable electronics is entirely IP related and a product of highest quality academic research coupled with massive investments from private and government sectors primarily in the UK, Germany, Finland, the US, Japan and South Korea in the entire spectrum related to printable electronics — from developing smart printable materials using nanotechnology to developing cutting-edge clean technologies for printing and encapsulation. The range of products which are now moving from lab to fab to commercial manufacturing using printable electronics technologies is literally mind boggling — wearable electronics, flexible and curved OLED lighting and displays, flexible solar films printed roll-to-roll, printed semi-conductors / resistors / capacitors, smart cards, RFID, lab on a chip for medical diagnostics, instant water quality monitors, etc. — the list is growing every day. 

What are the plans for India?Engine of growth of the 21st century

India could not take advantage of the first ‘Electronics Revolution’ due to regulatory and logistical reasons. Printable electronics is ushering in the second revolution in electronics manufacturing technologies and now all the developing nations are on a level playing field. This new age game changing technology is set to attract massive foreign investments in electronics manufacturing as well as in out-sourced research and development projects from the developed countries with potential to generate millions of new jobs and billions of dollars worth of exports.

Realising the potential of the electronics manufacturing sector, the Government of India as well as several state governments have come up with extremely attractive incentive schemes for new investments in the entire Electronics System Design and Manufacturing (ESDM) sector — encouraging the set up of focused ‘Electronics Manufacturing Clusters’ (privately owned or in joint ventures with state governments), along with centres of excellences for research and development and manufacturing process development — this is the same model that has been promoted in the developed countries during the last decade with phenomenal results.

We in i4 Technologies, with active co-operation from the Government of Kerala, are in the process of setting up India’s first mini-cluster and a Centre of Excellence focused entirely on printable electronic technologies and the first phase of the project will be completed by 2017. There is potential for setting-up several such dedicated manufacturing clusters in India based on printable electronics and we intend to emerge as a leading player promoting such industrial clusters in India in the future. 

What are the obstacles that need to be overcome for the large-scale use of this technology?

For any new and emerging technology, funding is usually the biggest obstacle as conventional financial institutions like banks, etc. are accustomed to handle project funding based on historical data and thus availability of Private Equity and Venture Capital Funding is an essential component in developing this exciting new manufacturing field in India as in other developing countries. 

Engine of growth of the 21st century

What is your vision for the UAE market?

We are based in the UAE for the last several years and I am fully confident that the UAE, with its liberal economic policies and an extremely pro-active government actively encouraging technological innovations in all spheres of life has the potential to grow as the manufacturing centre for the entire region. A unique printable electronics inorganic pigmented lighting plant based on our technology is already in operation in Dubai for the last several years. Incidentally, it is literally the first large-scale manufacturing unit using printable electronics in the entire region including India, South Asia and Africa. However, in order to achieve maximum and rapid absorption of printable electronics technologies and processes, we intend to focus on design and the set-up of dedicated technology cum innovation parks in the entire region, including the UAE, which will successfully integrate manufacturing activities with centres of excellences and academic institutions covering the entire spectrum of lab to fab to manufacturing. 

Anything else you would like to add?

Leadership in manufacturing is key to a country’s welfare and long-term growth and printable electronics and allied energy saving technologies will emerge as the engine of growth in the 21st century.


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