Small is beautiful

Small electrical and electronic components and devices are found everywhere

By Morand Fachot

The trend to reduce the size of many systems and devices is gathering pace, driven by cost, energy efficiency and environmental considerations. It is most noticeable in the electrical and electronic domains which provide components that are integrated into other equipment and systems such as mechanical products, to make them smaller, more efficient, reliable and cheaper to operate. Many IEC TCs are involved in ensuring the success of this trend.

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Micro, mini, pico, nano: there are few domains where all these suffixes are used as frequently as in electrotechnology.

They can be found in hydroelectricity production where mini-, micro- and pico-hydro stations are proving more and more popular in places in which large hydropower stations are not feasible for various reasons.

In power generation and distribution, minigrids and microgrids, small clusters of loads and generators linked together and sharing one point of connection to the wider grid, are seen as a groundbreaking solution for providing access to electricity for the 1,3 billion people currently without it. They are being installed in rural areas that are beyond the reach of the main grid. They are also used elsewhere to provide reliability, grid stabilization and renewable integration in both developing and developed economies.

In electronics, downsizing is the rule of the game. This is the result of the growing global demand for small and affordable consumer electronic goods, the integration of miniature electronic components and devices in other systems and the quest for lower manufacturing costs.

The downsizing trend has spawned nanotechnology, the science, engineering and technology of manipulating matter at a nanoscale (i.e. down to 1/100 000th the width of a human hair) to create new and unique materials and products.


Electronic components are now ubiquitous in applications ranging from packaging, where RFID (radio-frequency identification) is used to identify and track products, to large mechanical systems such as motor vehicles, trains, ships or aircraft.

The miniaturization of electronic components, such as semiconductor devices, and electronic assemblies, as well as the gradual and recent introduction of new techniques and processes such as printed electronics or nanotechnology, have made it easier to integrate the devices into other products – or create entirely new ones.

Work across the IEC

The trend towards the production of smaller systems and products has been made possible by the work of dozens of IEC TCs (Technical Committees) and their SCs (Subcommittees), whose title often indicates that their work focuses on small components.

All electrotechnology products require a power source. Small, mini, micro and nano components and devices often draw their power from either rechargeable (secondary) or disposable (primary) batteries. IEC TC 21 and TC 35 develop International Standards for, respectively, these types of cells and batteries.

Small components and devices also require other parts, such as cables, connectors, miniature fuses, capacitors and resistors. IEC TC 20: Electric cables, SC 32C: Miniature fuses, TC 40: Capacitors and resistors for electronic equipment,TC 48: Electromechanical components and mechanical structures for electronic equipment, as well as many other IEC TCs and SCs develop International Standards  to enable the production of such small scale technologies.

Semiconductors have played and will continue to play a decisive role in the miniaturization of devices and systems. International Standards for these are developed by IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices, and its SCs, in particular: SC 47E: Discrete semiconductor devices, and SC 47F: Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS).

Standardization work by TC 119: Printed electronics, a rapidly expanding area, will open many more opportunities for the production of smaller systems, assemblies and devices.

Ever smaller

Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at the atomic scale, is seen as a key technology for the future. Its ultimate goal is to build nanomachines, mechanical or electromechanical devices whose dimensions are measured in nanometres (millionths of a millimetre).

Companies and governments are investing heavily in nanotechnology. The US government, for instance, is allocating nearly USD 1,8 billion in federal funds for the sector in Fiscal Year 2014. Global government R&D investments in nanotechnologies were reported to be around USD 7,7 billion in 2010.

The sector has generated global economic returns of some USD 253 billion in 2009 and is expected to bring in nearly USD 2 500 billion by 2015.

IEC TC 113: Nanotechnology standardization for electrical and electronic products and systems, was set up in 2006 to develop International Standards for the technologies relevant to electrical and electronic products and systems in the field of nanotechnology.

In June 2013 it approved a Nanoelectronics Standardization Roadmap that will provide the foundation for a standardization strategy for nano-electrotechnologies.

The TC is developing and has already published International Standards for the use of nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes or graphene, as well as for nano-enabled electrotechnical products. Environmental, health and safety issues are at the forefront of its work. This is due to the fact that a number of materials that are, under normal circumstances, harmless for humans, animals or the environment can become toxic at the nano-scale because of their increased ability to cross skin or cell-membranes.

Relentless march

The quest for more compact and energy-efficient devices and products in many consumer and industrial applications and goods is driving a strong demand for smaller electrical and electronic components. These are integrated into equipment and systems for which many IEC TCs and SCs prepare International Standards.

Household appliances have become much more versatile and can be programmed more easily than ever before thanks to smaller electronic components. They have also become safer. IEC TC 61, prepares safety requirements for electrical appliances for household and similar purposes.
 The same trend towards smaller products has been observed in equipment and systems for the audio, video, multimedia and IT domains, including displays, for which TC 100 and TC 110 develop International Standards.

A significant segment of electrical medical equipment relies on microsystem devices that are based on MEMS. The so-called bioMEMS market is expected to increase threefold over the 2012-2015 period to exceed USD 6,5 billion. International Standards for electrical equipment in medical practice are prepared by TC 62.

Small equipment helps take you far away

The automotive sector is a major user of electronic and electrical systems as the electrical content of motor vehicles is growing constantly. Cars contain a wide range of systems that include printed circuit boards and sensors to control lights and wipers, to indicate parameters such as speed, tyre pressure and temperature, or to set off airbags. They offer more security and comfort for road users and contribute to the lower fuel consumption of vehicles.

Small electronic and electrical components and assemblies have also led to major advances in avionics, the electronic systems used on aircraft instrumentation for navigation, communications, and flight management. They have greatly improved flight safety and made it possible to have lighter systems, an important factor in a sector where extra weight translates into significant additional fuel consumption and cost. IEC TC 107 develops International process management Standards on systems and equipment used in the field of avionics.

The integration of smaller electric and electronic components and systems is set to expand into more electrotechnology domains. This trend is made possible by the standardization work of dozens of IEC TCs.

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Special conductive ink is used for printed electronics (Photo: DuPont) Special conductive ink is used for printed electronics (Photo: DuPont)
Nanochip Nanochip