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Computer and Peripherals Material Project

Prepared by Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Group
for Environment Australia
October 2001
ISBN 0642547734


2. Background

2.1 Industry Status

The information and communication technology industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. Worldwide the industry has nearly doubled in size over the past 10 years, with total spending in 1992 of US$1.3 trillion expected to exceed US$2.4 trillion by 2002 (WITSA 2000). Australia is one of the top ten countries using information and communication technology (ICT), ranking tenth in the world for spending per capita and fifth in the world for spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (WITSA 2000).

In Australia the ICT industry has grown by nearly 12% over the past 5 years, accounting for approximately $50 billion in sales and $4 billion in exports on an annual basis (AIIA 2000). However the Australian ICT market is only a small percentage of total worldwide shipments. In 1999, Australia accounted for only 1.9% of a global market of around 113 million units per annum (IDC Australia 2000).

Following its rapid growth in recent times, the ICT industry has now entered a phase of consolidation. This has been evidenced by the withdrawal of Gateway from the Australian market in August 2001, and the merger of Compaq and Hewlett-Packard in September 2001. Market forecasts suggest that the Australian market for computer equipment is likely to shrink by approximately 2.7% in 2001 over the previous year (Braue 2001), although there is some optimism that new technology and software will continue to maintain sales at current levels.

There are approximately 18,500 businesses involved in the industry, including manufacturers, software developers, consultants, and other specialist businesses. This includes approximately 1,400 computer wholesalers (including manufacturers and distributors). The majority of ICT businesses (43%) are located in New South Wales, with the second largest representation in Victoria (AIIA 2000).

The companies which dominate the Australian ICT market are subsidiaries of global companies, mostly of American or Japanese origin. Other Australian manufacturers have developed a niche export market for computers designed for specialist applications, including defence applications and use in hazardous environments (e.g. refineries).

Some companies undertake assembly in Australia from parts manufactured overseas. However most computer hardware is imported from overseas rather than manufactured or assembled locally. In many cases the international parent company does not manufacture their own computer components, but assembles products (i.e. computers) using components produced to their specifications by companies that manufacture specific components (i.e. printed circuit boards, modems, etc.). Often there is little input from the Australian subsidiary into design features or the manufacturing process carried out overseas.

The Australian computer market is dominated by five manufacturers, which account for approximately 50% of shipments (IDC Australia 2000). These manufacturers are (in alphabetical order):

This list is expected to change in the future following the recent merger of Compaq and Hewlett-Packard.

The Australian printer market is dominated by three manufacturers, which account for approximately 80% of shipments (IDC Australia 2000). These manufacturers are (in alphabetical order):

Printer and toner cartridges are supplied by these same three manufacturers, as well as local re-inking and re-filling companies.

Structured data cabling of the type used in networked environments is produced and imported by a number of companies as part of their overall cabling supply business. Cabling for computers represents only a small percentage of the overall cable market, which is dominated by supply to telecommunications businesses.

2.2 Equipment

A typical computer system can be described by breaking the system into three distinct sections: inputs, processing and outputs.

Inputs are information conveyed to the computer through devices for either manual entry (e.g. game controllers, keyboard, mouse) or digital entry (e.g. imaging equipment such as scanners and digital cameras). Many devices are in general use, however others are developed for more specialised applications (e.g. graphics tablet or magnetic card-reader).

Processing includes executing software program instructions and mathematical processing, which is undertaken by a central processing unit (CPU) that is linked to ancillary processors, memory modules, input and output devices.

Outputs are the means by which processed information is communicated to users (e.g. monitor or printer). Some components fulfil both an input and output role (e.g. network interface cards and either fixed or removable storage devices).

Computers, monitors, printers, scanners and other equipment are described separately in the following sections. Whilst these sections are not intended to form a primer for the manufacture and construction of computer equipment, a number of industry terms and acronyms have been included to facilitate identification of key components, and to provide examples of their use.

2.2.1 Computers

Computers are made in a variety of forms to cater for different applications, with the most common forms being desktop computers, laptop or notebook computers, and servers.

Desktop computers are generally comprised of several components connected together to provide inputs, processing and output (e.g. case, keyboard, monitor and mouse).

Laptop computers have integrated input, processing and output devices to allow for ease of transport, and as such are much smaller than desktop computers (i.e. smaller than a briefcase).

Servers are specialised computers that are used to coordinate inter-operation by a number of computers and output devices over a network.

Common components of all three forms include those outlined below.

The location of these components in a typical desktop computer is shown in Figure 2.1.

Image showing the components of a desktop computer

2.2.2 Monitors

Cathode ray tube displays (CRTs) are the predominant display technology currently used in computer monitors. A CRT is generally comprised of a glass panel screen, a plastic casing (often with a swivel base), various connecting wires, magnetic and radiation shielding, and the cathode ray tube itself.

The cathode ray tube holds electron guns and deflection yoke coils, which create an electric field that directs a flow of electrons from the guns through small holes in a shadow mask to illuminate phosphors on the back of the glass panel screen. This tube's glass funnel contains lead for radiation shielding, and is joined to the glass panel screen and shadow mask using a 70-80% lead-content solder. The location of these components is shown in Figure 2.2.

Internal Components of a Typical CRT Monitor

Flat panel displays are an alternate display technology to CRTs that is predominantly used in applications where portability (i.e. weight, size) and energy consumption are important (e.g. laptops). Liquid crystal displays (LCDs) are a type of flat panel display where the monitor produces an electric field to trigger a grid filled with crystals, with the resulting arrangement of crystals forming the desired image on the screen. Figure 2.3 indicates the principal parts of an LCD screen.

Internal Components of a Typical LCD Monitor

An LCD screen is comprised of electrodes on two glass substrates with liquid crystals sealed into the narrow gap between them. There are approximately 300 different liquid crystal compounds used, comprised of non-hazardous organic chemicals. The common LCD technology used in computer monitors uses separate and independent Thin Film Transistors as a switch for each pixel. Turning these switches on or off will align the liquid crystal molecules so that light from the screen's backlight is allowed to shine through to a coloured filter and then to the front of the display. Up to four fluorescent lamps and a thin light diffuser are used to provide light so the screens may be seen in the dark. This assembly is sandwiched within a metal frame for protection and ease of mounting.

2.2.3 Printers and Cartridges

Printers download digital information from a computer onto paper, generally through one of three processes, namely dot matrix, inkjet and laser printing.

The dot matrix or impact system is akin to a typewriter, with a printhead impressing a combination of tiny pins onto an inked ribbon to form characters and images. Machines of this type were historically the least expensive option to purchase, however the comparatively low quality of the printed material and the decline in cost of inkjet printers has led to a considerable decline in use over recent years.

Inkjet printers use cartridges that are comprised of a supply of ink and a printhead of tiny jets embedded with electronic heating elements that force the ink onto the page. The quality of images that these printers are capable of delivering, combined with the relatively low cost compared to laser printers, have led to this printer becoming the dominant type for low-volume users.

Laser printers use a laser to describe an image onto a drum, which induces a negative electrical charge on the drum surface that causes the positively-charged toner particles to adhere to it. The toner is transferred to paper as it passes over the drum, and a heat roller then fuses the toner to the paper. The rapid delivery of printed material that this process allows has led to laser printers becoming the dominant printer for high-volume users.

Printers and their cartridges are predominantly made from moulded plastic with metal parts. Laser toner cartridges also contain a glass drum that has been chemically coated to impart particular charge and thermal related properties.

2.2.4 Scanners

A scanner is a device that takes in an optical image and digitises it into an electronic image. This can be used to create a computerised version of a photo or illustration. It may also be linked to optical character recognition software allowing printed documents to be converted to electronic text without keyboard entry. There are a number of different forms of scanner, including handheld and 'flatbed' readers. They are generally comprised of a moulded plastic housing with a glass copy plate, a bright scanning light and PCBs with control ICs.

2.2.5 Cabling

In addition to the cables present within a computer case, there are cables for the transmission of power (e.g. from the mains electrical socket to a computer power supply, monitor, printer, etc.) and data (e.g. from the printer port of the computer case to the printer, or from the video output to the monitor). These cables tend to be in short lengths and are generally comprised of copper wires with a sheath of plastic insulation.

Copper cabling is also used in the interconnection of two or more computers to form a network. Alloys used in copper cable vary greatly, with the percentage of copper used proportional to the distance between connections and the quantity of current that the cable is expected to carry.

Fibre optic cabling, where the glass conducts data as pulses of light, is also used in the creation of large networks. The majority of applications for optical fibres lie in the telecommunications sector and, whilst there are specialised adapter cards available to network PCs using optical fibre, it is rare for cabling of this sort to be directly connected to desktop computers, laptops or servers.

2.2.6 Other Devices

Handheld computers are compact integrated devices designed for portability and usually for inter-operability with desktop or laptop computers. They are generally sized to fit within the palm of one hand. A variety of forms exist, however the common components are a battery, ICs, LCD and a PCB within a high-impact plastic case.

2.3 Technology Trends

Moore's Law, first observed by Gordon Moore in 1965, indicates that new chips contain roughly twice as much capacity as their predecessor, and that chips are released within 18-24 months of the previous chip. The number of transistors on a chip has increased from 29,000 on the 8086 in 1978 to 7.5 million on the Pentium II processor. This trend in the increase of processing speed and memory capacity has been accompanied by a subordinate trend for the cost of new chips to decrease, bringing the latest technology within financial reach of many computer users within a short period of time following their release.

The decline in the cost of new technology has also affected other computer components. The average unit price for LCD screens has decreased from approximately five times the price of a CRT monitor to approximately double. Decline in cost of inkjet printers has led to their increased uptake as an entry-level printer, resulting in a considerable decline in use of dot matrix printers over the last 5-10 years. The low cost of production is also demonstrated by the packaging of printers and other peripherals as bonus items when a PC is purchased.

The resolution of printers and scanners, through improvements in hardware and software design, has increased significantly over time. In the case of printers, this has resulted in the demise of dot-matrix printers as the quality of output from ink-jet printers rendered them largely uncompetitive. In the case of scanners, improvements in resolution have been accompanied by an increase in demand as use of the Internet to electronically transfer images and text increases.

As the technological capability of chips (and other components) has increased, software developers have written programs to exploit the capabilities of the newer technology. As a result, the minimum operating requirements for new software has steadily increased over the past 10 years.

The performance of CRTs has undergone continual improvement, in response to a demand for larger screen sizes and better resolution. Whereas 12"-14" diagonal screen widths were once commonplace, CRTs available for sale are presently between 17"-21". Reduced dot pitch (i.e. better resolution), colour matching, and flatter and more lightweight design are features becoming readily present in standard rather than premium products.

Advances in telecommunications engineering yield continued increases in the quantity and quality of signal able to be carried over computer networks. As a result of these advances, standards for the design of cabling and their connection systems are changed, as illustrated by the replacement of Thinnet (characterised by black co-axial cable) by Un-Twisted Pair or UTP (characterised by blue cabling with large telephone-style connectors) as the standard networking cable.

The dynamic nature of the ICT industry cautions against making detailed predictions for the future, however there are several key trends that will affect the nature and quantity of computer and peripheral equipment manufactured in the future.

New devices are being developed that will provide a choice of products for activities that have traditionally been the domain of PCs. These range from TV set-top Internet access and dedicated console gaming devices (e.g. Playstations) to appliances integrated within other electrical and electronic equipment. As these devices are unlikely to replace the role of the PC for productivity and fundamental computation, it is more likely that this will result in an increase in the number of devices used within certain sectors, as opposed to the replacement of PCs.

The technology used in computers and peripheral equipment is continually being improved, and the physical limits to the size and capability of equipment are being stretched. Opportunities will become available to produce units using less materials and at smaller overall size. It is also likely that the performance of components will continue to follow Moore's Law for the near future, and as such there will be continued incentive to replace existing equipment.

The choice of individual components by consumers is likely to reflect both their capabilities and their cost. The perceived benefits of LCDs, including less radiation emissions than CRTs, lower energy use, lower incidence of eye strain among users, together with the reducing price differential compared to CRTs, are expected to provide LCDs with an increasing market share over CRTs in the near future. Integrated devices that provide multiple functions within the one product (e.g. faxing, photocopying, printing and scanning) may also increase in use, particularly when the cost of purchasing such devices is competitive with that for separate components.