As technology becomes more and more intertwined into society, how will the state of engineering evolve in the coming years?

By Jim Fusaro, Senior Vice President, Global Design Solutions, Avnet

Years ago, I lost a best friend in an auto accident. As I watch the automotive industry rapidly adopt new innovations such as interactive safety systems, automated driver-assisted systems, and ultimately self-driving cars, I realize that the biggest change in engineering is that connectivity is foundational; “sense, measure, and act” is becoming a part of our daily lives. The creative element—or the “art” of engineering—is becoming as vital as the science of engineering.

How a product communicates in an interconnected world—as well as what role it plays in this vast new organism of devices—will be just as essential as the function the product performs. Engineers will need to retool the way they think about design—from a device to an ecosystem perspective. That’s because sensors and communications are being built into nearly everything. There will be more than 28 billion connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices by 2020, according to IDC. We are taking the physical world and digitizing it at an accelerated pace.

Cars that talk to each other as well as their surrounding environment will inevitably save lives—of family and best friends alike. Factory automation will require new engineering approaches as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technology require new predictive algorithms for optimizing factory production, as well as orchestrating self-learning robots and machines. In healthcare, engineers will need to rethink how they design solutions for interconnected systems that understand the real-time state of someone’s health and take appropriate action.

This interconnectedness means that engineering will be become much more data and software driven. We will see a lot more engineering work focused on solving massive computational challenges of ecosystems generating a much greater amount of data—in real time. This will be made possible as computational speeds increase a thousand-fold during the next 10 years and as machine learning accelerates.

Interconnectedness changes won’t be just between devices. Real-time voice translation is quickly advancing. In the not-so-distant future, we will see the technology embedded in smartphones and other communications devices, removing the last remaining barrier to human-to-human communication. What are the new possibilities for product design in a world where language—or at least interpersonal communications—is essentially universal?

None of this surprises me. I’m a byproduct of the space age—reminded of how the Apollo moon mission changed the world. I have seen engineering evolve from the aerospace age to the era of computing, to consumer electronics and mobile communications, to the current trends of cloud, AI, and IoT. The evolution in engineering will be transformational as engineers focus more on the art of engineering to improve the human condition for the human race.

By Erica Johnson, Director, University of New Hampshire InterOperability Laboratory (UNH-IOL)

We live in a world centered around gadgets, consumerism and efficiency, pushing technology into every facet of our lives, and in turn impacting the state of engineering.

As technology becomes more integrated into society, I believe engineering will evolve through education. As an example, when your washing machine sends updates your GPS that re-route you to stop at a store, engineers need to understand both the technical details and the potential societal impact. Today’s learners are comfortable with such technology, and embrace new opportunities through exploration and existing tools.

Two aspects of education will drive the evolution—individualized learning and traditional primary/secondary systems. Individualized learning will stem from the desire to tinker, modify, and train products to fit individualized needs. Opportunities for learning outside the classroom via online training is one example. In recent years, we’ve also seen an effort to push coding and electrical engineering knowledge into high school or even middle school levels.

Both trends lead to employer expectations that the majority of employees already understand how to interact with devices, similar to expectations that everyone in the workforce understands basic word processing and spreadsheet tools.

At the collegiate level, this evolution won’t impact many traditional engineering principles taught, like classic design tradeoffs (cost, time, features) nor will it change the deep technical understanding of systems. Instead, increasing amounts of interdisciplinary coordination of learning and a focus on flexibility of design will emerge. Also, it’s increasingly important for engineers to understand how data is collected and analyzed, the need for privacy and security of that data, and how it will impact society.

As engineering evolves the importance of educating our workforce with the right skills and a historical context for the devices being created, becomes critical. As does increasing and diversifying within the STEM disciplines.

By Dr. David Fried, Chief Technology Office (CTO) of Coventor

As technology becomes more pervasively deployed (internet, mobile, IoT, wearables, apps, etc.), it seems that society is becoming more aware and interested in the fundamental aspects that underpin these technologies, such as semiconductor devices, software programming, etc. For too many years, these topics have been attributed to a select group of experts and not typically visible to general society. I hope that this new interest fuels an increase in the popularity of engineering education, from elementary education through graduate levels. If the engineering community can grow to include a more diverse set of minds, from different backgrounds and experience with different perspectives, the quality of solutions that emerge will obviously improve accordingly.

By Brynt Parmeter, Director, Workforce Development, Education and Training, NextFlex

To understand how engineering will evolve over the next five to 10 years, it’s essential to grasp three key criteria that will drive the coming tidal wave of new manufacturing-related jobs:

  1. Machines that make and machines that learn will be more integrated and able to communicate, which will make manufacturing more efficient going forward. It will also greatly escalate our ability to extend connectedness into every area of our lives: residential, industrial, commercial, retail, along with agriculture, health care, and many other sectors.
  2. The volume of connected devices themselves will double to 50 billion in the next five years, thanks to artificial intelligence (AI) and, most notably, the broader Internet of Things (IoT).
  3. Machine-performed tasks continue to increase—in five years, they will be doing nearly 50 percent of functions once handled by humans. With certain activities being accomplished more efficiently, people will be free to do other work with a greater value-add.

Engineering will evolve in today’s climate similarly to the way food production techniques advanced over time. Thanks to technological developments, one person can now harvest an entire field when, a century ago, a hundred people may have been required. However, those other 99 people weren’t expelled from the industry. On the contrary, integrating technology has enhanced agricultural production and created jobs related to growing, harvesting, packaging, distributing, and dozens of other jobs in the research and supply chains. The same phenomenon is occurring within the tech sector. For example, instead of calling the “cable guy,” you call the “tech integration expert” to help install and set up your smart thermostat, refrigerator, connect them to your smartphone, security system, and smart lighting/energy setup. These advances mean new technology is spawning new jobs, and we need to be ready.

By Krishna Shekar, Senior Director of Flash Memory Marketing, Winbond Electronics Corp.

Engineers will be challenged to design product and systems that maximize the performance of available components while still requiring the minimal amount of power. In the memory realm, it’s obvious that with the tremendous amount of data expected to be generated by IoT and automotive electronics, engineers will be challenged to find ways of managing this data efficiently.

By Scott Phillips, Vice President of Marketing, Virtium Solid State Storage and Memory

Engineers will be increasingly challenged by the dual (and some might say competing) objectives of protecting data and making them as readily available as possible. By that I mean the Internet of Things—and especially Industrial IoT—calls for data to be collected and stored in billions upon billions of devices, but can (and should) be made secure through protection options such as industrial-grade storage technology and data encryption.

By Don Li, CTO at CUI

Greater access to technology and information will continue to “decentralize” the role of engineering and product development in the coming years. The advent of Raspberry Pi and similar single-board computers has allowed engineers and makers alike to develop their ideas without the R&D resources of a traditional OEM. Now you see most of the major semiconductor manufacturers marketing their own rapid prototyping boards, making it much easier for individuals to take these core technologies and quickly turn concepts into working prototypes. The common barriers for an individual engineer to take a prototype to production, including redesigning the product for mass production, BOM selection, and supply chain management, are quickly being removed by innovative companies who recognize the disruptive nature of this trend. Arrow, for example, launched their Indiegogo initiative last year to help individual engineers and innovators take their prototypes to production by investing in their design and providing support at every stage of development.

Another trend that continues to accelerate is the outsourcing of engineering work by OEMs. The impact of this has been a segmentation of engineering skills in the electronics industry. A good illustration is the ODM model, where the contract manufacturer takes on part or all of the design work for its customer. The customer, for reasons of resource limitation or cost containment, only retains the very essential engineering skills tied to its core competence, or relies completely on the CM to design and manufacture the product based on a set of agreed-upon specifications. We see more and more of these examples happening in the industry.

By Paul Wiener, GaN Systems VP of Strategic Marketing

Humans are interacting with devices more, and IoT is connecting more of them together. Vehicles will soon drive on their own, refrigerators can remind us what to buy, while our homes can generate and store energy for us. The implications for engineers means broadening a problem statement from “how do I make this work” to “how do I make it work, and smartly interface with humans, talk to other devices, whilst reducing our carbon footprint and improving our quality of life.”

By Christopher Cole, Vice President of Technology for Laird’s Connectivity Solutions Business

As if product engineers don’t have enough to worry about already, their list of responsibilities is going to increase in the next couple of years as wireless security becomes something they must address themselves early on and throughout the design process for wirelessly-enabled products. In the past, product engineers could lean heavily on component manufacturers, security companies, and corporate IT departments to make wireless products secure. Their own security responsibilities were typically limited to using secure components and following best practices that allow security companies and IT departments to provide protection after implementation. The well-documented vulnerabilities of IoT networks as of late are re-defining product engineers’ responsibilities to make security a fundamental responsibility. The need to put a greater focus on wireless security will come not simply from within the engineering department, but also from end users and from the engineer’s own corporate board rooms, where concern over security breaches are considered not simply a technology issue but one of a corporate brand nature. To successfully fulfill these wireless security responsibilities, product engineers will need to have a holistic approach that includes adopting more secure embedded programming- a closer scrutiny of vendors’ security protocols, closer collaboration with module and component manufacturers, and stronger internal security protocols that ensure consistency across all product engineering from concept through production and support.

By Rodger Hosking, Vice President, Pentek, Inc.

As Arthur C. Clarke stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And, the insatiable appetite for magical appliances, systems, conveniences, capabilities and features drives innovation and competition, spawning new industries and companies. At the heart of each effort is an engineer who perceives or is challenged with a need and then develops an innovative strategy to satisfy the matter.

In the past, the user of a clever new invention like an apple corer could understand its operation and also see how it works. Today, the vast majority of users of new inventions can never understand the underlying complexity, and only care about price, ease of use, and effectiveness.

Going forward, successful engineering must apply increasingly-higher levels of complexity to solve difficult problems, while striving to make the human interface as simple and accurate as forming a thought.

By Scott Soong, CEO, Pervasive Displays

Technological innovation in my industry today is less about discovering something new and more focused on minimizing and optimizing what we already have. By minimizing I mean reducing unnecessary overheads and simplifying the production of items at a lower cost, yet consuming less energy during this process. There is a cost associated with trying to fit more into a smaller packet. Engineers are also focused on optimizing existing technology to assure the customer better interoperability. This involves making the right decisions and trade-offs during the design process to ensure that the resulting product works in the way the user needs.

By Louis Parks, CEO at SecureRF

The state of engineering has been advancing quickly to allow the embedding of processors and technology where it would never have fit just ten years ago. This has enabled an unprecedented amount of data to be collected on each and every individual in society—and many of the things that we’ve rendered reliable. Companies and users have become addicted to data—purchase, fitness, health, travel, and texts from my car telling me what it needs. Engineering will continue to feed this demand for more data. The continuing surge in data creation, connectivity, and analytics (when combined with AI) will create profiles and behavior predictions that will give companies you have never heard of better profiles of our society and us—beyond any sociologist. All on the backs of our engineering community.

By Roberto Lu, Vice President of Technology, Automation Manufacturing Technology, Global Operations, TE Connectivity

Crowd sourcing is a trend that has steadily been rising and is applied in more applications including innovation. Innovation by crowd sourcing has been a popular topic globally, and has proven successes with companies and teams such as Android and rLoop. If we look back, most innovations around us were developed by small teams or individuals. Looking to the future, both small team/individual innovations and crowd sourcing will likely coexist in a complementary fashion. Social media plays a large role with the ability to facilitate fast and comprehensive communication between individuals and groups; engineers across the world are able to interact and create at the click of a mouse. The ease and accessibility of available social media platforms are leading a transformation in the way engineers communicate and work together.

By Chuck Alexander, Director of Product Management, Stratasys Direct Manufacturing

In the manufacturing business, software greatly influences and impacts what we do. It does everything from generating content to running equipment. As software technologies became increasingly pervasive, we’ve started to see (and will increasingly witness) alterations to our current landscape, like the number of engineers on projects and how they work both in tandem and independently.

In advanced manufacturing, there are more engineers working on a single project in a more highly specialized function. They’re each responsible for a single part of the process rather than the entire project, so there’s been a shift to more highly specialized professionals. We’ll need more engineers to fill these jobs as positions continue to become more focused.

By Ben Green, Head of New Business, Harwin

We’re now seeing the next generation of industrial automation technology being rolled out with ‘connected factories’, thus enabling far greater levels of operational efficiency to be achieved and the prospect of numerous benefits to society realized. Though this presents a huge opportunity for manufacturers and processing companies to significantly increase their productivity figures, it also has some major technical challenges—and the engineering community needs to be able to respond accordingly.

Because of all this new functionality, there’s a larger quantity of electronic hardware involved and this needs to be closely packed together, which consequently requires greater shielding to deal with RF/EMI interference. At the same time, the operational integrity of the communications cabling must be completely assured. This mandates the use of high-reliability connectors. Any downtime experienced through a faulty connection could lead to heavy cost penalties for the company, as production lines are halted and items fail to be shipped to customers on time. As a result, it’s important to specify connectivity components that are robust enough to safeguard against such situations. For example, one of the trends we’re currently seeing in the drives and control market is that in order to save space, equipment is becoming smaller and denser. This means electrical/data connectors can be placed much closer to motors and suchlike, thereby exposing them to higher degrees of vibration and more extreme temperatures. In these sort of designs, specifying low cost components may save a little in terms of the bill of materials, but the likelihood is that it will result in far greater expense being accrued through repair and downtime costs.   

By Eric DeRose, Field Applications Engineer, AVX Corporation

I believe that the state of engineering will continue to rapidly grow and expand, as new, highly sought-after disciplines, like renewable energy engineering, continue to arise to meet market needs. Engineers are vital to creating the future of tomorrow, so technology and engineering go hand-in-hand. Today’s youth are growing up with the latest, greatest technology in handheld devices, other electronic gadgets, and a growing percentage of them want to contribute to both technology and global social solutions with new ideas, leading to a rise in invested science and engineering majors. The various engineering industries will only become more competitive, but such competition is desirable, as it’ll bring out the best in both engineers and technology.

By Doug Patterson, VP, Military & Aerospace Business Sector, Aitech Defense Systems

More time will be spent redesigning the next big widget for high reliability applications, due to component obsolescence, and thus draining the engineering resources that could be better channeled into real innovation.

By David Caserza, Embedded Computer Architect, Elma Electronic; and Michael Munroe, Technical Product Specialist, Elma Electronic

As more technology gets into the hands of criminals trying to be destructive and fraudulent, engineering will have to include drastically more emphasis on protection against malicious threats, especially hacking. Think of the havoc that can be caused as driverless ground vehicles become mainstream.

By Robert Blenkinsopp, VP Product, Ultrahaptics

It’s an interesting conundrum that technology is becoming more and more prevalent in our lives, but that we’re also continually hearing about how there is a shortfall of engineers. Plugging this gap is going to be integral as we move forward to continue innovating at the same rate, or in order to keep up with consumer demand for innovation. It's important to understand that people creating new products should represent the areas of society these products are going. This can be in terms of gender balance; background; language; pretty much all areas of diversity. We’ve found that recruiting from a diverse pool helps us drive innovation, so as technology becomes more and more intertwined with society, there's an increasing need to ensure that engineers doing the engineering come from a diverse cross section of society rather than just what would be considered traditional engineering backgrounds. It’s important not to have a predefined image of what a candidate will look like, and instead make sure everyone is looked at on their individual merits. If someone can bring something new and different to a company, that will benefit the company and technology infinitely more than just another person who fits the same mold and thinks the same way to the other people who work somewhere.

By Martin Bijman, Director IP Products, TechInsights

As technology and the IoT become even more pervasive, the rate of innovation will continue to increase. This rapid development will involve adopting and adapting existing technology, and also be supported by creating new technology. Fundamental or disruptive innovations may drive new products or markets for existing products, while incremental innovations may improve a product’s quality, reliability, ease of use, environmental protection, and other factors. This type of innovation crosses market and industry boundaries, as seen recently with smartphones and autonomous vehicles. Many of the sensors used have evolved, been adapted, and will now expand into new markets and applications.  The market adoption of new products will be more rapid, as consumers have embraced a fast pace of their daily lives, and become comfortable with complex technology.

Regardless of the innovation type engineers focus on, Intellectual Property (IP) plays a significant role in enhancing its competitiveness, especially when commercializing new and/or improved products or technology. As a result, new state of the art engineering will require researchers to take a more educated and active role in understanding available IP. Questions like, “Does my company own or license this IP?”, “Is this truly new, patentable IP?” and “How can our company’s IP be used in new ways internally, or by other companies?” We believe the evolution of engineering will require an understanding of the market players, their experience, and patents in product design. This will be vital in creating product development plans that leverage and support a company’s IP strategy and deliver a high return in any market.

By working collaboratively with IP teams, engineers will have the knowledge they need to leverage assets with potential use in the market, and take quick action in response to new product challenges or opportunities.

By Zach Bradford, director of marketing – enterprise, Molex

The products and technology that are needed to support the next generation of data exchange will require to ensure that the complexity of products will correlate to the specification. Tolerance that is acceptable for current technology will no longer be sufficient for the market. This will require a significant step up in capabilities of the engineering community.

We are all talking about big data and the explosion of devices that will multiply as IoT grows and mature, however the challenges grow as well in parallel, where bandwidth, storage, scalability, latency among other factors become critical for the product development and deployment of systems. That is the area where the evolution needs to happen. As an engineering community within the electronics industry, we need to re-think the way we create the architecture of the ecosystems. For example, through the multiple consortiums and committees being formed by key players in the industry.

By Thierry Marin-Martinod, Chief Technical Officer TE Connectivity (TE), Aerospace, Defense & Marine Business Unit

We can see big changes in the expertise of our engineering teams. We need more and more system engineers, people comfortable with mechanic, electronic and software. Since today every “thing” is connected (e.g. door lockers, thermostat, lights etc) we don’t have mechanical parts standing alone anymore. This pushes our engineering teams to be more flexible or I should say agile.