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Technology and Electronics Design Innovation: Big Things, Small Packages

Comments(1)Filed under: Cadence, EDA, Brian Fuller, electronics, engineering, EDA vendors, electronics design, EDA software, technology, technology news, electronics design software, innovation

In addition to resting and recharging, I usually spend the holidays thinking about what will be the hot technology topics in the coming year.

I do this not because of the existing technology itself but because what it may imply for electronics design in the coming months and years.

This exercise is increasingly a challenge because the pace of technological change is quickening. In the "old days" there was a larger meme (Communications or Computing or Convergence). Today it's diced up into countless sub-categories enabled by the convergence of computing, communications, and cognition. Today we get excited because we sense we're on the cusp of sweeping change.

jet packs and technology innovation

But recall what Bill Gates once said:

"We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10."

Technology innovation: 2014 edition

For the near term, we get excited partly because the technologies that get a lot of airtime (autonomous cars and planes, robotics, 3D printers) often are fueled by expensive promotional programs. But there's also the inevitable clash of technology with society: We've invented something. Great! Now how do we regulate it or should we regulate it? The challenges include:

  • 3D printing: You can now manufacture your own gun
  • Smart phones: Texting while driving can kill
  • Robotics: Are we obsoleting humanity?
  • Social platforms and apps: Are we surrendering privacy?

But outside the glare of big media tech coverage, there are society-changing technologies that don't get much play. These will have a quiet but profound impact in the coming years. When I think of these technologies and how they leverage electronics design, I think of some of the many I saw firsthand when I drove around the country for a year interviewing engineers:

GATR Technologies, Huntsville, Ala.

This company, founded by Paul Gierow, designs and markets a different type of portable satellite dish. The challenge with a traditional satellite design is its form factor: They get blown over easily.

So Gierow and his team looked at two basic design needs: Portability and stability and approached the problem from a different angle. What if you could come up with a design that solved both those problems elegantly? And to top it off, what if you figured out a way to power it using portable solar cells?

His solution? A round antenna and charging unit you can carry in backpacks.

Nextreme Thermal Solutions, Durham, N.C.

The global conversation around energy inevitably centers on energy generation and fossil fuels. We have a finite amount of fuels to transform into energy and we're running out, as the argument goes. But energy-generation and energy-demand forecasts can be overly gloomy because they often fail to accurately forecast improvement in energy efficiency and conservation.

The engineering team at Nextreme designs solutions for power generation and cooling technologies. In the power generation case, they've developed small systems to convert waste heat into energy. Imagine low-cost devices bolted to your stove or hot water pipes and you can start to imagine the scale.

Harris Corp., Melbourne, Fla.

Robotics as a transformation technology is well known. But it's the "little I" innovation within robotics design that is making this technology more and more ubiquitous. At Harris, they're developing robotics systems that use haptic feedback for much more sensitive robotics applications, particularly when it comes to bomb disposal.

It's this "little I" innovation that often transforms society. A lot of these point solutions evolve into greater utility once they're exposed to the world. In other words, someone comes up with another way of using the technology.

For example, the "hidden" innovation in the first iPhone was the accelerometer. Flash forward just five years, and has anyone calculated how much more efficient and productive society is now because we're getting lost less and arriving at our destinations faster? 

Wise words

So back to Chairman Bill: We've seen a lot of change in 10 years, but I think we're seeing more in briefer periods of time. This will have profound impact on society as it begins to adapt to faster technological change.

To that end, we'll be publish a series this year on electronics technologies big and little that are transforming society. Let us know what you think we should cover in the comments field below.

And don't forget the complete Gates quote:

"We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction."

Happy New Year!

Brian Fuller

Related stories:

--2013: Quickening the Pace of Electronics Innovation?

-- Top Ten Cadence Community Blog Posts of 2013

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