Looking back at 2011, as we did in last month's column, participants in our Systems & Design Engineering group on LinkedIn told us that jobs were their biggest concern. As we turn the page to 2012, it seems that the design engineering audience is noticing that those jobs are becoming encumbered by lots of stuff that may not result in better end products.
Bryan Hoffman, an engineering manager at American Controls, believes overcomplicated standards are at the root of all design evils. "Companies are forgetting the KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) principle and making standards so convoluted that it is difficult to bring someone new on and hit the floor running," he says.
Rich Merritt, a public relations professional who works with automation vendors, agrees that we've forgotten the KISS principle. "We've made everything so complicated, complex, and convoluted that we've entered the age of 'transoptimal engineering,' " he says. "That is, things are so advanced and have so many features, they don't work anymore."
Business development manager Herat Shah sees the pressures for complexity and price converging in an unhealthy manner. "The biggest issue for the automation and control supplier is to design and engineer something that's the cheapest and the best," he says. "Practically, this is not possible."
If such pressures aren't enough, many of our correspondents also see bad actors looking to corrupt their designs. "Stuxnet," warns engineer Thomas Stevic, referring to the worm which took down an Iranian nuclear processing plant in 2010. The incident struck fear into the automation arena because Stuxnet targeted controllers, and made engineers realize that factories aren't immune to security threats.
Adds software consultant Bob Loy, "In a similar vein, the top story some year is going to be the poisoned microcode or hidden back doors being inscribed on various chips manufactured overseas, possibly right now as you read this."
The rise in fake parts is also contributing to engineers' fears that their products will be corrupted. "The biggest issue in 2011 was counterfeit electronic components. The war on counterfeits by the US government turned up several instances (of counterfeits), indicating the scope of the deluge of counterfeit electronic components entering the US," notes Arlin Niernberger, a director of engineering services.
Contributing technical editor Jon Titus offers a real-world example of the potential impact of counterfeits. "I talked with a battery-industry expert who told me some of the after-market battery packs for medical devices looked like someone assembled them in a garage -- no quality control," he says. "I wouldn't want to bet my life -- literally -- on a battery from an unknown source purchased based on price alone."