When mechanical engineer Sean Dougherty recently prototyped
a robotic arm for a space satellite application, he didn't call on the usual
contingent of electrical engineers and computer scientists for help. Instead,
Daugherty employed a software platform with graphical programming features to
integrate motors, encoders, cameras and controllers in the arm.
past, we would have needed a team of four people - a controls expert, a mechanical
engineer, an electrical engineer and a programmer," notes Dougherty, a
mechatronics manager for Alliance Spacesystems LLC, which makes robotics and
structures for extreme environments. "Now it takes only one person."
Daugherty's training as a mechanical engineer makes him comparatively
well-suited to handle such tasks. National
Instruments, creator of the graphical software platform, reports that physicists,
biomedical engineers and doctors, among others, have succeeded in building
complex working prototypes without the help of trained programmers or circuit
technical community at large, such achievements are both a blessing and a
curse. Yes, they dramatically reduce engineering costs and complexities. At the
same time, however, they raise the specter of smart software programs displacing
engineers in some situations.
definition, somebody will have less work to do," says James Truchard, founder
and CEO of National Instruments.
At a recent Design Automation
Conference (DAC), Truchard says the concept received mixed reviews. "We had
some challenges when we tried to communicate this to audiences that are worried
about their jobs," he says.Higher 'Level Of Abstraction'
Truchard argues that the company's products - a software development
environment called LabView
real-time controller known as CompactRIO
- aren't going to cause wholesale displacement of electrical engineers and
programmers. Those experts will still be needed for the design of
production-level products and thousands of different kinds of electronic
components, as well as mechanisms that can't be prototyped with pre-packaged
hardware and software.
products do usurp some of the traditional engineering roles. LabView, for
example, provides pre-written code and tools that help designers to integrate hardware
and software, as well as aiding them in the set-up of their system inputs and
outputs (I/O). In some applications, the software even supplies "configurators"
that enable designers to choose components, such as analog-to-digital (A/D)
converters. Moreover, much of the programming is accomplished through graphical
methods that allow users to apply pre-written chunks of code.
experts say that if such capabilities begin to spread broadly throughout
industry, they will inevitably bring changes to the engineering design process.
"This isn't going to reduce the need for electrical engineers," says Scott F.
Midkiff, a professor and head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering
Department at Virginia
"But it will move the level of abstraction up."
"level of abstraction" could move significantly up the design ladder. It might
stop at the point of an electromechanical engineer, who holds responsibility
for all technical aspects of the product. Or it could go all the way up to a
so-called "domain expert" - a doctor, dentist, physicist or auto mechanic who
sees the need for the end product and maintains the vision for it.
Instruments cites examples of hundreds of domain experts who have spearheaded designs
using its products. Neurophysiologists at Active Diagnostics, for example, created
a "neurosimulator" - a training device that simulates the action of electrical
signals from the human nervous system, ultimately helping medical personnel to
train for events that may happen during surgery. Similarly, doctors at KC BioMediX,
Inc. aided in the development of the NTrainer, a therapeutic device that
teaches premature infants how to coordinate sucking, swallowing and breathing
during oral feeding.
cases, such products might never have seen the light of day, largely due to the
natural lack of funding that plagues so many start-up companies. But by
enabling domain experts to do their own designs, companies such as National
Instruments reduce the need for funding. "We figure we saved at least a
quarter-million dollars in engineering costs by building a functional system,
as opposed to doing it on a breadboard, where we would have had to write our
own driver codes," notes David L. Stalling, chief technical officer of KC
Biomedix, Inc. Be Ready To
Although there's debate on the ultimate effect of such
technologies on the engineering profession, everyone seems to agree on one
point: They will change the design process.
past, the domain experts would have just written the product spec," Truchard
says. "In a typical case, they would have made a verbal description of what
they wanted to do. Then the electrical engineers would design the circuits and
the programmers would implement the microprocessors, DSPs, and FPGAs. Now, the
domain expert can do all that with off-the-shelf hardware and software."
that such changes are nearly inevitable, and they strongly suggest that
engineers prepare for them. Some university engineering curriculums are calling
on students to think more broadly, familiarizing themselves with
cross-disciplinary issues. Electrical engineers and programmers, for example,
will need to have a better handle on systems and mechanical design, they say.
And practicing engineers, they say, need to be prepared to deal with the bigger
engineers and computer scientists can't just work in the narrow space that they
are used to working in," says Midkiff of Virginia Tech. "As we move to those
higher levels of abstraction, they have to be equipped to deal with
higher-level issues. It's not enough to just know the basics."
On the flip side, mechanical engineers must
also prepare, Midkiff says. Sensors and circuit design, once considered the
exclusive province of electrical engineers, will soon be required knowledge for
every designer. Similarly, some level of programming will be a required skill
ways, our notion of what it takes to create an engineer will have to change,"
Midkiff says. "We have to make sure that they develop a broader skill set that
at least touches on all aspects of what it takes to be an electrical engineer
or a mechanical engineer or a programmer."