TJ, I like your idea. Indeed, the generalist is not dead, but alive and well.
We often call in specialists if we're stuck on a project, but, in my opinion, the engineers who are equipped with a more rounded level of experience do a better job on the overall project. As an example, a recent washing machine project of mine involved electronics, 120 volt AC, various DC voltages, mechanical parts, valved hot and cold water, a motor, sensors, and interface with a master system (commercial laundry controllers.) While there were several specialists involved, it was our generalist engineer and project manager who resolved most of the issues.
Charles, a great example of this is the Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) program at my alma matter, the Illinois Institute of Technology. Instead of senior-year capstone projects within their own majors, IIT students work on real-world projects in multidisciplinary teams including students from many majors. I found this to be a great preparation for working in the real world. Since graduating, I have come back to judge the competition, and am considering sponsoring a future IPRO project. Hopefully, other universities will consider adopting something similar.
I believe your analogy to be slightly flawed. An orthopedist is not going to do brain surgery. But you want a jack-of-all-trades doctor in the ER. Specialists have their place, in the hospital and in the design process. But you don't need or want specialists all the time.
As businesses have focus more on integration it's a natural movement that engineering disciplines would incure the same natural phenomena. And I personally think it's not whether it's bad or good but it is important that this is the way the business model is moving. For those that can recognize and then adapt there is a huge potential for advancement and leading the way along this journey.
This requires engineers to learn not only their discpipline and the persepcitve from which they see and understand the system to see and understand other perspectives.
On the negative side, this can result in engineers growing in their width of knowledge and not necessarily the depth of their knowledge in one discipline. But I think the positives outweigh the negatives.
Universities are recognizing this trend. Many now offer degrees in electromechanical engineering. Purdue-Calumet offers a bachelors degree in mechatronics; Marquette University offers a master's. Design News' contributor Kevin Craig has created a two-course freshman program called Engineering Discovery, which focuses on multidisplinary skills. Although there will always be a need for specialists, the "throw it over the wall" mentality is gone. To a great degree, engineering requires communication between teams. The engineers who know technology on both sides of "the wall" will always have an advantage.
As product designs of all sorts cross the functional boundaries of hardware, embedded software, and electronics, it's a simple fact of reality that engineers needed a broader base of knowledge, experience, and comfort level working across the different engineering disciplines. Without this cross-pollination, they see only a narrow slice of the design goals and challenges of their particular product effort, which greatly impedes the organization's overall ability to design great products that meet today's requirements. More and more university curriculums are stressing this cross-disciplinery training, and the critical tool (CAD, CAE, PLM) vendors are stepping up, augmenting their programs to help engineers live up to the task. I think it's a good thing, but like Alex points out, I still think there's ample opportunity for engineers to go beyond the generalist training and carve out specialities in particular domains, enjoying a position as the go-to expert.
My 40+ years of experience tells me that engineers (both degreed and non-degreed) come in all types and sizes and that includes their propensity/ability to either specialize in one discipline or to have a broad grasp of all disciplines. I don't think that the 'interdisciplinary engineer' is a new phenomina at all - it has always been there.
I personally am (IMHO) a interdisciplinary engineer - I enjoy and revel in considering ALL the facets of a design challenge. While primarily specializing in electronics design (analog and uP), I have also dabbled in mechanical, hydraulic, chemical, process control, aeronautical and too many others to mention.
Having said that, there is a definite place for an engineer who specializes and is an expert in a particular area. I definitely would NOT want to have rely on my expertise to design a ceiling structure! I might piddle with some ideas for a ceiling structure but I want an expert with the knowledge and experience to do the actual design.
Also it is increasing true that really digging into certain design areas requires a lot of direct experience with the process and the tools for that design area. Software design and programming come to mind here - why back in the olden days, I did a fair amount of programming (mostly embedded) but today the level of expertise required to do a good job in this area is well beyond me. But I can talk with the software folks and I can understand what they are doing.
All of this leads us, perhaps, to the conclusion that most design is a collaborative effort and should be a team effort. The engineering staff members all have their own strengths and those strengths should be exploited for the best overall results.
An interdisciplinary approach is definitely a good idea. Let me spin the issue a slightly different way. Design engineers need to be conscious of their role in a supply chain. That is, are you designing components that can be reliably sourced, or are you locking your company into a single source located in an earthquake zone? Are you aware of corporate contracts that provide significant discounts and inventory benefits if you make a slight tweak to the specification that makes no sacrifices? Are you committing to a design before checking with your manufacturer, who could suggest small changes that would dramatically drop costs and improve reliability without sacrificing performance? These are a few examples. They don't require engineers to get an MBA in supply chain. Just think in an interdisciplinary manner and be a part of the corporate team. Purchasing and engineering are working more collaboratively today instead of adversarially as they used to.
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