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Engineers must learn to choose and use their tools wisely

Engineers must learn to choose and use their tools wisely

Engineers have more tools at their disposal than ever, says Truchard. The trick is to choose the right tools and use them to the best possible effect.

Truchard co-founded National Instruments in 1976 after spending 16 years at the University of Texas/Austin in the Acoustical Measurements Division of the Applied Research Laboratories. He is a co-inventor of LabVIEW, the company's graphical software for instrumentation. He also designed several of the first IEEE 488 (GPIB) interface boards that the company brought to market. The recipient of several professional and community awards, he is also chairman of the University of Texas/Austin Engineering Foundation Advisory Council and a founding member of the Austin Software Council.

Design News: What are the biggest changes in engineering over the last few years?

Truchard: There really are three. One is that the tools to do the job have changed. The second is that design has taken on a global nature. Third is the emergence of the Internet. The tools mean you can now do things in a fraction of the time it used to take. But, your competitor has access to the same tools. So, to be competitive, you have to not only use the tools, but also live with a faster design time. Two emerging markets provide examples of using tools in a shrinking design cycle. Virtually every company involved in design of fuel cells and optical networking components uses LabVIEW for design verification because it's the tool that gets them to market fastest. Regarding the global nature of design, engineers on different continents are working on designs around the clock. Designs have to be used worldwide. All of this creates a new competitive element in design and requires engineers to choose tools wisely. The Internet has changed communications, providing better access to information than ever before.

Q: How have these changes made it easier for engineers to do their jobs?

A: The changes have shortened timelines. For example, we worked with a customer that polishes hard-disk platters to 1 angstrom. We went from the basic physics problem to a feasibility prototype, to pre-production prototype, to production in two years. That was impossible before the right tools were available.

Q: Are engineering graduates prepared to meet the expectations they will face on the job today?

A: I have served on various committees at the University of Texas for the last 10 years, and I honestly don't know if they are prepared. I believe in learning the engineering fundamentals, but four years is a short time. Engineers also have to learn about business and global issues. There is a tradeoff between the training necessary for learning engineering basics and training on business basics. It's very challenging.

Q: How can companies help experienced engineers thrive in the new world of engineering?

A: By providing the right tools. When we introduced LabVIEW, I visited engineers to demonstrate the product and the graphical interface gave them a feeling of relief. People said it helped them make the transition to the computer era and allowed them to do the things they wanted to do with the computer. Companies also have to train their engineers in globalization. We encourage engineers to travel, learn a new language, and do whatever it takes to learn the global side of the business.

Q: What are the cool opportunities for engineers today?

A: The most interesting opportunities are those that involve technology to maintain our quality of life without damaging the environment. Fuel cells, hybrid cars are examples. Also, biomedical engineering offers a lot of opportunities, particularly in regard to the linking of electronics and mechanics and gene sequencing. MEMs, too, offer great opportunities.

Q: What skills do engineers need to take advantage of these opportunities?

A: They simply have to know more. They have to be multi-disciplined. They have to be able to cross boundaries, be specialists and generalists at the same time. With the globalization of design, communication skills are increasingly important. Teamwork skills are critical. Engineers can't throw things over the wall now. Teams work out problems.

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