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What's the Toughest Challenge of the Year?

From the rise of the digital factory to energy efficiency, four trends are roiling the design and industrial space.

The old Chinese proverb "May you live in interesting times" is apropos, because the year that's almost behind us has been nothing if not fascinating. Also challenging, worrisome, and tiring.

We all know the deal. We're working more with fewer resources and tighter deadlines. Technologies previously siloed are merging into an interconnected mass, requiring us to become interdisciplinary. And job stability, though better than it was only a scant year ago, still weighs on our minds constantly. (You can see what our readers have to say about that in our Social Engineering column.)

Fortunately, the attraction that drew most of us into the profession in the first place has been in ample evidence this year in the form of fun and forward-looking technologies like energy efficiency, 3D printing, the rise of the digital factor, advanced composites and plastics, and smart sensors.

On a macro basis, the imperative toward tighter, miniaturized designs in medical and consumer electronics has put an additional design burden on engineers tasked with packaging and assembly.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention electric vehicles. By your online habits, you've told us that those are at the top on your list of must-read stories. I concur. When I test drove a Chevy Volt recently, I was impressed with its fit and finish, as well as its smart application of an internal combustion engine and batteries, all in the service of a car that's a good everyday driver, not just a first-gen tech showpiece.

You can read more about the Volt by going to our DriveforInnovation.com site, which follows EELife editorial director Brian Fuller as he drives a Volt across the United States.

Personally, it's been an honor to be content director of Design News. Since I joined in June, I've spent much of my time meeting with the industry's leading vendors. (I hope to meet the rest of you in 2012. If we haven't connected yet, please contact me at [email protected]) I can say uniformly, and without hesitation, that we've got the smartest cohort of engineers and companies out there.

Yet the challenges we've faced this year are not for the faint of technological heart. Here's my quick take on four of them:

  • Rise of the digital factory. Here the salient questions are: Is this old wine in new bottles (or PLCs)? Is it a way for high-value vendors to sell consulting and upper-end technology to counter the rise of low-cost direct distribution? Or is it a solid method of helping manufacturers speed up the prototyping through production processes and in doing so become more responsive to the market, thus growing and getting more profitable? The correct answer is, of course, a little bit of all three.

  • Low-cost 3D printing/prototyping. I always worry when any idiot with a few dollars and delusions of technical grandeur can go out, buy a machine, and call himself an engineer. That's what happened with the PC, and you can arguably draw a line between the kludgey software we now live with and Stuxnet. I hope we'll see 3D printing become an enabler for rapid iteration and more sophisticated products, rather than a tool for producing more superfluous junk.

  • Energy efficiency. If you had told me two years ago that I would be writing enthusiastically about green technology, I would have yawned. It turns out that there are indeed tipping points in technology, and we've passed the one that's made a powerhouse arena out of saving energy in motors, the rise of wind and solar, and energy harvesting. Another area, which is different but has gone through a similar path from yawner to yes, is safety.

  • Engineering employment. This is the elephant in the room. America has the best and most experienced group of engineers in the world. Yet many of the older ones have been thrown on the slag heap, on the assumption that an over-40 techie can't possibly keep up with current technology. To that I say, au contraire. It's precisely these mature engineers who are needed to nurture new grads, who may know a workstation but don't have the subjective experience that makes for a successful career. I applaud companies like Siemens that are making concerted efforts to hire US workers, including veterans. I wish everyone would do that. In 2012, I hope insourcing becomes the new outsourcing.
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