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Are You an Interdisciplinary Engineer?

Are specialist designers on the wane, being replaced by generalists who can work comfortably across the boundaries of hardware, software, and embedded?

Are specialist designers on the wane, being replaced by generalist engineers who can work comfortably across the boundaries of hardware, software, embedded, and -- dare I say it -- the business side?

That's the vibe I'm picking up as I dive more deeply into the world of automation and control. The impetus behind this interdisciplinary thrust can be attributed to a single factor: the growth of the software component in every product we build or process we control.

It's not just automation. The other areas Design News covers -- CAD, electronics and test, alternative energy, and embedded -- are similarly software infused. I was initially going to exempt advanced materials, but then I realized that many new plastics formulations can't be manufactured without process control. (OK, maybe gluing laminated composites together requires more in the way of manual effort than it does the typing of keyboard commands.)

Truth be told, the final step on the electronics industry's philosophical roadmap has all hardware existing as a reconfigurable layer of raw gates (transistors, actually) underneath the software stack. It's in the latter where the real smarts and control reside.

Realistically, this model won't be coming to a factory near you anytime soon. Geographical dispersal of equipment, environmental and temperature extremes, and the need to interface to sensors, servos, and switches mean purpose-built hardware will be with us for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, I'd submit that it's this ultimately generic nature of all hardware that spotlights why software is so important, and will remain so.

Good news, bad news
The next question I'd like to posit is whether the shift toward interdisciplinary design is a good thing. I personally believe it's a mixed bag. On the plus side, engineers who can work across boundaries can see the big picture more quickly and more clearly. They can also do more cost-effective designs, because they can do work that previously required multiple people. (Don't employers love to hear that.) For the engineer, the work itself is also likely to be more fun, since there's more variety.

Conversely, there's clearly something lost when deeply knowledgeable specialists -- who are likely to command higher salaries, by the way -- are displaced by Jacks and Jills of all trades. The example I point to here is, you don't want your brain operated on by an orthopedist, fine doctor though he or she may be.

The salient question is: Is the tradeoff worth it? I think, on balance, it is. We're living in an world where responsiveness is king. The rise of the interdisciplinary engineer is of a piece with that. Plus, that deep domain expert is still available to consult when needed. (As for what happens with tech transfer to the next generation, I don't know.)

So where do you come down on the rise of the interdisciplinary engineer. Is it real, and is it a good or a bad thing? I invite you to debate and discuss this in the comments section, below.

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