The race to keep pace 1

DN Staff

January 18, 1999

26 Min Read
The race to keep pace 1

It's not just your imagination--technology really is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. IBM estimates we have generated more data in the past 30 years than in the preceding 5,000. Others estimate that the volume and speed of information has been increasing as fast as 100% per year.

And as for new components, materials, and engineering tools, they keep coming in droves. In 1998, nearly 100 vendors entered the Design News Best Products of the Year competition, and that's a mere fraction of the companies introducing new products.

Knowing that all these new products and technologies exist--let alone learning how to incorporate them into your designs--can take more time than you've got.

Running in place. About 50 years ago, the industrial age waned and microelectronics ushered in the information age. We began to produce information much faster than we could process it. The difference was the computer. With other media--story telling, the written word, the printing press, radio, T.V.--we could keep up. Computers led to much higher rates of information production and distribution--rates that heralded the end of the Renaissance man.

Two "laws" further explain the technology boom. Moore's law states that chip density, and thus computing power, doubles every 18 months as cost remains constant. 3Com Corp. founder Robert Metcalfe also has a law on the books. His law states that any type of network--computers, people, or pagers--dramatically increases in value with each additional node or user. The law values a network's utility as the square of the number of users.

Thanks to the technology advances underlying Moore's law, computers are enabling people to create and analyze data--and develop technology--at an ever increasing rate. Metcalfe's law describes how the Internet, intranets, and other networks become exponentially successful after reaching critical mass. Networks--especially the Internet--have been responsible for the lightning-fast speed at which data now travel.

An engineer's lot. Simmons Market Research Bureau has done three studies of design engineers and how they do their jobs during the last 10 years for Design News. The 1997 study found that engineers are doing such tasks as research and development, management, testing, and working on standards in addition to product and system design. Because they are more involved in the total project, they are specifying a broader range of products and technologies and have to keep up with many more fields.

Engineers are also working faster than ever. Simmons found that three-quarters of all projects last less than 12 months, and almost half last less than 6 months. Results from 1997 also showed that engineers work on an average of 18 design projects a year--up from 10.5 in 1989 and 15.2 in 1993.

Given the dual pressures of keeping up with technology and designing products as quickly as possible, what's an engineer to do?

First, engineers need to take upon themselves the responsibility for lifelong learning, says Kenneth R. Laker, 1999 president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The responsibility is not that of their bosses or companies, although Laker says both should optimally play a part.

"You must have a current awareness of where your field is going by learning on the job, reading books and trade magazines, or taking courses to keep up to speed on technology changes," he says. But Laker equally stresses the importance of honing skills--especially the fundamentals.

Anticipate change. Another strategy is to think where your field will be in the future and plan your self-education accordingly. That's advice from Earl Dowell, chairman of the Engineering Deans' Council of the American Society of Engineering Education and dean of engineering at Duke University.

"Engineers need to anticipate what they may want to know five years down the road and prepare themselves for that," says Dowell. "Even if you're in a fairly stable and mature technology, now's the time to start acquiring some knowledge of what may lie ahead years down the road." Otherwise, he adds, you could get blindsided by being an expert in a field that becomes nonessential.

Continual learning makes you more valuable, and valuable people will always have a job. Older workers are paid higher salaries than newer employees because they've been getting raises every year. If their value doesn't increase as their salary increases, why should an employer keep them on?

Why indeed?So let go of your mouse, put down that bottle of Mylanta, and read the next few pages. It may be the most valuable time you spend with a trade magazine this year.

Ten tips for keeping up

  1. Take responsibility for your own lifelong learning plan.

  2. Hone the fundamentals.

  3. Join and become an active member of a professional engineering society.

  4. Attend your company's internal training sessions.

  5. Take college continuing education classes. When at trade shows, make some time to attend a class or seminar.

  6. Anticipate what you'll need to know five years down the road, and prepare for it.

  7. Attend vendor workshops to learn about their tools and technologies.

  8. Become a power Internet user.

  9. Network with engineers both within your firm and specialty and outside of them.

  10. Read trade magazines.

Networking is the key to staying in touch

You think engineering isn't a people business? Think again, say our previous Engineers of the Year

by Charles J. Murray, Senior Regional Editor

While working on the Galileo Space Probe during 1983, engineer Bernard Dagarin stumbled across one of those seemingly simple problems that can ruin an otherwise perfect project. The thermal batteries used on the Probe's pyrotechnic system were outgassing, and Dagarin foresaw potentially catastrophic results if the outgassing continued. Unfortunately, none of the other engineers at Hughes Space and Communications Company knew how to stop it. Worse, the batteries' manufacturer offered little insight.

Dagarin, however, wasn't about to let a faulty battery undermine the project of a lifetime. To find a solution, he simply tapped into the huge web of technical contacts that he'd amassed over the years. Within days, Arlen Baldwin, a battery expert from Sandia National Labs, traveled to the site and spotted the problem--lack of insulation in the batteries. "If Arlen hadn't helped us, we might never have solved it," recalls Dagarin, who was Design News Engineer of the Year in 1997. "That's why I always kept a list of the best technical people."

Dagarin's habit of relying on personal contacts is by no means an isolated one. In a survey of past Design News Engineers of the Year, all named personal contacts as their most important means of staying in touch with technology. No engineer, they say, possesses an in-depth understanding of all technical fields. But knowing the experts in those fields is just as good, they say.

For many--especially those outside the engineering community--that may come as a surprise. Engineers, after all, aren't supposed to be "people people."

But the best engineers say that other people often know secrets and shortcuts that aren't available in textbooks or magazines. They have access to projects that are off limits to the outside world. And they can provide the benefit of rich experience--with regard to failure as well as success. "If you sit around our lunch room, you won't see engineers reading the funnies or the latest sports scores," notes 1994 Engineer of the Year Dean Kamen, of Deka Research & Development Corp. (Manchester, NH). "Our engineers are usually talking about technology with engineers from other disciplines, ranging from thermodynamics to materials to electronics." Such discussions result in a form of cross-pollinization that can't be duplicated in any other way, Kamen says.

Source of inspiration. Some engineers, such as Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites (1988 Engineer of the Year), divide the need for information into two categories: creative and productive. On the creative side, personal contacts are once again critical, he says. Rutan often satisfies his need for creative knowledge by taking his staff into the Sierra Madre Mountains, where they meet with composites guru Brandt Goldsworthy, commune with nature, and think. Recently, Rutan also arranged a meeting with the German rocket engineers who pioneered the design of the Redstone for the U.S. space program during the 1950s.

Victor Poirier, of ThermoCardio Systems (Woburn, MA), designer of Left Ventricular Assist Devices and Engineer of the Year in 1992, says some of his most valuable information has come from conferences held by the American Society of Artificial Internal Organs. And by going to business school, Poirier says he also learned that non-technical contacts could offer valuable insight.

All Engineers of the Year agree, however, that such means rank a distant second to the more basic method of personal networking: You've got to be in touch with others.

Vendors take engineers back to school

You don't learn everything in an engineering program. Suppliers fill in the gaps

by John Lewis, Northeast Technical Editor

  • Catalogs

  • Instructional audio and video

  • Satellite broadcasts

  • The Internet

These are just a few of the media vendors use today to help their customers keep up with the technology boom. Motion-control suppliers such as Galil Motion Control, Baldor Electric Co., and Thomson Industries; automation suppliers such as GE Fanuc and Cutler-Hammer; materials suppliers such as GE Plastics, BASF, and LNP; and CAD suppliers such as Parametric Technology Corp. have practically taken on information dissemination as a religion. And in the process they're making customers true believers in their technology.

Describing his company's program, Baldor's Education Director Dick Sperry explains, "We started seven years ago teaching four subjects, now we offer 12. Five thousand students have passed through, and we're up to 48 sessions per year."

Pat Needham, president of Marion Electric Motors and Drives (Ocala, FL), was one of Baldor's 1,200 students last year. "It's not just about how electronic drives work," he says. "I learned valuable application tips and about the industries that are adopting this technology--the kind of facts that help to grow the business."

Every spring and fall, Mountain View, CA-based Galil Motion Control's President Jacob Tal packs them into his "servo-control basics" seminars across the country. President of New England Automation Solutions (Hartford, CT) Richard Manders says these events cram a lot of information into one day: "One-on-one interaction makes asking questions easy. It also helps to see other people's approach to defining and solving problems."

More often than not, engineers attend vendor training to learn about subjects not taught in schools. One such subject is automation. The technology benefits manufacturers, but it's complex to implement, says Cutler-Hammer's (Westerville, OH) Training and Programs Manager Steve Kaye. Electrical Controls Designer Steve Mills at Kolene Corp., a Detroit-based manufacturer of molten-salt-bath equipment, went to Cutler-Hammer's Westerville facility to get up to speed on DeviceNet and NetPoint.

Marketing Manager Bob Abbandondelo at Thomson Industries (Port Washington, NY) says another topic missing from most engineering-school curricula is motion control. Robert T. Butts, engineering manager at machine-tool manufacturer Firwood Co. (Dearborn, MI), took one of his lead designers to a Thomson Tech course last autumn. "Application tips help reduce design errors. Touching and feeling product samples, seeing how they are put together, gives a better idea of how rugged something really is. You just can't get that from a photo."

The workplace as classroom

Many companies offer internal education programs to supplement traditional tuition reimbursement

by Rick DeMeis, Associate Editor

Most design engineers know that formal degrees are just mileposts on a lifelong journey to keep current in technology. And most leading-edge companies realize the more they can help their employees boost their technical savvy, the greater the company's ability to compete in world markets. Welch Allyn (Skaneateles Falls, NY) is one such company.

The company's Medical Products operation has a deceptively simple goal: Be the top supplier of medical equipment for office-based physicians. Such aspirations foster what Mark Pingel, Medical Products R&D manager, sees as "a challenging environment that induces the need to learn," among managers as well as the technical staff.

To this end, "Customer-based knowledge is the basis of our education effort," says Barry Roach manager of human resources development for all of Welch Allyn.

Beyond tuition reimbursement. Pingel says the company helps its engineers "pick from a palette of options to stay sharp." Roach adds, "We can't separate business from education," if the company is going to keep designers at the leading edge. At Welch Allyn, he says, staff education "comes in six flavors." The first is the vanilla of classroom learning at universities. In addition, notes Pingel, guest lecturers teach courses on-premises "targeted to work concerns," such as human physiology and neuroscience.

Classroom learning also maintains designers' skills in the engineering tools they use. Thus, for example, representatives of CAD companies, such as Parametric Technology Corp. (Waltham, MA), hold classes on features recently added to their products in use at Welch Allyn. The company also sends at least 10-20% of its staff to targeted seminars in a variety of technologies two or three times a year.

Finally, up to eight hours per week "time off" is granted selected employees pursuing advanced engineering as well as management degrees.

The second aspect of corporate education at Welch Allyn nurtures interactive links to universities within New York State and the northeast. Several times a year the company holds information exchanges to obtain "the academic view" of technology, says Roach. The company sponsors university chairs and research. The connection means access to research results.

The third aspect of staff education at Welch Allyn is external networking, including conferences and customer visits. Pingel says the company encourages engineers to talk to customers. Roach feels communications with customers fosters "empathic design."

Conferences. Similarly, the fourth learning pillar is internal networking. Highlight of such cross-project communications is a one-day conference Welch Allyn holds each year. Employees from all company operations present papers across all technical disciplines. One hang-up, notes Pingel, was that in the third year of the program, participation dropped off. A study found that in the current fast-paced global market, employees were too busy to prepare papers each year. Now, in alternate years, people outside the company present papers.

Supplementing the conferences are technical forums every month or two. Here, company experts share their knowledge on a single topic in an hour and a half session that starts on corporate time.

The fifth way of learning is encouraged by Welch Allyn Medical's co-located cross-functional teams for product development. Learning automatically occurs on a job as people from design, manufacturing, marketing, and purchasing wrestle with problems together.

Employee self-learning through professional society memberships and participation on standards committees is the final defense against becoming obsolete.

For more information on design software from Parametric Technologies (C): Product Code 4575

Cyber school is always in session

But first, you have to know where to look

by Paula Porter, Internet Editor

It's much like looking for Waldo, he of the red-and-white-striped shirt, horn-rimmed glasses and knit cap. Among the jumble of cartoon humanity he's hiding, just waiting for sharp-eyed folks to find him.

So, too is the technical information you're looking for on the Internet. It's there, but with more than 300 million sites and growing at a rate of 1,000 per day, the Internet can bury what you want under piles of useless information.

Here are some tips for working through the Internet that may keep you up to date with the latest information in your field:

The broader the subject, the more useless "stuff" you'll have to wade through. It's best to use a large directory, such as Yahoo or InfoSeek. Pick the topic area, such as science and technology, and have the search engine look in these sites only.

  1. For a comprehensive, look-at-everything-you-possibly-can search, try one of the meta search engines, such as Meta-Crawler or Dogpile. These search through the search engines for your topic. You can limit how many search engines, number of sites, and how long it searches for you to fine-tune your hunting even more.

  1. With a narrow topic, such as a specific product, head over to Here, you type in what you think a domain name is and have the search engine look by company name or website. It gives you a comprehensive list of the parameters with links and number of matches. This site also tests on a regular basis to see if sites are still "active". A green checkmark means that new material has been added to the site recently.

  1. Come up with keywords with narrow meanings. For example, transmission could work with cellular phones or automobiles. The more nouns you use in your search (up to eight with many engines), the better. Also, put the most important words in the front of your search and "+" before any word you want to use and a "-" in front of any word you want to exclude. This works with most search engines. It's also a good idea to put a comma between words to signify a word and not a phrase. When you are using a phrase, put quotation marks around it.

  1. Mistakes happen. Check your spelling before hitting the go button. You'll be surprised how many times you try to search using a typographical error.

  1. Once you have completed a search and have a list of hits, many search engines allow you to refine your search even more within the limited parameters of your initial search. Go for it!

  1. Many web sites have "logical" names, such as or Of course, these URLs will take you to the home page and you may have to do some digging to find the information you need. Once you are on a site, look for a button that allows you to search for information on that site exclusively. Again, be specific in your search terms. Some sites offer a "sitemap" to help you find the page you want.

  1. Good web sites in your subject area often supply links to similar sites. Check them out. Find a good site, bookmark it so you can always come back to it.

  1. Communicate: When you find a good site, let your colleagues know. Sharing information with one another is a great way to keep up with technology.

Useful sites for engineers. One of the most valuable sites for engineers can be found at . This is the World Wide Web Virtual Library for Engineering. Here you can check your subject areas; find the newest engineering sites on the Internet with a brief descriptions; find information resources applicable across engineering domains (which include engineering job listings); spot engineering products and services; and locate academic and research institutions.

"I always wish I knew more"

A personal story of how one engineer has stayed on top of technology for 40 years

by Dan J. Sullivan P.E., Senior Vice President, Electromotive Systems

While studying electrical engineering at the University of Toledo in the late-1950s, I was among the first in my class to get one of those high-tech, circular slide rules. Even though most of the work I did with it only had about 2 digits of precision, I thought at the time that I was a pretty forward-thinking individual.

When I started out in engineering, there were no handheld calculators, desktop PCs, the Internet, or anything like that. My first job involved laying out drive control circuits, using relays, switches, and vacuum tubes. Sometimes we'd get a circuit wrong and it would blow up--that's one reason I left that job!

In trying to keep up with all of the advancements in engineering during the past 40 years, I've basically had to be a sponge. For the most part, I've managed to stay on top of things by reading everything I can get my hands on, talking incessantly to people, being insatiably curious about technology, and constantly searching for better ways to do things.

Sometimes that's easier said than done. In one of my earliest jobs at a company that manufactured big overhead cranes, I was one of three electrical engineers among a sea of mechanical guys. I remember buying a slick, new anti-collision device--based on sonar technology--to test out in the R&D lab and bringing it in to show the chief engineer. He sort of threw up his hands in frustration and said, "If you can hold it in one hand, it doesn't belong on a crane."

After a couple of years, I switched to applications engineering. One of the advantages of this job is that you get to go out and see what people are doing. You're constantly trading information with customers who have practical experience with technology, and they're happy to tell you why this thing is better than that.

At the time I also had the good fortune to work with an extremely talented mechanical and structural engineer. He shared a lot of what he knew with me, and that information has been useful to me ever since. In fact, throughout my career I have worked with smart people who have been more than willing to teach me what they know. And I continue to work with some of the brightest in the business.

My first exposure to PCs was in the mid-1960s, when the company I worked for struck a timeshare deal with GE. We had a terminal in the engineering department, and you could program in either BASIC or FORTRAN. In the late 1970s, I bought an Atari computer and joined a computer club at work. We'd exchange programs and rave about the limitations of the latest spreadsheet offering. Most of the computer skills that I've picked up along the way--including CAD--have been self-taught. I usually can't wait for a formal class to be offered.

As a senior vice president at Electromotive, I'm still involved with the original technology I started with. But instead of the solid-state drives that I cut my teeth on, these are state-of-the-art electronic drives. The advancements have truly been significant. But I think the fact that I know where the technology all started from has helped me keep up with all the changes. Because when I don't know something, I know the right questions to ask, or I know where to look up the answer. It drives my wife crazy, but I've kept every scrap of paper I ever thought I might need later.

For more information

To speak with a company representative, call 1-800-828-6344, x 011 and key in the specific Product Code below or circle the number on the Reader Service Card:

Motors and drives from Baldor Electric Co.: Product Code 4566

  1. Automation components from GE Fanuc Automation: Product Code 4567

  1. Design software from Parametric Technology Corp.: Product Code 4568

  1. Controllers from Galil Motion Control: Product Code 4569

  1. Automation components from Cutler-Hammer: Product Code 4570

  1. Linear technology from Thomson Industries: Product Code 4571

Associations lend a hand

Pick your topic--they probably have a course on it

by Anna Allen, Staff Editor

One of the biggest benefits to joining a professional organization is the access membership often provides to special courses and seminars on a variety of engineering topics. The following educational opportunities are just a sample of what the various engineering associations are offering during the year.

For more information on these courses, or to find out about other educational opportunities check out the organizations' web sites.

Professional organization


Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE)

Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE)

Small Motors and Motion Assn. (SMMA) (under construction)

National Fluid Power Assn. (NFPA)

American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)

American Institute of Motion Engineers (AIME)

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)

Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME)

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE)

Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (SAMPE)

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