The Consumer Electronics Show, which overtook Las Vegas last week, was an opportunity for the electronics design and manufacturing community to show off its wares and pat itself on the back. Consumer products have become the drivers of the industry, and the products on the show floor were amazing in functions and features. The show represents the next big, broadening step beyond the PC-centric world, once celebrated at the now-defunct Comdex show,
that fueled the industry in previous decades.
Change, of course, is embedded in the industry's DNA. That's what made the industry the force, economically and otherwise, that it is today. Yet for the designer, some implications of this latest shift can't be ignored.
In an industry that developed and matured based on a balanced trio of major application segments consumer, mil/aero and industrial the increasing dominance of the consumer market means that the needs of the now-smaller segments easily get shortchanged in terms of essential components or applications support. A medical instrument with production volume of 100 to 1,000 pieces per month (that's fairly typical) pales beside a mass-market item that hits 10,000-plus pieces a month. Do you need help with some subtle aspect of designing that instrument? Sorry, our apps team is busy designing the power supply subsystem for a top-tier cell phone maker, under an informal arrangement. And you say you need replacement ICs for a five-year-old unit? You're kidding. We stopped making those parts three years ago.
I also have concerns about a reduction in the design diversity, and thus the creativity and experience, that a high-volume, consumer-product-driven industry implies. As an editor and engineer, one benefit I get from visiting the designers of lower-volume products is seeing how many truly innovative engineers are out there, solving their unique, application-specific problems. They usually handle many aspects of the design themselves, including power supply, analog signal path, microprocessor coding and debug, test procedures and supporting pilot production; often, packaging is on their "to do" list as well. They grapple with complex trade-offs as they reconcile the constraints.
But the high-volume, fast-design-cycle world doesn't have the luxury of that kind of time, and the product complexity means the design team functions almost like a movie production company. The players who come together are highly specialized experts, do very skilled work and need a box-office winner. But the audience is fickle, and the window for success is narrow.
Is this a bad thing for engineering as a profession? I don't know, but it does represent a major change in the nature of the design process, the personal sense of satisfaction and ownership, and the broadening of experience that many designers get from their work.
What can you do? You probably can't affect the global industry, but you can act locally and personally. If you work for a vendor in the consumer market, try to get assigned to work on different aspects of successive projects. Or see if you can find assignments on a lower-volume, less-visible project or even a feasibility design your company has undertaken (and most do). These may offer more design opportunity to get your hands around the total package. You might select a modest project and try to engineer as much of it as possible yourself. You'll keep your skills sharp and reap personal satisifaction.
Or volunteer to help a science fair team there's no better way to learn than by teaching others.
By Bill Schweber, editor of PlanetAnalog.com, an EE Times Network site