Many big companies used to have "skunk works." But I think there are fewer skunk works today than there used to be.
So it comes down to two kinds of engineering. One is narrowly production-oriented, lacks imagination and adventure, and tastes like Brussels sprouts. There's no elan or eclat, but mere trudging in the same worn pathways of prior slaves.
Then there's the other kind, the kind that comes out of little garages or basements, or perhaps in the back rooms of large corporations wise enough to have back rooms where engineers can dream.
The funny thing is that we try to sell the second kind to kids at great technology fairs, but we quickly give them only the first kind when they start going to school, and then really pound it in when they start working. However, they're wise, and a lot of them aren't taking the bait.
That's going to hurt our collective future, because we're going to make fewer and fewer advances when legions of trudging assembly-line engineer zombies take over, who make nothing but faster and cheaper assembly lines. This is a battle the engineer zombies will win, because they have the secret to short-term success. In terms of economics, they'll just eat any dreamer engineers who aren't zombies (except for the occasional lucky dreamer). Many big companies used to have “skunk works,” to protect their dreamers from the zombies and give them freer rein. Maybe the smell drove the zombies off. But I think there are fewer skunk works today than there used to be, or at least they are losing their pungency.
Now, replace big companies with even bigger countries, which have national technological priorities, and little patience for squeaks from little engineers with big ideas. Are those little engineers going to speak up? Hardly. Are other countries going to fill the gaps? Not when the means of production are concentrated in the hands of fewer countries, because of the competitive advantage those few nations have in production. Will there be much reward for anyone coming up with a new idea? Not when all new ideas are carted off to be copied wholesale.
And, yet, engineering innovation will still meekly push its way through. More weakly than before, and more slowly, as it waits for better conditions before it can flourish and bloom again in full flower.
I remember when I worked at Heathkit, hearing some of the cool ideas from the engineers in the lunch room. Some of the guys would invent cool little gadgets just for fun; some of those things made it to the assembly line, some didn't, but I think people had a lot of fun trying things out, and some of them sold! Then, there was the day we had some visits from representatives of companies that offered to assemble some of the ready-made products for us, using parts too tiny to place by hand, for less than we could build them. I think that was pretty much the end for the old Heathkit. The most well known purveyor of fun engineering decided to just sell educational courses, and an era closed. Sure, there are a few little companies popping up here and there that try to sell some neat gadgets, but the climate has changed. I don't think the ground is as fertile as it once was.
Another example of the big squashing the innovative: more than 20 years ago, there was talk about reducing the cost of some medical equipment using some simple ideas. For instance, one idea was to reduce the size of the coil in an MRI so that it would be a lot, lot cheaper, but still be useful for imaging smaller limbs, or even animals. Those less expensive machines, which would have made that kind of diagnostic more affordable, and so improve society's health, were delayed for years. Why? You know why.
So, in the World Tomorrow, will we see the Golden Era of Humanity? Or just more cell phones and HDTVs? Will the dreamers win the battle of the engineers, or will the assembly-line zombies win? I think conditions seem to favor the zombies, right now.
Recently, I signed up to take college courses in philosophy, ethics and psychology.
These were courses I never took in engineering school. Taking them now, I wish every engineer could take them. All over the world. Because engineering is not just technology. It's too important to be run by assembly-line zombies.
(Dear zombies. You know I love you. We need you, too. Just don't eat all the dreamers.)
In a way, it's a great time for the hobbyist innovator because all these development systems are out there for reasonable cost, as many of you have pointed out. Also, with ebay and craigslist it's possible to get test equipment cheap, and computing power being dirt cheap doesn't hurt.
What does hurt is the tiny size of the surface mount components! Hard to work with stuff you can't see! Why is it that stuff is getting smaller just when my eyesight is getting worse? I need the Reader's Digest enlarged components!
Another distinction I see in the engineering workplace is the "PowerPoint" engineers versus the worker bees that actually get the work done. Very rarely do you find someone who is good at both. Unfortunately, the ppte's are the ones that get promoted. I suppose we worker bees should learn how to work those presentation tools, but who has time?
And if I want to gripe, I could talk about the tendency in semiconductor companies (I only speak from 1 company experience, but I've heard it's common) for high-level people to do low-level work. The technicians do assembly work, the engineers do technician work, and the PhD's do the engineering work. 2 problems I see with that: 1) the company spends unnecessary money on salaries, and 2) people get tired of working below their capability and leave. I haven't figured out why this happens. In the other 6 non-semiconductor companies I've worked for I never saw this baloney.
My daily struggle exactly! I work in Zombie Central, although the company projects an image of being very innovative. My take is that only PhD's are supposed to innovate. Let me get this straight, people who have learned more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about nothing are supposed to be putting things together in new ways? And they are the only ones who are allowed to teach the classes for the future zombies?! What's wrong with this picture?
As a BSEE with some MSEE work, I heard my boss essentially tell me that some people are hired to innovate, but it's not for me. Yes, we need more zombies so the creative types like us can have the time to come up with new stuff for the zombies to build and sell. Jim Williams of Linear Technology expressed a similar thought as a company "eating its own seed corn" by forcing innovators to do the zombie work.
As for me, I'm too brainy to be interested in the zombie work but too practical to be interested in "ivory tower" academia. And the politics is disgusting in both situations. So here's what I do; keep on keeping on (to quote Bob Dylan) with the zombie work while innovating in my garage lab (you do have one, don't you?) on my own time and sometimes with my own money, and someday somebody's got to notice when I come up with something(s) revolutionary. Wish me luck!
Richard wrote: "there are a few little companies popping up here and there that try to sell some neat gadgets, but the climate has changed. I don't think the ground is as fertile as it once was."
Unfortunately very true (esp. the second sentence): Soon after the little company popps up it is faced with steppstones like RoHS, WEEE, CE etc. and fizzle away....
Imagine what would have happened to Apple etc. if such a bunch of regulations would have been in place back then!
I see some hope in a number of ways: there are more cheap, powerful microprocessors available today then even 5 years ago. There are many ways for innovation to be encouraged, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) comes to mind; Students build robots and program them to compete in regional competitions with creativity and energy. There are many other areas that encourage young students such as RC airplanes and model rocketry.
I have been in jobs were I was asked to do something new and creative and then was asked by management for a 100/0 yes/no answer if it can be done. The answer “it may be possible, but we cannot be sure until we succeed in making it work” (basically a 70/40 yes/no) does not please them. If you say yes and fail, you’re likely fired. If you say no, you may still have a job. I think it was R. Heinlein (an engineer) who said if you shoot every horse that tries and fails to jump the hurdle. All you will have left is horses that will not even try to jump the hurdle. We need to take away the bullets from the “failure is not an option” people and successes may happen more often.
Years ago I heard that profitable radio stations do not play anything but “mediocre” music because it does not drive people to switch to different stations. If “good” music is played it may wake up the audience and divide them. It seems people either fall into the really hate or really love a song camps if it is not mediocre and the majority of people that hate a song (even though the minority) may switch stations and decrease listeners. If a radio station plays nothing controversial and stays bland, its revenue will stay constant and predictively grow over time. If a radio station plays interesting and creative music, its ratings may fluxuate and cause revenue to fall or rise chaotically. It all has to do with advertising and what they can charge so they want stability have a sure thing to sell. So new creative music takes a back seat until that music becomes mainstream and profitable. Engineering is similar in many ways. Engineers can make up some whiz-bang device and if it makes a lot of money, that engineer gets an Atta boy from management. If the engineer owns the company, he’s a visionary. If the whiz-bang device fails, the engineer has wasted time, money, resources and etc. and with the job market the way it is, engineers are being more conservative with creativity. If the engineer is the owner and fails, he was a bad businessman. With non-engineer MBAs running most things predictably, creative engineers can scare them.
I wouldn't be too cynical, as I've seen the "Arduino: Getting Started" books for sale in the local supermarket. Likewise the Freescale tower kits are relatively inexpensive and accessible to high school geeks.
On the other hand I know what it's like to have an R&D idea rejected only to have a newspaper article trumpet the fact that a competitor was proceeding with the development of a new technology based on the very same ideas I had proposed a year earlier.