It's no secret that demands on engineers have gotten tougher. Moore's Law and design complexity continue their inexorable climb. Nanometer feature sizes demand the closer scrutiny of almost every aspect of design physics.
The new process drivers of consumer applications are incredibly sensitive to cost and time-to-market. As a result, the historical focus on productivity and innovation by engineering management has given way to an overriding emphasis on cost containment and outsourcing. Meanwhile, the individual engineer is induced to surrender his or her role as an agent of improvement and innovation.
Symptomatic of these pressures on the electronics design community is an upsurge of "embattled engineers." Statistical research by EE Times shows that the working conditions of engineers are considerably worse than those of a corresponding college-educated U.S. male, across a variety of factors. As an example, only 23 percent of engineers feel they have enough information to get their job done, compared with 58 percent of the average U.S. employees. Only 16 percent of engineers indicate they have good job security, compared with 51 percent of the U.S. average. And finally, only 8 percent of engineers think they have enough time to do their job, versus 38 percent of the U.S. average.
As design teams hunker down to grind out new chips, they spend less time on improving their design capabilities. Consequently, productivity and innovation plummet over the long run. An MIT study on process improvement, "Nobody Ever Gets Credit for Fixing Problems That Never Happened," supports the observation that the short-term gain from requiring employees to "work harder" cannot match the long-term gain of a "working smarter" process improvement.
Projects that depend on a "work harder" versus a "work smarter" approach tend to see more schedule surprises.
Airbus' two-year, multibillion-dollar production delay for the A380 is attributed to many organizational issues, but one cause that bubbles to the surface in virtually all assessments was that local managers apparently balked at the time and expense involved in retraining engineers to use new design tools. Hindsight being 20/20, Airbus senior management is said to have adopted a new mantra: "Right people, right tools, right training and right management oversight."
The EE Times statistical research and the MIT study suggest that those semiconductor companies that drive engineers to work harder with outdated EDA tools are likely to experience a reduction in productivity and innovation capability.
One by-product of tighter schedules and budgets is the decrease in collaborative dialogue with engineering management. Engineering teams have the ingenuity to make magic happen if empowered and equipped to do so. Engineers who used to lead breakthroughs in productivity by taking risks and succeeding, however, now find it taboo to discuss solutions "outside the box" with management, especially when new spending or new tooling is involved.
Cornerstones of electronics
Somewhere along the way, people have forgotten that innovation and productivity are cornerstones of electronics design that dramatically affect corporate competitiveness. Engineers and engineering management can gave frank, substantive conversations about factors affecting engineering productivity.
This means engineers should persistently voice scheduling and risk realities, while offering suggestions for improving capabilities. Senior management needs to hear engineers' good judgment-as opposed to a lot of of data-on design, schedule and EDA tool alternatives.
On the other hand, managers should recognize and reward engineers who take the initiative to advance design methodologies and to learn new skills, rather than those who simply work overtime to bail out delayed projects. And they should schedule time between projects to evaluate and select new design tools, and for engineers to be trained and to hone their new skills.
Long-term productivity gains happen when organizations make a conscious effort to retool their engineers and reward process improvements. The result is sustainable innovation in design.
In an effort to illuminate this important topic, the EDA Consortium and Fabless Semiconductor Association have joined forces to produce the Productivity Impact Luncheon at the Design Automation Conference in San Diego on Tuesday (June 5). With a theme, "Changing the Dialogue between Engineers and Managers," the luncheon will examine engineering productivity factors through the use of research, practical examples and dialogue vignettes. To learn more, visit the EDAC Web site.
Kathryn Kranen is president and CEO of Jasper Design Automation, an EDA software supplier, and vice chairperson of the EDA Consortium, an international association of companies that provide tools and services that enable EEs to create electronic products.