Thursday, October 30, 2008

An Engineer Thinks Out Loud

Gail Flower, editor-in-chief

How we react to changes is almost instinctive. Basically, it’s fight or flight for everyone, but between industries there are remarkable adaptive strategies. An unexpected conversation with an engineer sitting next to me on a cross-country flight reminded me of the resourceful resilience of those in our field.

I was returning from visiting friends in California when thoughts about survival strategies crept into my mind. One of the most memorable stops of the trip was to the aquarium in Monterey Bay where swarms of sardines swam together to avoid being eaten by the larger fish. Sunlight reflected off the wall of silver they made while turning from one direction to another. Not only could they flash turn, but also cram into a dense ball, then scatter explosively, and then reform into the pattern. According to the aquarium’s explanation, schools of fish are more difficult to hunt because medium-size predators must pick out one fish and visually follow it to make a capture, and balling up prevents singling out just one. In a group that responds to a threat quickly by changing direction or flashing, the individual fades into the silver wall of fish camouflage.

While catching up on industry news during the flight back home, a fellow passenger introduced himself to me, explaining that he just left a small company that produced NOR flash for one that invented new presentation software for high-performance, low-power multimedia applications. “My graduate degree is in chemical engineering, and at 29, I’m flexible about where I work and what I do,” he said. I asked him why he didn’t just stay in electronics and work for another firm with a slightly different emphasis. “My case may be unusual,” he said, “but this firm has a niche that is unique and they compensate me well for what I do.” If faced with a field that isn’t showing progress, many engineers switch to one that offers longer-term promise. “Most of our brightest engineers have turned to solar in order to survive the industry downturn. The U.S. is behind in this area right now and the growth from their efforts will make a big difference in the next couple of years.”

“I see that you’re writing about IMEC,” he continued. I was writing up the information gleaned from an interview with Eric Beyne, Ph.D., scientific director at IMEC. In the interview, which you can watch at, Beyne talked about current research at IMEC including 3D interconnect technology, integrated passives for RF applications, flip chip scaling, stretchable textiles with embedded electronics, and MEMS. This month we are preparing to visit IMEC to get a glimpse into the future of electronics. They are broadening their focus, combining technologies to find innovative solutions for climate change and sustainable energy, efficiency, clean water supply, ubiquitous communication, and mobility challenges. “What I like about the organization is that it does leading research on enabling technologies while bridging the gap between fundamental research at universities and technology development in industry,” he said. “And researchers work in the same place, where they build up a reputation and a skill set that jibes with industry. In the U.S. university approach, professors who prove themselves stay, but graduate students who do the research change every few years. The U.S. misses out on extended research. Who feeds the up-and-coming researchers to encourage them to do their best work and how long can they afford to stay if not encouraged?”

There is no quick answer for supporting research and investing in electronics. Talking to this fellow made the issue of professional survival a lot more personal.

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