When the screen on my daughter's hand-me-down laptop dimmed, flickered and finally died, I hooked it up to a secondary monitor that had been gathering dust in a closet. My take: Problem solved without a repair bill or a new laptop. Her take: "So I can only use my computer if I'm sitting at a desk?" It wasn't so much that she was complaining, it was just a foreign concept she was trying to comprehend.
She's not alone. More and more consumers expect mobility. Global smartphone shipments will exceed 1 billion units in 2013 and the installed base will exceed 2 billion, according to accounting and consulting firm Deloitte. Tablet shipments are expected to exceed 240 million units this year, beating the notebook PC shipment forecast for the first time, according to an NPD DisplaySearch.
That many smartphones and tablets have a ripple effect for product design engineers. Just as the personal computer boom opened up the market for printers, routers and other peripherals, so too is the mobile boom. But this time, there are no wires attached.
For example, there were enough watches and bracelets at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show to fill a jewelry store, but most didn't operate independently. They owed their wow factor to how they interacted with smartphones by sending the wearer's vital signs to an app, or beaming a user's calendar meetings from their phone to their wrist.
About half of U.S. adults have a smart phone in their pocket, according to Pew Research, and they want to use them to control everything from their televisions to their thermostats to their cars. Pundits predicted for years that the computer would become the hub of the connected home, but it looks like that computer has a different form factor than they expected. The mobile device is becoming the digital dashboard to the Internet of Things.
Designers charged with meeting the demand for connectivity have plenty of tools to get the job done. Design and simulation software is capable of helping to avoid heat displacement and interference issues in devices that traditionally haven't had to incorporate antennas, radios and screens. Workstations and servers have the processing power needed to develop and test new embedded software that can connect virtually everything to everything else. Sensors and components are shrinking to previously unheard of sizes, allowing design engineers to incorporate GPS in luggage, accelerometers in shoes and electronic noses in refrigerators.
The pace of technological innovation is both a blessing and a curse for engineering departments that find themselves transitioning from designing "dumb" products to "smart" ones that use embedded software to communicate via the Internet. They're tasked with learning new systems, requirements and technologies -- and they need to know them yesterday. Hiring new engineers to fill in the gaps isn't always possible. Even if the economy were booming and companies were hiring more, they'd have a difficult time finding talent. There are two job openings for every unemployed science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professional, according to a study by Change the Equation, a non-profit initiative to improve STEM education in the U.S.
While bringing in outside expertise is one answer, which we'll investigate in next month's special issue on engineering consultants and service providers, technology provides another potential solution.
Collaboration is Key
Just like products communicating with each other in an Internet of Things makes each product more useful, design engineers who collaborate with engineers from other disciplines will improve themselves and the products they design. Communication is a no-brainer, but with tight production schedules and overflowing inboxes, it's easier said than done.
The good news is, design collaboration software in the form of product data management and product lifecycle management is not just for large enterprises anymore. Software developers have made their products easier to install, maintain and use by small- and medium-sized businesses. They're becoming increasingly important tools for all engineers, especially those who need to stay abreast of the rapid technological shifts a connected culture is bringing to their work.
And, of course, many of them have mobile apps so engineers can stay connected to them on the go.
Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at email@example.com.