A View from the Top: A Virtual Prototyping Blog


The 21st Century Engineer–10 Years On!

imageWell, as January is always over I went back into the garage and checked my IEEE Spectrum from January 10 years ago to think about the predictions from that time. The topic  of the 2001 forecast issue was “Always On – Living in a Networked World”. Overall I am mighty impressed how accurate the outlook of the IEEE team of editors was!

My favorite article of the issue is The 21st Century Engineer by Joseph Bordogna of the US National Science Foundation. Although addressed to the overall engineering population, we EEs can find ourselves very well in here. Bordogna refers to five new capabilities that are shaping the future of engineering— terascale, nanoscale, complexity, cognition, and holism. All of them find themselves in our day to day world of system-level design as we refer to it in our industry.

  • Terascale takes us “three orders of magnitude beyond present general-purpose and generally accessible computing capabilities”. Indeed, with the design starts shifting to smaller geometries, the overall complexity in our domain has grown tremendously. Moore’s Law would predict a 32x complexity increase over the last ten years in hardware alone. The addition of software makes it even more complex, perhaps not extending to the mentioned three order of magnitude, but still quite a bit, and certainly enough to push system-level design tools and method closer to mainstream.
  • Nanoscale “will take us three orders of magnitude below the size of most of today’s human-made devices”. OK, no question there now that we are discussing 16nm/15nm technology nodes.
  • Complexity to the point “where the components of a system never quite lock into place, and yet never quite dissolve into turbulence, either…” (referencing Mitch Waldrop’s book “Complexity”). Well, things lock well into place in the world I live in (and can go to layout afterwards). But still, complexity has grown so much that we are now approaching – according to latest Semico data – 57% IP Reuse in chip-design expecting it to grow to 73% in 2015. Just the number of IP blocks per chip has grown to an average of 50 in 2010 and is expected to grow to 113 in 2015. For comparison, a 2006 Semico report has the percentage of re-use in 2001 at about 10% and the average number of re-used blocks at around 10. Quietly IP Re-use has addressed over the last ten years part of the system-level design challenge, only to create new ones instead: A big portion of today’s challenge lies in IP Integration.
  • Cognition, defined as “the mental process or facility by which knowledge is acquired”, Bordogna believes to be “on the verge o a cognitive revolution that may dwarf he information revolution”. I would fully agree and as a result we in the area of system-level design are thinking a fare share of our time of the right abstraction levels at which the systems we help to design can be comprehended. Thinking in transactions instead of signals is only one step …
  • Holism, according to the dictionary is “the concept that an entity is greater than merely the sum of its parts”. Bordogna concludes that the “hallmark of the modern engineer is the ability to see connections among seemingly disparate components, and to integrate them in ways that exceed the sum of their respective capacities”. I fully agree and think we certainly could do that  more in my world, but I do see progress here as well. As a result I am more often meeting new people – not that there is something wrong with the ones I know – but it is refreshing to for example talk to colleagues about the system-level challenges in optics and mechanics. We often do find interesting new connections – like in the emerging world of mechatronics for automotive system-level design.

My other favorite, really interesting articles of this issue are:

  • Philip E. Agre’s “Welcome to the always-on world“, in which the author talks about the outlook of email being checked anywhere, anytime, something which has become full reality for most of us (which device are you reading this on?).
  • Linda Geppert’s “The new chips on the block [network processors]“, which talks about the challenges in networking which have lead to what we now know as “multicore design”.
  • Elisabeth A. Bretz’s “The car: just a Web browser with tires” quotes Scott McNealy saying ““Why not think of everything as just an Internet node? So a car is just a [Web] browser with tires.” I did ride this car by now, Scott was right 10 years ago …

Bottom line it is fun being part of the engineering community and I certainly meet a lot of people fitting Bordogna’s description of the 21st Century Engineer, who “will need to be astute makers, trusted innovators, agents of change, master integrators, enterprise enablers, technology stewards, and knowledge handlers. They will need more than first-rate technical and scientific skills. They will need to embrace complex systems and the issues they present, and reach the right decisions about how huge amounts of time, money, people, knowledge, and technology are tasked to a common end.”

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