From the ITEE College Board Chair Geoff Sizer Monday, 13 June 2016

Is engineering becoming easier?

Moore’s Law has driven exponential growth in computing power for the past 40+ years. Whilst the size of the atom will eventually limit semiconductor device density, engineering innovations may well allow the trend to continue indefinitely. Along with increased raw computing power, advances in semiconductor technology have driven continual if less dramatic capability improvements in all areas of electronics.

Aids to the engineering process have tracked Moore’s Law, with ever more capable computer-aided design tools running on affordable processing platforms unimaginable a couple of decades ago. Coupled with this, the Internet provides immediate access to information – long gone are the days of anxiously awaiting the arrival in the post of the latest data books from semiconductor suppliers.

As a consequence, one could surmise that the engineering process should be getting easier, not only for electronics and IT engineers, but in other engineering disciplines which benefit from enhanced tools, communications, sensing technologies and other innovations.

A contrary view is that the engineering process is in fact becoming more complicated and difficult – because the systems being engineered are becoming ever more complex, driven by the capabilities of new technologies. 

Large systems have evolved to the point where it is impossible for an individual or even a team of engineers to gain an overall conceptual understanding of a complete system. Telecommunication systems, banking IT systems and the Internet are examples, where ongoing evolution over decades puts the “big picture” beyond the grasp of the individual.

A consequence of this is inherent fragility, where faults or changes in one part of the system can have unanticipated broad reaching ripple-on effects. Over reliance on computer based tools only exacerbates this problem, with the risk that designers are divorced from a fundamental understanding of first principles.

I personally hold the view that the best engineering tool remains the human brain, backed up by education, training and experience. Computer-based tools remove a lot of drudgery, and free up time for thinking about increasingly complex problems which we are required to tackle.

In the future, expert systems may evolve to the point where human engineers become redundant – but just as Moore’s Law has survived repeated predictions of its demise, the role of humans in engineering appears secure for some time to come.