Electronic Design

Spirit Of Wescon Lives On: Smaller Stage, Big Picture

Some of my friends who've been in the electronics arena since Wescon's glory days were curious to know if the event is still worth attending. Although it's not the must-attend extravaganza of "back in the day,"my time was well spent at last month's conference in Anaheim. I found it informative and even inspirational.

Because IEEE puts on the event, Wescon is a small show with some meaty content. Co-located with NANOWorld and AFEI (Association for Enterprise Integration), the conference program offered an intriguing mix. There were bread-and-butter design sessions covering power components and test and measurement. But the event also showcased some awesome applications, including a special presentation from the lead engineers on the Mars Exploration Rover project and a panel on the military's RFID-driven logistics that get supplies to our troops at the right place and the right time.

This mix of hands-on engineering tips with some world-changing application stories created an interesting juxtaposition that carried over to the exhibit floor. Because many Wescon exhibitors are test and components vendors, these "everyday engineering" companies benefited from an applications backdrop that underscored the criticality of exacting calibrations and the reliability of each and every component.

The show's strong test and measurement focus made for an excellent opportunity for the engineer wanting to shop for some new goodies for the testbench. Adding a leading-edge touch, young Russian mathematicians from Virtual Standards were in their booth debuting new algorithms for bringing higher accuracy to measurement tools. They described a calibration system that decreases both random and systematic errors and can be applied either in new equipment or to improving the accuracy of existing measuring equipment. Virtual Standards tools can be applied remotely via the Internet, through a PC-compatible USB device, or by an embedded chip.

IT'S BRAIN SURGERY
Still, down on the show floor, some exhibitors might not have been quite as inspired as I was by Wescon's "big picture" context. For one thing (let's face it), it's hard to keep the "greater mission" in mind by the end of a long afternoon of booth duty. One representative of a pc-board vendor directly downplayed the impact of his company's contributions: "It's not exactly brain surgery," he told me. The irony was, just across the aisle, FLIR Systems, a company that incorporates such boards into its thermographic camera systems, had just told me about a new application for its cameras: yes, brain surgery!

Apparently, it's difficult for brain surgeons to determine where a tumor ends and the brain begins. They have to find that delicate line so as not to leave any cancerous cells behind, but without cutting out any more healthy brain cells than possible. The tumor has a different metabolic rate than the healthy brain cells, so the FLIR system's display of heat differentials helps surgeons find their way through this delicate process.

DARPA GRAND CHALLENGES
Seminar organizers tried hard to push the excitement of the bigger engineering picture down to the show floor. At the far end of the hall, DARPA 500 Grand Challenge self-guided vehicles were on display. The DARPA-sponsored race will award a $1 million prize to the first team that can complete a run through a desert navigational course. Hearing the strategies and experiences from the race engineering teams was a definite show highlight! The next DARPA race is scheduled for October 8, 2005. I wonder if a reality TV show will soon follow.

DARPA is definitely achieving its goal for the race to serve as inspiration to new engineers. These Grand Challenge teams sure are fired up! Many said they were drawn to the Challenge not only for the thrill of the race, but also because they recognized the opportunity to work on new technologies that could have an impact on society's future.

Wescon's focus on challenging next-generation engineers was also underscored by the running of the Micromouse international robotic competition. Here, autonomous robotic mice navigated an intricate maze. (Your cats will love this trade show event, too!)

Wescon remains a great place to see the tools of the engineering trade hands on—and to see those tools in a context that inspires today's and tomorrow's engineers.

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