Electronic Design

Looking For The Juice To Fuel The Next 50 Years Of Innovation

By now I hope you've found time to read your copy of our 50th anniversary issue. Putting this commemorative special together was both a labor of love and a lot of hard work. Reviewing all the breakthroughs of the last half-century makes my imagination click into high gear as I muse about the innovations to come during the next 50 years.

The present reality, however, is that the very next generation of advances could be stonewalled by one of the worst across-the-board slowdowns ever endured by the electronics industry. Corporations have made cutbacks to compensate for the reduced business that have touched all company divisions, from R&D to marketing to corporate infrastructures. Reductions in people and budgets bring a reduction in creativity and innovation. I have started wondering just what impact these cuts will make on the electronics industry over the next 50 years.

Although a few companies have maintained R&D budgets at preslowdown levels, many others have reduced their R&D budgets to maintain an appearance of good financial management to stockholders. Such appearances, though, can stifle creativity because research labs no longer have the monetary or human resources to explore multiple product development avenues. So, an adequate but less-than-ideal solution may result.

Additionally, without lots of R&D, where will the technologies for new components and systems come from? Are we starving ourselves too close to the bone, so that when the industry starts to recover—and recover it will—we won't have the strength and resources in place to rapidly develop and bring to market the next generations of evolutionary and revolutionary new products?

Today many are being asked to do not only our job, but also the job of one or two other associates who were downsized. Such a heavy workload is a significant challenge, often forcing us to focus only on the task at hand and leaving little time to strategize about the next generation or two of products to follow. In many research labs, long-term projects have been shelved or abandoned, as researchers are asked to concentrate on technologies that can yield results in the next year or two.

But without the long-term research, I wonder whether or not our industry will be able to continue its pace of breakthrough after breakthrough to deliver new solutions. Many of the fundamental research breakthroughs often take a decade or more to become production realities. Thus, we really won't see the main impact of today's cutbacks and refocusing until 2010 and beyond.

One way of trying to keep the edge, even in these tough economic times, is by not settling for adequate. We should set loftier goals that go well beyond just meeting the basic requirements. As an editor, I never leave any of my articles alone, even after submitting the completed assignment. I always want to make the piece better by changing the wording to make it read smoother, tweaking the article to make it more complete, or expanding on a topic to better explain something.

Those in the design arena face very similar challenges and desires during and after product development. In the design phase, you strive to create a feature-rich solution to provide value to customers. After the design is finished, you can usually think of several things that you would have done differently, or a new feature that would be nice to add to the system.

While the present design is wrapping up, at least the next two generations of products in the same family should be on the drawing boards. This never-ending challenge helps keep the creative juices flowing and the shelves stocked with a wide variety of products. But unless new basic technologies keep on coming from the research labs, we just might be in for a dry spell. However, as the economy recovers, companies will hopefully increase R&D budgets once again and that, in turn, will reinvigorate the industry. So brace yourselves for the amazing innovations that the next 50 years will hold.

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