One Small Step For An Engineer, One Giant Leap For Engineering

Aug. 17, 2006
Engineers often say they don't get the same respect they did back in NASA's golden era, when the whole world cheered Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. So it's refreshing to attend an event that spotlights the engineer and the universal impac

Engineers often say they don't get the same respect they did back in NASA's golden era, when the whole world cheered Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. So it's refreshing to attend an event that spotlights the engineer and the universal impact of innovative design. That focus is what makes the annual Freescale Technology Forum (FTF) a big hit with the design engineers who attend.

This year's FTF, held July 24-27 in Orlando, Fla., was no exception. The importance of the engineer's work resonated throughout the event. CEO Michel Mayer kicked things off with a keynote describing how Freescale's $1.3 billion yearly R&D budget is a platform that empowers its customers' "design freedom."

Neil Armstrong, who gave the closing address, related to the audience thanks to his own engineering background. He said his walk on the moon was no more important than many of today's engineering challenges. He also stressed that the most momentous explorations and inventions are in the audience's control. "And tell marketing and sales to cut you some slack," he told the cheering crowd.

Since its spinoff from Motorola, Freescale has used FTF to hone its standalone identity. The program included 350 hours of technical sessions and workshops covering key Freescale technologies, including recent innovations like MRAM, 8- to-32-bit pin-compatible controllers, and new Power processors. A 28,000-ft2 "TechLab" exhibit area featured Freescale's partners and complementary technology vendors.

VIP TREATMENT But FTF doesn't feel like a typical trade show. Freescale rolls the red carpet out for designers. Plentiful food and entertainment and a resort atmosphere create the feeling that designers aren't just getting demos, but are being feted with new technologies to unleash their creativity.

The party at the Hard Rock Café with the band 3 Doors Down certainly added to the VIP ambience. I happened to sit down for dinner with engineers from Hand Held Products, who said they felt they were getting the treatment usually reserved "for sales and marketing."

Nonetheless, the main attraction for the design engineers attending FTF is the chance to dig in at the technical sessions. Capacity audiences not only learned about up and coming hot consumer technologies like new mobile video processors, digital saudio for home theater, and gaming, they took part in the stalwart automotive and industrial design sessions as well.

There was also strong attendance at sessions covering new wireless technologies like WiMAX and ZigBee. "Design freedom" is coming to the fore in a panoply of new ZigBee-enabled applications, like fire hydrant monitoring and even cattle tracking. I sat in on the presentation from ZigBeef, an Oklahoma-based company looking to use ZigBee as a lower-cost alternative to RFID for herd tracking, allowing for whole-herd in-field reading. Apparently, it's about to become a very hot market, as the USDA has mandated the tracking of all cattle throughout their lifecycle by 2009.

TO THE MOON Still, the highlight of the conference was the closing keynote from Neil Armstrong. He poetically described the wonders of seeing the glow of blue "earthlight" illuminating the lunarscape and a corona of sunlight behind the moon as he approached. There wasn't enough light for his film camera when he was in space, and he wished the scene could have been captured by Leonardo da Vinci—or at least by a digital camera! ( Mayer presented him with a Freescale-powered digital camera as an impromptu gift at the end of the talk.)

But Armstrong emphasized his focus on the engineering work at hand—placing mirrors on the moon that could then reflect laser light from Earth and measure the distance from Earth to the moon. He also underscored the indispensability of the onboard computer navigational system in making the Apollo mission possible: The first computer with just 4k provided the applications that guided the rocket and lunar lander to orbit, landing on the moon, and returning to a predictable location.

"A keyboard with just 13 keys, a seven-digit register and just numbers, no letters, allowed us to do what we thought was impossible," he said. Again, you designers can do the impossible when you feel empowered to exercise creative freedom.

For more on the technological announcements from Freescale at the conference check out Bill Wong's FTF onsite reporting at ED Online 13208 at

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