Our entrepreneurial spirit is fine, thanks for asking

Sept. 1, 2003
I’m often asked why engineers aren’t more entrepreneurial

I’m often asked why engineers aren’t more entrepreneurial. Usually, I plead ignorance because to argue the assertion only brings tougher questions like, “Then why do so few start their own businesses?” and “Why do most of them fail?” These are fair questions, and it’s probably worth our time to explore some answers.

Traditional engineering, by nature, discourages lone rangers. Design, manufacturing, even maintenance consists of many highly interconnected steps which, apart from each other, usually have little commercial value. This is one reason why it’s often so difficult to explain what we do to family and friends. The fact is engineering is the ultimate embedded discipline. I worked as an engineer, I know.

Another reason engineers rarely launch out on their own is that throughout their careers they are largely removed from “the business” and what it takes to run it. Sadly, the closest most engineers get to the inner workings of their organization is, “Here’s a number. Don’t go over it.” That’s not exactly what I’d call a fertile training ground for someone aspiring to higher levels of responsibility and eventual independence.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to entrepreneurship, however, is the engineering mind itself. Engineers are born, or at least trained, to avoid risks and unknowns. That’s not a bad trait, especially if you’re working on things like airplanes, bridges, and elevators. But what’s good for engineering can be a hindrance in the modern business world.

So what are we engineers to do? Is there a safe, smart way to market our knowledge and experience and, in the process, silence the critics? The answer is “yes,” and it lies in the rapidly changing role of machine software.

Soon, software-based machine functions will dominate the industrial landscape, especially in the area of motion. In the typical motion system, software will surround even the most mechanical hardware, providing control, monitoring, diagnostics, and communication. It’s quite possible these soft components and functions will be authored and marketed like traditional hardware, giving engineers new opportunities to package and sell what they know.

I’ve already seen examples of this, particularly in Japanese design. In one case, instead of an idler arm, a beltdriven feed axis incorporated a belt-slack take-up algorithm as part of the controller. Working independently, the belt-slack code modifies motor shaft position as a function of belt and load dynamics. Obviously, the code contains a lot of specific knowledge only an expert (someone like you) could possess. Other examples of soft machine functions already at work include engine-knock cancellation routines, anti-backlash filters, ballscrew error tables, and bearing-runout correction algorithms.

The idea of commercially viable software supplementing or replacing hardware is not new. It started over a quarter of a century ago when National Instruments, the Austinbased manufacturer of LabView and other measurement and control solutions, began offering soft instrumentation using the brilliant marketing term “virtual instruments.”

In the future, a similar revolution is likely to take place in motion system design. But instead of virtual instruments or VIs, we’ll be talking about “virtual components” and “virtual dynamics.” Cams, springs, lineshafts, and other timing and stabilization mechanisms will give way to software-based virtual dynamics just like oscilloscopes and signal analyzers were replaced by software VIs running on high-speed PCs.

The technology is already in place — blazing-fast microprocessors, hierarchical programming languages, development tools, device networks, simulators, and transferable software modules like the recently introduced Express VIs for LabView. By the time everyone figures out how it all fits together, you can be ahead of the wave ready to market your knowledge in the form of specialized software modules. We’ll even help you get some publicity. Tell us what you’ve come up with and we’ll consider it for publication. Together, we can change the future, or at least yours.

Larry Berardinis
[email protected]

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