The interdisciplinary challenge

Nov. 1, 2000
In engineering, keeping up is easier than falling behind.

After thinking about it for months, I finally upgraded my home computer. Actually I didn’t have much of a choice. My 2X CD-ROM drive had run out of steam and some of our newer programs, written for Windows 95, wouldn’t work under the older operating system. My only regret after I finished the job is that I didn’t do it sooner.

Another time I was hesitant to adopt new technology the consequences could have been more serious. It was back when calculators first came out. My high school teachers disdained the new electronic gizmos, which was a good enough reason for me to go without one. The fact that I couldn’t afford one had something to do with it too, but it really didn’t matter because I could solve problems faster by hand than many of my button-pushing classmates.

I attempted to continue my paper-andpencil way of life in college, and was successful for about three weeks. Then came my first chemistry exam. Not surprisingly, it was the type of ordeal that can give a student nightmares. Expecting to find simple algebraic expressions like the ones in the example problems, I opened the test and saw all sorts of trig functions and exponentials.

At that point it was clear I either had to fall ill — which wouldn’t have been that difficult — or just work each solution as far as I could and hope for mercy. Fortunately, I opted for the latter, and the professor graciously plugged in the numbers when he graded the exam. That evening I bought my first calculator, a National Semiconductor as I recall.

From time to time all engineers face the challenge of having to abandon an old, familiar way for something new. One day it’s slide rules, the next day it’s calculators. One day you’re leaning over a drafting table, the next day you’re sitting at a workstation. One day you’re using copper wire, the next day a fiber-optic data bus. One day it’s a motor, the next day an integrated motor-drive.

In addition to new tools and technology, engineers must also adapt to new ways of thinking. This may be the toughest challenge of all because thinking is a self-sustaining process, forever fitting new information into an existing world model. All too often people are reluctant to change this model, and their thinking grows stale.

In our field, the prevailing trend is from single to inter-disciplinary thinking. The old approach of thinking along the lines of one discipline — though it worked well in the days when motion systems were predominantly mechanical — is rapidly becoming outdated. Now, even simple motion problems require a blend of mechanical, electronic, and computer engineering skills.

Developing such an interdisciplinary mindset, like upgrading to Windows 95 or learning how to work a calculator, isn’t as complicated as it may seem. In fact, most engineers are already doing it to some degree. Thanks to the proliferation of PCs, silicon and software have permeated our daily lives and are now engrained in the models we use to solve problems, whether at work or home.

One day we’ll probably all look back and realize that the most difficult thing about interdisciplinary design wasn’t learning how to do it, but trying to carry on without it.

Larry Berardinis [email protected]

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