Platforms for innovation

I started my career 32 years ago designing hardware to connect to phones and the telephone network. It was a growth industry that was created by the deregulation of the telecom industry. I’ve blogged about how a large part of the success in that sector was due to the hatred for the incumbents that had been taxing the public for many decades. All of that is true but it’s hard to believe how far the industry has transformed in three short decades. Every now and then a device like the Raspberry Pi will spark some interest in the minds of retired hardware designers but that’s about all that’s going on.

I was speaking to a few people tonight at the Tech Tuesday get together and the general consensus is that hardware has permanently migrated off shore. I agree that the manufacturing of hardware has found a place off shore but I find it hard to believe that hardware innovation has permanently left the building. What has happened has been a modularization of hardware into modules like those used in cell phones and development platforms and a miniaturization of hardware sometimes referred to as mechatronics.

The question that I can’t get out of my mind is what are all the hardware designers doing now that the industry has turned to the magic of software? QNX has a division that develops components for cars but if you take a step back and look at what these systems do, they start to look alot like my cell phone. It’s really hard to piece together the hardware to do everything an iPhone does for less than the price of an iPhone. If we consider the Android market, it’s even harder.

Last night I had an idea for a heads up display for cars. I did some google-ing and discovered a number of ready made products, some with pretty entertaining reviews. Then I tried the app-store an sure enough, “there’s an app for that”.

If I wanted to be a computer or electronics hardware designer and I was just graduating from school, I think I would turn to the new fusion of mechanical and electrical engineering called Mechatronics. I have been hearing about it for years but it has yet to really show it’s worth. Mechatronics can be anything from electro-mechanical things like bionic limbs to machines small enough to move around in your bodies circulatory system. It’s the later that I find interesting. I have observed that in all things, being able to see the problem provides the mechanic with the best information on how to solve it.

The world of physics changes drastically when the machines are the size of blood cells or mosquitoes.

Here is an example of a multi-purpose nano machine that could be used to poke around inside your body. This is not a new idea, but it has taken a while for the technology to advance to the point where these things can actually be built.

When we consider the size of these machines, they could easily be powered by body heat or the circulatory system using a form of hydro-electric power generation. Machines programmed to keep us healthy could prolong lives for many decades. The tooling to make these machines would no doubt be costly, but the amount of materials would be less than minimal.

Do a quick scan when you get a moment and you will be amazed at what mechatronics is promising.

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