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Predicting the Future of Electronic Design & Development

Prediction is kind of a tricky business, especially when it comes to technology. However, that doesn't mean it's not fun. Current innovations, like 3D printing and the cloud may well be showing what's in store for us in the future.

It's kind of hilarious to watch old shows from the 1950s to see their view of the distant future – in this case, the 1980s or 1990s. Everyone has sleek floating (if not flying) cars with bubble domes, and they're all dressed in shiny jumpsuits. Their food comes out of machines that seem to create matter out of thin air. If illness hasn't been completely eradicated, it's still not a problem, because a miracle pill will cure everything from the common cold to cancer. Science fiction writers tended to have a really optimistic view of the future.

Actual scientists were more measured, but still pretty funny. A 1949 issue of Popular Mechanics quoted a scientist saying: “Where a calculator like the [Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer] (ENIAC) today is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1½ tons.”

Technically, he was correct, but in his case, he didn't go far enough. Today we use computers far more powerful than ENIAC. They fit in our pockets and we use them to make phone calls and play games in which we catch and train little cartoon monsters.

Like I said before, predicting the future is kind of a tricky business, but I'm going to give a try, focusing on two major, rapidly growing, aspects of current electronic design and development: 3D printing and the cloud.

The verdict?

Okay, the cloud is kind of cheating, as it's not necessarily a product of electronic design and development, though the servers it lives upon definitely are. However, like the internet which spawned it, the cloud has the potential to take the dissemination of knowledge, including that of electronic design, to whole new levels.

So many major design projects are collaborative efforts and the internet allows greater collaboration than ever before. Now, it can provide a whole lot more through connectivity, simulation, and real-time control. Imagine being able to assemble, test, and reconfigure anything without even being in the location at all? The cloud has that potential.

And speaking of hardware, let's talk about 3D printers. The time may come when your electronic design efforts can be fully facilitated through the cloud, but that doesn't mean you've got the parts you need to work with. Enter additive manufacturing, what most refer to as 3D printing. While these won't be producing meals any time soon (though edible 3D printing is, in fact, already a thing), what they can produce are components for your electronics, sometimes at a fraction of the cost to have the manufactured by conventional means.

Once, these machines could only produce relatively crude devices, but just in the past several years, printers have been created that could create objects from differing materials, with different consistencies — which makes it perfect for building prototypes or even finished objects. The liquid-based printer at UNC-Chapel Hill not only cuts the time necessary to print an object, the ability to print something shapeless as a liquid into something solid affords precision like never before.

So, we don't have the floating skateboards, self-adjusting clothes, and holographic waiters we were supposed to have in 2015, as depicted in Back to the Future, but there are more than a few interesting prospects ahead in the future of electronic design. These are changes that have the potential to make anyone who has the inspiration into an engineer who may well create something that changes the world.

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