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What electronics research is and isn’t January 24, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering.
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A co-worker sent around an article announcing the closure of the Office of Electronics Miniaturization at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. This group did work similar to what our group at NDSU does, but that’s most of what I knew about them.

This article wouldn’t be noteworthy except that I was rather annoyed at one statement made by the UAF spokesperson:

Established in 2001, the Office of Electronic Miniaturization was envisioned as a hub for creating products in the emerging field of microscopic technology. But instead of producing commercially viable inventions, the office migrated toward basic research.

That drift led its closure, UAF spokeswoman Marmian Grimes said.

There are so many things wrong with these three sentences, I don’t know where to begin. I am going to assume they were paraphrasing Grimes.

First, I’m not sure what they mean by “creating products in the emerging field of microscopic technology”. Microtech has been around since the 60s or 70s. It’s not emerging: it’s a mature field.

This is important because it probably underlies the misconceptions present in the rest of the passage. The claim is that the center was supposed to be developing products that would be commercially viable, but instead, they ended up doing basic research.

Do these people have a clue how commercial projects are developed to begin with?

It’s not terribly easy working in a university doing engineering research. It has a decidedly different flavor than the basic research one does in science. Universities are not the cheapest places to do research, in particular because of the huge overhead costs. Therefore, many companies and federally funded projects won’t want to go to a university unless the university has a good reputation. It’s hard to create serious techological advances when your program is just emerging, especially considering the start-up costs.

In order to attract the money, you have to have something worthwhile for your customers, and the only way to do that is to find something useful and novel (Ugh….hate that word, but it’s apt here). You have to have something to offer your customer that no one else has. And the way you get that is not by doing what is already commonplace in the industry but by doing some basic research.

Once you have provided them with something unique, you need to find a way to make it commercially viable. You can come up with the moon for a customer, but it does them no good if it can’t be manufactured easily and cheaply.

So they were supposed to be creating innovative products, but because they were doing basic research instead, they ended up closing down. Sorry, but in order to come up commercially viable inventions, you need first do do some basic research. This stuff doesn’t come out of thin air.

The article goes on to say that the center was funded by earmarks. Under the leadership of the republican congress, there are a lot of places that are losing funding. The problem was not that the center shifted toward basic research. The problem probably was, as Hullavarad later says in the article, that they didn’t have time to get something useful out of that research. Innovation and marketable products require a certain level of expertise, especially when entering a relatively well-developed field. One may say that nine years ought to be enough. However, when one is in a remote area of the country that lacks the expertise present in other areas such as silicon valley, there is going to be some bootstrapping involved. Microtech has been around for decades. Nanotech has been around for 10-15 years. It’s not like this is an area with low-hanging fruit.

I really hope that the excerpt was simply a result of poor phrasing. However, I’ve run into the “engineers just need to go make something” mentality often enough to know that it also could be exactly what was said. Hearing this makes me twice as sorry to hear about the OEM.

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Comments»

1. logosamorbos - January 25, 2011

I know very little about the sciences. They are not my forté. I’m a librarian who dabbles; a taxonomist who organizes; an analyst who divines.

But in my trawling of the great internet, looking for random writings on the dangers of data extrapolation, I stumbled upon your blog and, well…”Faraday’s Cage is where you put Schroedinger’s Cat”? You have absolutely made my day. I laughed aloud, literally, and then sent the your link with a screenshot to some friends.

It’s fun to find these random shout-outs to Lost. I miss it. 🙂

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2. FrauTech - January 25, 2011

Yes it does seem engineers favor the “just build something” all too often. Then you end up with all this money invested in a prototype that isn’t exactly what you wanted it to be, or you can’t necessarily learn from your first build unless you take the time to do the research beforehand and make it more advanced than the thing that’s already out there.

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