Engineers: kingpins in creating technology for sustained development

September 1st, 2015, Published in Articles: Vector

 

Professor Tania Hanekom

Prof. Tania Hanekom, Faculty of Engineering, University of Pretoria.

The technological world has changed significantly over the past century from a mainly mechanical-driven one to an electrically controlled one. The past century saw the development of the transistor in the 1940s and the arrival of the first functionally integrated circuit in 1960, a mere 55 years ago. The very first microprocessor was commercially available in 1971, which is only 44 years ago. How much has the world not changed during these 44 years! There is virtually no technological invention today that does not rely on some form of embedded technology, with microprocessor technology at its core. The systems that implement, support and control the world’s communication systems, transportation systems, food production systems, entertainment systems, health systems, education systems, scientific undertakings and even, to an extent, the environment itself, all profoundly rely on embedded technology.

The sophisticated nature of the technology that supports our modern lifestyle ultimately needs its creators and keepers to be competent, innovative and clever in the application of their technical prowess. Engineers are central to the design and progression of technology. Effective and appropriate education and training of engineers are thus vitally important to create sustainable technical competence that will produce the devices that drive and maintain our society. In this education strategy, training in embedded systems design is pivotal, since the majority of electrical, electronic and computer engineering graduates will eventually work in embedded design. Education provided in South Africa to prepare aspiring embedded engineers is excellent, since educators realise their enormous responsibility towards

  • South Africa, our country, because engineers create and maintain the technology and infrastructure upon which our economy is built;
  • Industry, because industry needs competent engineers to develop new products and technologies effectively and reliably;
  • Our community, because engineering projects and products directly affect the quality of life of people, for example through medical and communication devices;
  • Our youth, who need quality education so that they may be equipped with the skills they need to become successful engineering professionals that may confidently contribute to the development of a prosperous country; and
  • Sponsors and tax payers, who make a significant financial investment in the education and training of engineers.

South African engineers have traditionally been sought after on a global scale because of their holistic and innovative approach to solving engineering challenges. This unique approach is born from the need to improvise with limited resources and manpower – there is a recognised shortage of trained engineers in South Africa. The result is that our engineers tend to be equipped with a diverse skills set that promotes inventive solutions to difficult problems. The recognition that this quality enjoys world-wide is evident in the significant number of South African engineers that are employed by the global microcontroller and embedded systems design and manufacturing industry.

To produce the type of embedded engineer that South Africa is known for, engineering education needs to be extended into the mentoring of graduates once they enter industry. The responsibility to train engineers that are competent in embedded design thus does not end with tertiary institutions: industry also has an important role to fulfil in this regard. Tertiary institutions deliver a generic product that needs to be shaped, guided and moulded by relevant experience in our local industry. We need strong partnerships between universities and industry to inform and guide the educational objectives of engineering training in the context of our country’s specific technological needs. We need competent and enthusiastic mentors that accommodate engineering students for vacation work during their years of study to foster interest and inquisitiveness in the technical challenges posed by our techno-society. We need to nurture and impart to our successors the same sense of awe and responsibility that our generation of engineers has towards the significance of our profession in the future of our world.

 

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