Engineering and Design: Ever Connected

It is hard to believe that the smartphone revolution started just 10 years ago this year, with Apple having delivered its first iconic iPhone in 2007. I often have trouble remembering my life before my first smartphone. I vaguely remember my Nokia 3210 and Motorola Razor, while also owning a digital camera and a digital calendar (PDA). I also vaguely remember a time when I could not access my email 24/7. (I’m not here to debate whether that is progress!) The leap from button-driven phones to the new smartphones has truly been amazing. The phone itself has replaced our need to separately carry a phone, digital camera, video camera, digital calendar, digital recorder, music player with albums, and a laptop to check email – not to mention a deck of cards, book of Sudoku puzzles or your favorite book to read! And over the years, the designs have become sleeker and lighter, with batteries that last longer and displays that are sharper. Simultaneously, the development of new apps continues to push the boundaries of the smartphone’s use. This is truly amazing! Being an Engineer, I am very proud of my field for having been at the forefront of many of these technological advances.

It is this amazement that drew me to read the article “How Apple Vs. Samsung Became a Smartphone Beauty Contest” by Timothy W. Martin and Tripp Mickle in The Wall Street Journal (published online July 16, 2017). The article contends that smartphone innovation has hit a plateau, as consumers “now see incremental changes as opposed to game changing features.” The article further contends that smartphone development, most notably between leading developers Apple and Samsung, has shifted to how a phone “looks and feels.” They highlighted market research stating that a consumer’s decision to acquire a smartphone is strongly driven by the aesthetics of the phone.

Does this mean that Engineers are no longer involved in smartphone development? Have artists and designers taken over the process? I ask these questions because Samsung’s design chief, M. H. Lee, was quoted as saying “Companies used to design phones to show off their technology.” The word “used” seemed to imply that the smartphones of the future would not have technological advances.

Specifically, Lee noted in the article that he had two design goals for the newly released Samsung Galaxy S8: (1) making the design slimmer with better grip; and (2) extending the screen to the sides by removing the metal frames.

When one considers the leaps in technology in the early days of the smartphone, these design goals may seem meager. After all, there are no new functions being added to the device. However, it is clear that there is a lot of Engineering and Science behind these latest, “meager” advances, especially with regards to the screen. Specifically, the development of advanced OLED (organic, light-emitting diodes) displays, which are flexible and do not require a backlight as in previous LCD (liquid crystal display) technology, have made these latest advances possible – allowing the screen to literally bend over the edge. The technology has been developed over decades (LED technology originated in the early 20th century while OLED technology developed mid-century). Scientists at Eastman Kodak are credited with developing the first OLEDs for practice use in the late 1980s. Future work in LED technology could lead to invisibility cloaks (see!

There are a few take-aways from these latest smartphone developments. First, scientific breakthroughs can take years to make it to market. This is why we (government, industry, and academia) must continue to support R&D, including basic research, as it is not clear where, or when, breakthroughs will “pay off” and improve our well-being.

Second, Engineering and Science are fundamental to excellent design. Back to my earlier question, it is clear that Engineers are not to be replaced by artists in future smartphone design. Rather, it is clear that the artists need Engineering (and vice versa). Later in the article, in referring to Samsung’s newly designed screen, Lee noted that “before, it wasn’t technically possible.” This was clear when looking at the advances of OLED technology, but it was truly reassuring to see the design chief state that technological breakthroughs were required before the elegant design could be pursued.

Third, great design requires more than just Engineering and Science. It should be clear that I am a big proponent of the STEM movement, as I believe we need more STEM majors for continued progress in society. But I am also a big proponent of the STEAM movement, which integrates Art into STEM. The late Steve Jobs of Apple pushed for great products with great designs. This truly requires an interdisciplinary team of designers that can bring technology, functionality, ergonomics, and aesthetics, together. A sprinkling of all of these topics in our educational backgrounds would make this much easier.

Fourth, research and development is not linear. The release of the iPhone in 2007 was a giant leap forward in technology. Subsequent advances continued, but were clearly more moderate than the initial breakthrough. If one were to “graph” the advances, it would be a step function followed by an increasing function, most likely with a declining slope over time. But as this seems to plateau, rest assured, another jump will occur. And there will be serious Engineering behind it!