(Times of India Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sitting in his office in the German university town of Chemnitz, Arved Huebler often thinks of the poor in rural India. Huebler is a physicist, a professor at the Chemnitz University of Technology and director of the Institute for Print and Media Technology in the university. He runs an exchange programme with Manipal University and has a lab there, but that isn't why he has Indian villages on his mind. Huebler is developing a product that will be useful for the poor, those who do not have electricity connections or cannot afford them. Called printed electronics, it is set to pervade a substantial part of our lives soon.
Huebler's research team is trying to print solar cells on paper, just the way we have printed this newspaper for you. Actually, when fully developed, it won't be nearly as difficult or expensive as a newspaper to print. Huebler imagines a future where thousands of mom-and-pop shops in India install printers that his team has developed, printing solar cells on demand that can be installed at home for instant electricity. "Our vision of the future is not about making silicon-based solar cells in clean rooms," says Huebler, "but to have them everywhere at low prices." It is simple, cheap, exquisitely sophisticated, and intensely disruptive.
Printed electronics will be big business in future. According to IDtechEx, a market research firm, the market for printed and flexible electronics will increase from $9.46 billion last year to $63.28 billion in 2022. Future products will include omnipresent RFID tags, intelligent packaging, labels that light up to tell you a story on touch, interactive toys and books, clothes that monitor your health, and hundreds of other things that make life easier.
Printed electronics technology, however, is built on ideas so sophisticated that only an intellectual army can develop them in a reasonable time. Huebler has a team of physicists, chemists, material scientists, electrical engineers, and other specialists, including a few in the humanities. "They have an obsessive desire to cross boundaries and learn other fields," says Huebler.
Twentieth century industries were built on a foundation of engineering. Engineers then were builders in the tradition of Thomas Edison, specialists who stuck to their core disciplines for life. Twentyfirst century engineers belong to a different league. They are no longer mechanical, electrical, chemical or computer engineers. They practise a subject that is fuzzy as well as precise, deep as well as broad, general as well as specialised. They are building a set of industries that are sophisticated, efficient and environment-friendly. And a world that is healthy, sustainable and beautiful.
Today's engineers learn mathematics, computation and science as core disciplines. Tomorrow's engineers will learn architecture, anthropology, sociology or performing arts as well. Most engineers so far didn't care for the humanities. But contemporary engineers will need to understand human nature. They will need to develop a fine aesthetic sensibility, too.
"People call the current trend multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary," says Tyler Jacks, head of the Koch Center for Integra-
tive Cancer Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "I would call it neo-disciplinary." This requires researchers with a new awareness, new sensibility and new skills.
The Koch Center combines three disciplines -- engineering, biology and medicine -- to develop exquisitely tailored solutions for cancer diagnosis and treatment. Biologists traditionally did not study engineering. Medical scientists knew the subject even less. On the other hand, engineers moved away from biology early in their careers. However, some contemporary life sciences problems need the three disciplines to work together so closely that they are merging into one super-discipline . Nowhere is this more evident than in cancer research.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder-chair of Biocon, realised the potential of the Koch Center's research for India and funded a fellowship programme there for PhDs from the country. Indian researchers who use the fellowship are expected to return to the country and build its position as an intellectual hub for cancer research.
The Koch Center researchers have learned to measure and manipulate cells with unprecedented -- a million times better than other methods -- accuracy. It is using nanotechnology to target drugs at cancer cells at high precision, and it is also using nanoparticles to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer.
Nanotechnology is at the heart of contemporary medical research, and its impact is being felt deeply in India as well. The 1,000-crore Nano Mission created two large centres in India, one at IIT Bombay and the other at Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, and funded other labs to do more focused research.
IIT Bombay and IISc have been researching in this area for a while, but have now combined the expertise of multiple departments into large centres that do fundamental research as well as develop products. In 2004, IIT Bombay developed a nanotechnology-based method to monitor heart health. A private company spun off from the institute developed it further.
Ready for hospital trials soon, the device costs 100, is as big as a match-box and can detect cardiac problems in 10 minutes. But modern engineering ideas are useful in more than one field. It soon turned out that the cardiac monitoring device could detect explosives, too.
Biology for engineers
Gaze a bit into the future. You could have this technology on your mobile phone, which can turn into a portable sniffer dog at no additional cost. A crowded railway platform can have hundreds of electronic sniffer dogs packed densely, any one of which would give a warning as soon as explosives approach the platform. Nanotechnology could thus permeate the world, providing unobtrusive support to many aspects of our lives.
To develop such technologies, as in printed electronics, you need to combine expertise from several fields. The IIT Bombay nanotech facility is being used by 63 professors from 10 departments and 110 PhDs. "Such coordinated work was unheard of even a few years ago," says Ramgopal Rao, professor at IIT Bombay.
Nanoscience and technology, which will become a $1-trillion market by 2020, has given rise to a new breed of engineers: part scientist, part mathematician, part traditional engineer, part environmentalist, part humanist . Biology, a subject shunned by engineers, has now come to the heart of many engineering subjects.
"Current PhD students are of a kind that did not exist a few years ago," says chairman of the nano science centre at IISc Rudra Pratap, who is developing many nanotech-based products. One major difference is the invasion of biology into engineering . "We now teach biology as a core course to engineers," says IIT Bombay professor Rinti Banerjee, who is developing nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems. Biologists or engineers -- sometimes there is no difference -- use nature's methods like self-assembly to develop new molecular machines. Some are using our genetic material, the DNA, to build scaffolds for machines that could become a part of several industrial products one day.
Engineering of this kind is strategically important for countries. Nanotechnology is a key component of many industries, including defence . In India, printed electronics is supposed to help remove a major obstacle in the way of its electronics industry: the absence of a semiconductor fab. A state-of-the-art fab will remain a necessity for making many semiconductor components, but printed electronics will introduce a new set of products where it is not. "Printed electronics will help Indian industry execute from concept to product within the country," says G Venkatesh, professor of electrical engineering at IIT Madras. It depends, of course, on India's intellectual investments. Major developed countries, and China, have made heavy investments in printed electronics . Venkatesh, who joined IIT Madras recently, is starting a research group in this area.
Printed electronics and nanotechnology operate at tiny scales. Different from these nanoengineers , and yet surprisingly similar, are those who build very large systems: future power grids, future transport systems, future buildings, future cities, future networks. They are superstructures of mindboggling size and complexity, and yet working together at a high level of subtlety and precision, so much so that conventional practices are useless for engineering them.
The electricity grid, what we use today in India, is a complex entity. It has a pan-India structure , with tens of thousands of nodes, controls managed by software, all delicately strung together by pure luck. After a few years, as smart grids evolve, every home will be a control point. Give a few more years, and every appliance in every home in the country will become a control point. A grid with more than a billion control points bears no relationship to the current grids.
Despite its size and complexity , a smart grid would be flexible, efficient, sustainable and keep serious problems to a small part of the network. Smart grids will operate using communications -- over the power lines themselves, fibre optics, wireless -- that are integrated. They use an extensive array of sensors and smart meters -- billions of them -- to gather information in real time. They will use new materials, new control systems, smart generation systems, and so on. All of it would be managed by a cyber-layer . "Electrical engineering as an academic subject is now changing to include communication, control and computing ," says HP Khincha, former chairperson of the electrical engineering department and now adviser at the IISc. "There is pressure to include energy, environmental engineering, disaster management , and other subjects."
Internet of things
Similar in scope to the smart grid, and closely related to it, would be the developing concept of industrial internet or internet of things. It is a world where the internet extends to connect machines, probably connecting all machines sometime in the future.
The idea is all-pervasive . You could wear sensors to monitor your health constantly, and alert doctors -- or machines -- before a medical emergency occurs. Thousands of sensors in factories will monitor the health of machines and production, improving global productivity. Sensor networks combined with analytics will monitor and manage transport systems to a nicety. Engineering approaches in these industries won't fit into any traditional area. "Future technologies will be multidisciplinary as well as multi-business," says Gopi Katragadda, MD of GE India Technology Centre in Bangalore.
Engineering projects will span the globe as well. "The current H7N9 outbreak in China is really a global engineering problem, believe it or not," says Sanjay Sarma, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. Solving the problem does not involve just understanding the virus biology and developing a vaccine. It involves learning how the virus will spread across the world, which in turn involves understanding food habits and supply chains, migration patterns, etc. Solving it will need the use of biology, engineering, anthropology , big data. In fact, controlling global pandemics will be one of the most serious engineering problems of the future, as they have the capacity to devastate the global economy -- and kill millions -- in no time.
The solution to serious global problems will need the application of an extraordinary number of disciplines , including science and humanities, but most of them are treated primarily as engineering problems . Take water, one of the most challenging global problems. Since the resources are finite -- only 2.5% is drinkable -- the world needs to find efficient ways of using water. To implement at a global or even national scale, water conservation requires expertise in several areas. We need to understand how the global water cycle evolves, how water bodies respond to consumption and global warming, urbanisation patterns, etc. One also needs to monitor usage on a real time basis and make rapid adjustments to changing demands.
IBM India, with help from IISc and IIT Kharagpur, is on a project to do just that. It had developed a nanotechnology-based membrane -- initially to use in its semiconductor fabs -- to purify water; it is now using this technology to provide safe water across the IISc campus. It will expand this project to Bangalore city soon, to monitor the flow and usage of water there. At one point, it could combine this technology with sensors placed in rivers that can provide real-time data on the water cycle and usage patterns. "Modelling the water cycle is a real challenge ," says IBM distinguished engineer Vishwanath Narayan, "as we do not have data about water in many places." IBM calls this project smarter water. It is part of its smart planet initiative, an all-encompassing effort to manage global systems using technology and big data. Other companies are attempting this too, notably GE, whose industrial internet project -- with huge R&D investment -- is a rewording of similar efforts.
At the heart of these efforts is one simple product: the sensor. In future, sensors would be everywhere, adding a digital component to everything we do. "A lot can be done if you observe the world," says Andrew Hopper, professor of computer technology at Cambridge University, and president of Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), a British society with 150,000 global members. Close monitoring is the basis of sustainability . "People talk about green computing , but computing for green is just as important." Sensors will provide health information, personal energy usage, health of our infrastructure, soil moisture and nutrient information for farmers. Integrating them with our physical infrastructure is far from easy, according to Hopper, as our technology platforms are not robust enough.
Sustainability holds the key
Sustainability is driving a big transformation in engineering, as it extends its reach from urban problems to those of villages, from problems of the rich to those of the poor, from big projects to small ones, from expensive projects to low-cost engineering. "We now look at the impact of every engineering project on the community and the region," says Bish Sanyal, professor of urban development and planning at MIT. Sanyal has just begun a $25-million, five-year USAID project to fight poverty by providing a structure for technological innovation and helping communities choose the best technology. "We thought politics would solve the problem," says Sanyal. "But we now know that it cannot, and so engineering is back."
As engineering adapts to societal changes, the traditional engineering mindset is changing too. "Young people are passionate about sustainability," says IET chief executive Nigel Fine, "and they are far more engaged in change." Globally, the best universities are beginning to reflect this change as they prepare students for solving problems of the future. "Engineering education should now look at teaching students three things," says Swami Manohar, former professor at IISc and founder of Jed-I, a start-up on engineering education: "How to think like an engineer , how to learn, and how to work in teams."
To get a glimpse, you could go to Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), established in 2009 in collaboration with MIT. SUTD does not offer courses in traditional engineering disciplines. Instead, it has three academic programmes : products, services and systems. The university has very few lectures. Instead , professors -- sometimes three at the same time -- work with the students to solve complex problems. "Within a few years," says Aditya Mathur, professor at SUTD, "students get intensely trained to solve problems of the future." At SUTD, architecture is a core discipline for everybody.
In the US, major universities now insist on learning several humanities subjects for engineering students, often resulting in a double major in engineering and humanities. Future engineers would need to understand the problems of the world and solve them before they overwhelm us. They would also need to design good-looking gadgets and devices. "We are not looking for engineers and designers working together anymore ," says Krishna Mikkilineni, senior vice-president at Honeywell for engineering, operations and IT. "We are looking for engineers with a good design sense."
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