Engineers are now expected to have a multi-disciplinary knowledge base. Universities are responding by building innovation centers where different disciplines can collaborate.

The Skills That Are Sought After

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018 found that four drivers of change, including high-speed mobile internet, artificial intelligence, data analytics and cloud technology, will cause 54% of employees to need significant re- and up-skilling by 2022.

In tandem with this, recent ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) articles point out that entry-level mechanical engineers need broad skills and experience for just about any position: experience in additive manufacturing, robotics, computer and electrical engineering, mechatronics, system networking, and the Internet of Things, just to name a few.

Before the IoT era, engineers could learn practical skills on the job, but now many employers don’t have the time to spend on training. They want engineers that can hit the ground running.

“We need people who can wear many different hats but who also have focused experience,” notes Kayla Matheus, a Yale-trained mechanical engineer who recently founded a San Francisco-based startup. “We’re looking for a unicorn.”

Spaces Designed to Engineer Innovation

STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) departments in universities have taken note of the needs of businesses like Kayla’s. They’re also listening to students who want to invent the next hot startup in collaborative makerspaces, or at the very least learn across disciplines.

The result is that for the past few years, both public and private colleges and universities across the country have invested millions in buildings tagged as innovation centers, designed to further STEM and business pursuits for both professor/researchers and students.

These centers are high-tech and ultra-modern steel and glass, modeled after Silicon Valley startups and M.I.T.’s Building 20, where the legend is that creative breakthroughs routinely occurred. Designed to house many disciplines, these centers create spaces where casual encounters can spark serendipitous ideas.

There are so many innovation centers now that they can be categorized according to their emphasis, whether it be to partner with industry or to drive entrepreneurship. Our focus here is on the innovation centers dedicated to engineering that deliberately house many disciplines so that collaboration can easily occur.

Creating Innovation: Wichita State University

Wichita State University’s Experiential Engineering Building opened in 2017, part of the first phase of the university’s new Innovation Campus. The $32 million, 143,000 square foot building was designed by Perkins + Will and WDM Architects and financed by state grants designed for Kansas universities to produce more engineering graduates.

The concept behind this building is to bring engineering fundamentals to life and spark new ideas by bringing disparate groups together. Emily Patterson, associate director of facilities planning at Wichita State, points out that when the university asked local businesses what they were looking for in a graduate, “they told us there was a two-year gap between a graduate and someone who is a productive worker….They were asking for a more prepared student.”

With 25 specialized science and engineering labs, students can engage in multi-disciplinary collaborations with other students, faculty, and industry. There is also a makerspace, GoCreate, that houses facilities for metalworking, woodworking, textiles and digital creation, as well as a technology transfer office to offer advice on patents and marketing. Anyone from campus or the community can use GoCreate for a monthly fee, with a discount for students.

Creating Innovation: Purdue University

Purdue University’s Bechtel Innovation Design Center opened in 2017, and its FlexLab opened last year. FlexLab is part of the 40-acre, $1.2 billion Discovery Park currently being developed, “Where Disciplines Converge to Solve Global Challenges.” Both buildings are shared by Purdue’s Engineering College and its Polytechnic Institute.

The 31,000 square foot Design Center is a makerspace, open 24/7 to students, professors and industry. Collaborative teams can build prototypes and conduct product testing, with tools that include CNC tools, waterjet cutter, laser cutter, laser engraver, 3D plastic printing, paint and surface finishing, welding, wood working tools, and electronics assembly.

Kyle Hultgren, founder of Image Medical Device life sciences startup and director of the Purdue University Center of Medication Safety Advancement, notes, “The Bechtel center will provide me and other innovators with a tremendous asset to advance our technologies.”

Purdue’s $54 million FlexLab contains easily modifiable bench space and labs, open workspace, and work cafes to nurture cross-disciplinary research and encourage innovation. Researchers in the building are focused on areas such as high-accuracy 3D imaging; energy applications for national defense and security; and the manufacture of particulate products, including foods and feed, consumer goods, specialty chemicals, agricultural chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and energetic materials.

Robert Frosch, senior associate dean of Facilities & Operations for the College of Engineering and professor of Civil Engineering, notes, “The diverse portfolio of research and researchers will create academic collisions that aren’t possible in current facilities. Individuals working in completely different areas of research will interact, developing new research opportunities and directions that can’t even be imagined today.”

Innovation Happens When Disciplines Intersect

One discovery by M.I.T. Media Lab’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, which uses “sociometric badges” to measure workers’ movements, speech and conversational partners, is that employees who ate at cafeteria tables designed for 12 were more productive than those at tables for four, thanks to more chance conversations and larger social networks. Interactions like that can increase individual productivity by up to 25 percent.

An Inc. article also notes the “creative abrasion” gained by working with people that are different from you – the friction from encounters like these is energy that can be turned into innovative ideas.

So these innovation centers may indeed be onto something. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

In the next post we’ll explore innovation centers focused on entrepreneurship, and whether it makes sense to pair this business emphasis with engineering.

The development of routed electrical systems remains an obstacle for companies exploring IoT technology. These systems play a critical role in smart, connected products, but many don’t see them as a priority. 

Harness Design: A Critical Path delves into why this is such an important issue, and we’ll provide a free copy when you sign up for our newsletter.

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