Eptech West 2001

Sometimes you have to step out of yourself to see where you are. Sometimes you need to step into the thick of someone else's world to find out.

Electronics Products and Technologies magazine at http://www.ept.ca/ has been doing industry trade shows for years, and I've always enjoyed EP&T's editorials. When I first began attending the shows, LabView, a graphical software package that places a soft front panel of your oscilliscope or other test equipment onto your remote computer screen, already had been running on the Mac operating system for a few years, and had just been released in a DOS version. It was big news on that front at the time, because DOS wasn't noted for its graphical capabilities, where Macs were a natural fit. Today LabView ships on just about every commercial operating system known. We run it in our facility over X-windows, a cross-platform standard for displaying remote graphics. While EP&T's Eptech trade shows have been directed towards the design and manufacturing side of the industry, which is not my own focus, I have maintained an interest in it because I feel the pulse of the industry there, in how research and development plays out with innovative products and manufacturing techniques.

Eptech West, which took place today here in Vancouver, Canada, brought together suppliers and manufacturers from across Canada and the Pacific Northwest. There were connectors, circuit board equipment and manufacturers, test equipment, and the like. There were innovations in making cables and connectors environment-proof for harsh industries like pulp and paper. There were switching power supplies from Kepco, Xantrex, and others, some no larger than an eraser, and others that replace yesterday' s huge rack-sized equipment. These power supplies work on just about any line voltage, and are something like 93% energy-efficient. Figure that number into your energy and air-conditioning bills!

Several companies showed innovative touch-switches and instrument panels. In one booth I was sure I saw my own dashboard cluster on display! Others showed ruggedized liquid crystal displays and unbelievably bright LED clusters. With lumen levels like this, the filament lightbulb may be a thing of the past, as we're seeing already in automobiles and equipment panels.

But of all I saw, I was most impressed by a display of low-temperature-formed ceramic capacitors and components from Quest in Renton, WA. These are some of the bread-and-butter of circuitry. They couldn't just display these tiny things on the table, because a sneeze would have sent them into oblivion. Instead, they had cast a sampling of their featured products into tasteful acrylic desk ornaments, so that we could see them. Very nicely done. When you see this stuff, you might be surprised at just how small electronics can be made. Let me juxtapose this with a couple of other recent developments.

A Canadian company called iFire Technoloy Inc. at http://www.ifire.com/ is designing and building flat-panel displays using their patented thick-film process. While still in the R&D stage, iFire has demonstrated a 17" display, and is aiming for the large-screen HDTV market within about five years. These displays show promise of being fast, bright, clear, durable, and affordable. Combine that with the space- and energy-savings potential, and you can bet that standard cathode-ray tube technology will quietly evaporate even faster than you might have guessed with the proliferation of affordable LCD computer displays today.

Linux has established itself as a developer's operating system, and is widely supported. Various networkable devices have embedded versions of the Linux operating system in them, rather than write some proprietary code to do the work. Apple has seen this trend, and recently made the Darwin core of their Mac OS X available to the public. It can even run on an x86 platform. Check it out at http://www.opensource.apple.com/ if you have an extra computer or hard disk to play around with. As a Mac user, my curiosity is peaked at the possibility of an embedded Mac OS in a variety of new devices.

I see the coming of ever-smaller electronic devices that are essentially computers inside. To a lrge extent, this is already a reality today. The big dreams of recent visionaries may well be realized after all, as the physical obstacles fall. The so-called internet appliance, a multi-purpose tool, is on the horizon, because the components for it are realities today. Even though these things will be complex in themselves, the complexity will be contained in ruggedized chips and circuitry with an embedded operating system that handles the details, so that the user experience will be simplified and reliable. Today's fuel-injected vehicles are a good example of this experience. Just turn the key! For the user, the device isn't important; the result is. How the device works is up to the designers. How it's miniaturized depends on available technology. I saw that technology today. Tomorrow isn't far away.