The first generation of analog engineers started retiring in the mid-1990s, about 30 years after Bob Widlar of Fairchild Semiconductor designed the first widely used analog IC (the μA702 op-amp). Dave Talbert, a process engineer, was a key player back in a time when there was a symbiotic relationship between process and design. Those were the days.
Since the μA702 made its debut, an enormous amount of analog IC knowledge has been created, forming the backbone of the multibillion-dollar industry we have today. By the way, I'm not just talking about analog IC design; I'm also talking about system-level and subsystem-level design. Obviously, a lot of that knowledge has been saved and passed along to generation after generation of design engineers.
I've recently been wondering about how much of that knowledge (the secret sauce part) exists only in the gray cells of graying EEs — and whether it will be lost. Would it even make any difference if it were lost?
From what I've heard rather consistently over the past 20 years, it's getting easier to be a successful design engineer. A major player in the “recipe-fication” of system design is integration. Creativity is still highly valued, but in software, which, oddly enough, is based on digital technology.
My argument, which I will admit is pretty general, is that technology trends eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. The effectiveness of software configuration for increasingly massive chips will eventually be tapped out. At that point, we will see a new blossoming of hardware design. If my theory is correct, it would be a good idea to capture all that secret-sauce knowledge.
My first internal counterargument would be “Well, all that knowledge has already been captured in publications such as the Proceedings of the IEEE, hasn't it?” I think not. Competitiveness in the electronics industry has created thick, high walls to information sharing. These walls have been codified into legal documents that make it very clear who owns the intellectual property that springs from the eternally fertile minds of engineers.
There seems to be a bit of frustration about this turn of events. It is, for example, a motivating force behind the open-source movement. I should add that there are good reasons for companies to protect intellectual property, and I am not opposed to that. On the other hand, when lawyers become involved, we tend to move into a zero-sum game. The right level of sharing can benefit everyone.
In short, what I have in mind is a web-based, multimedia knowledge base. We already have that to an increasing degree on YouTube, but there is a strong bias toward current stuff. I'm talking about knowledge that may have been created decades ago but remains eminently useful — and may be even more useful in the future. Storing this comprehensively would require money.
Now, if I were a VC, I might be thinking to myself: “These guys made me rich many times over. Maybe it's time to do something for them.” Will that happen?