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....
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