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Peter Cochrane's Blog: Lessons from the Eurostar Channel Tunnel fiasco

Hardware design does matter - doesn't it?

Written in the IoD, Pall Mall, London and dispatched to silicon.com via a coffee shop's free wi-fi service later that same day.

Around about the late 1980s to early 1990s, a new wisdom emerged that was eagerly grasped by industry and education. It was all so simple: hardware was a given and therefore no longer important, whilst the future of all industries would be rooted in the development and rollout of smart software.

A net result was a rapid rundown in the number of engineering schools teaching hardware design, and a massive increase in those focused on software alone.

How attractive this was for hard-pressed and cost-conscious academia. All those expensive laboratories and workshops could be closed down, and all that test equipment would no longer need repair and replacement. Better still, the floor space released could be quickly and cheaply converted into software laboratories with suites of low cost PCs.

Today I would defy anyone to find a good hardware design course. The remaining courses are few and far between, and the curriculum sparse and shallow - more in tune with the requirements of a maintenance technician rather than a development or R&D engineer.

Even worse, perhaps: the content is almost exclusively digital and analogue only seems to warrant a passing mention.

Not surprisingly, the attrition of hardware designers and their valuable capabilities has been rapid and somewhat devastating. Good engineers in this field are hard to come by, and those with good analogue abilities are nearing extinction.

Is all this really important? After all, everything works, doesn't it?

Well, I'm watching in mild disbelief as the Eurostar Channel Tunnel shudown fiasco escalates day by day.

Surely they haven't mounted the printed circuit cards horizontally and forgotten to provide enough forced airflow, have they? And this 'fail safe - stop the train mode' was designed in, wasn't it?

Please tell me that this wasn't all a series of chance design errors!

I hope it isn't part of a rising trend from the engineering school of 'hardware doesn't matter'.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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