Design Engineer Tell-All: Engineering Innovation Revelations and Realities

It takes talent, teamwork and tenacity to navigate ever-shrinking design cycles while driving product innovation from concept to commercialization. Now more than ever, design engineers are empowered to take greater control over the technologies, tools and vendors that will enable them to quickly cross the chasm of never-ending change and propel innovative product plans forward to achieve breakout success.   

According to Molex’s latest survey: “Design Engineer Tell-All: Advancing Innovation in an Era of Disruption,” evolving design processes, heightened customer expectations and persistent supply chain constraints are impacting global engineers in equal measure. Despite these impediments, engineers worldwide are embracing innovative solutions while gaining specialized expertise to take product designs to the next level.  

To better understand the opportunities and obstacles facing today’s engineers, Molex collaborated with Digi-Key Electronics to survey 528 participants across the United States,  Canada, China, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom. Many common themes emerged as engineers weighed in on how they are coping with shorter product design cycles, dynamic market demands and changing relationships with suppliers.  

Across the board, survey respondents reported that improvements in design tools, technology innovation and new design methodologies have simplified designs over the past three-to-five years. Still, they continue to grapple with a host of complications caused by persistent supply chain issues, higher customer expectations and ever-increasing design complexity.   

Delicate Balance Required 

The reality is that each attempt to streamline product design is affected by factors that add challenges at every turn. A delicate balance is required to minimize risks and maximize outcomes. According to those polled, 58% say design cycles are getting faster while 43% report being more likely to deliver product designs ahead of schedule. Survey participants from China were even more aggressive in their responses, with 86% citing faster design cycles and 92% more likely to deliver ahead of schedule.  

From Molex’s perspective, design cycles are accelerating up to 40% over previous years, requiring bigger design teams and more specialized skillsets. Survey results reinforced this trend, with more than half reporting they have increased the number (52%) and size (57%) of their design teams over the past three-to-five years.  

Molex has made a series of strategic investments over the past three years, equipping our engineers with advanced digital tools and technologies as part of our global digital transformation. As Mike Giresi, Molex’s Chief Digital Officer, explained last year in Authority Magazine, our plan calls for reimagining every aspect of Molex’s operations through a digital lens. Specific solutions designed to boost engineering efficiencies and effectiveness have been prioritized to support the growing legions of design engineers across the globe. For the survey respondents, strategies are needed to reduce challenges, such as understanding potential supply chain risks (34%), accessing parts or materials (30%), learning new technologies (24%), balancing manufacturing needs and customer requirements (24%) and determining appropriate risk levels (e.g., quality, pricing, etc.) for business outcomes (22%).  

In the datacom space, we’re always looking to ease these challenges while seeking to improve the speed, density and bandwidth of our high-speed, low-latency, durable connectivity solutions. Achieving this requires specialized skills in signal integrity, termination technology, heat dissipation and more. Expertise supporting leverage of the latest simulation tools enable us to analyze reliability and performance under different environmental conditions while ensuring the highest levels of electrical performance and mechanical robustness.  

Our front-and-center focus on automation and the latest in product lifecycle management help our engineers take products from the conceptual stage through tooling, testing and full-scale manufacturing. They are highly specialized and adept at following major trends and advancements across each sector, such as understanding the effects of zonal architectures on automotive wiring infrastructures, as well as the impact of PCIe 5.0 on connecting high-speed components to communications devices and PCs. 

Experimentation Enhances Innovation 

More than half of the engineers surveyed have adopted agile development methodologies or continuous improvement/continuous delivery (CI/CD) to support and speed design efforts. Additionally, 88% take advantage of testing labs, innovation centers or makerspaces stocked with parts and tools to aid experimentation. Molex leverages agile and CI/CD, along with state-of-the-art reliability testing labs, many deployed in proximity to design teams and customers to expedite development of tooling, instrumentation and proofs-of-concept with speed.  

We have expanded our datacom lab and testing efforts at our headquarters in Lisle, Ill., and Singapore. Other divisions have added testing labs and innovation centers throughout North America, Europe, Taiwan and China to better support customers. Many of these labs are highly specialized, such as Molex’s state-of-the-art Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) labs, which are designed to optimize the performance of electronic solutions. Other labs are dedicated to antenna development and verification, thermal testing and analysis, data center cable assembly testing, connected mobility and more. 

Investing in All-Star Engineering Teams 

An added benefit of early experimentation and continuous innovation is the ability to quickly identify and rectify gaps in skillsets. When asked to rank the skills they would like most to improve personally, survey participants prioritized digital technologies (e.g., software, storage, networking: 42%), new design tools (38%), people and team skills (36%), AI or machine learning (33%) and supply chain management (30%). When these responses were stratified by age, millennials appeared most interested in boosting their AI or machine learning (39%) and finance skills (33%), whereas Gen X engineers led both millennials and baby boomers in wanting to build hardware design skills (33% compared to 27% and 18%, respectively). 

Additionally, female engineers outpaced their male counterparts in wanting to improve  skills in digital technologies (57% compared to 38%, respectively). They also led in desire to bolster skills in AI or machine learning (38% compared to 32%, respectively), as well as finance (28% compared to 21%, respectively). 

At Molex, we always look for ways to bolster our all-star engineering teams by equipping them with the resources and opportunities to grow engineering skills and stay ahead of emerging technologies. We invest continually in talent development across each major discipline, encompassing hardware, software, mechanical, electrical and system-level engineering. We’re also adding engineering resources in thermal management, magnetic engineering and RF engineering, the list goes on and on. 

As part of our commitment to talent development, we bring together new college graduates with seasoned engineering veterans to blend the best real-world experiences with hands-on learning. Molex’s Associate Sales Engineers (ASE) program serves as a springboard for young talent, typically recently minted college graduates. The program welcomes engineers and new hires from all majors of study as well as races and genders, who then stay in the program for 12-to-18 months to get a jumpstart in their professional development. 

Knowledge-sharing across every geographic region ensures the highest levels of collaboration on behalf of Molex customers, partners and employees. 92% of those polled agree that collaboration skills are just as important as technical expertise. The launch of Molex’s RF mmWave 5G25 Connector series is an excellent example of collaboration, as a 20-member “dream team” from micro solutions, RF, signal integrity and high-speed communications produced top-quality production samples in months—a stark contrast to the industry average of requiring a year or more to complete a project of this magnitude. 

Volume and Velocity  

Around the world, China is moving fastest based on respondents from that region. Survey participants from Japan prioritized testing and quality while respondents in UK and Germany were aligned with the U.S. in most cases. According to the survey, engineers want greater control in selecting vendors with reliable supply chains (54%), access to engineering support and expertise (43%), attractive pricing (38%), self-serve tools (e.g., website ordering, customer service, etc.: 34%) and quick access to sample parts (33%).  

The many revelations and realities shared in our latest survey underscore what most of us already know. As products become smaller, more powerful and increasingly connected, the role and stature of design engineers will continue to expand with volume and velocity.   

President, Datacom Solutions at Molex