Tech Leaders on 5G, Robots, and the Future of Work

Survey finds companies are now more prepared for unexpected disruptions

3 min read
An illustration of a cel tower and an arrow on the left of the tower that says “5G” and icons and dotted lines connected to the 5G arrow.
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What are today’s tech leaders concerned about? Trying to maintain strong cybersecurity for a hybrid workforce and protecting their systems from cyberattacks as more and more employees’ personal devices have been connected to the company’s systems. The tech leaders also are trying to find enough technologists to fill job openings.

Those are some of the findings from “The Impact of Technology in 2022 and Beyond: An IEEE Global Study.” In October the organization surveyed 350 CIOs, CTOs, IT directors, and other technology leaders in Brazil, China, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They work for companies with more than 1,000 employees in sectors including education, energy, financial services, health care, insurance, retail, and technology.

In addition to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the workplace, the survey asked respondents to weigh in on using technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality; blockchain; 5G; and robots.

PANDEMIC IMPACT

Nearly half of the leaders surveyed said they expect the number of devices connected to their systems to increase so significantly and rapidly that keeping track of them will eventually become unmanageable. Smartphones, tablets, sensors, robots, and drones used by employees have almost doubled since 2020.

The proliferation could cause data centers and the cloud to become more vulnerable to attacks, the tech leaders said.

But the vast majority—92 percent—said they believe that compared with 2020, their company is better prepared to respond to a potentially catastrophic interruption such as a data breach or natural disaster. They credit the pandemic for their preparedness.

The pandemic also has led IT departments to work more closely with their company’s human resources departments on programs such as office check-ins; space usage data and analytics; and employee productivity, engagement, and mental health.

Tech companies are facing a labor shortage. More than 70 percent of the leaders said recruiting technologists to fill job openings is a challenge.

Because of the pandemic, respondents (60 percent) sped up their adoption of cloud computing; artificial intelligence and machine learning (51 percent); 5G (46 percent); and augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality (31 percent).

Nearly 70 percent said they are struggling with what technologies their company will need in the future.

AR, VR, and MR

The leaders surveyed said they are using augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality for such applications as data visualization and manipulation in 3D, virtual meetings and conferences, employee training, and sales gamification.

“The most prominent examples are in medical school[s], where students can visualize organs and procedures,” IEEE Member Antonio Espingardeiro said in an IEEE Transmitter interview about the results. He is a robotics and automation expert at Salford University, in England. “Other scenarios involve maintenance procedures. In aviation, assembling and disassembling parts is a complex task. VR can serve as a kind of instruction manual.”

BLOCKCHAIN

Blockchain technology is a way to keep records of transactions or exchanges of data without relying on a central authority. The platform tracks cryptocurrency use through a distributed ledger. Sixty-one percent of the respondents said they would use the technology for machine-to-machine IoT interactions. More than half would use it for contactless digital transactions and tracing shipments, and almost half would use it to keep medical records in the cloud.

IEEE Member Yiannis Psaras told IEEE Transmitter that blockchain applications are countless. He is a research scientist at Protocol Labs in London.

“I believe we’ll start seeing their impact in finance, data storage and management, and privacy-preserving technologies, among others,” Psaras said.

5G

Respondents (24 percent) said 5G will benefit telemedicine, remote surgery, and health record transmissions; remote learning and education (20 percent); day-to-day communications (15 percent); and entertainment, sports, and live-event streaming (14 percent).

IEEE Member Filipe Emídio Tôrres told IEEE Transmitter that 5G “will allow better use of technologies in parallel, such as blockchain, IoT, data science, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.” Tôrres is a biomedical engineer and entrepreneur.

ROBOTS

Within the next five years, more than 80 percent of those surveyed said, one quarter of their operations will be improved with the use of robots. They said they expect that in 10 years, that percentage will increase to half. They said robots most likely will benefit areas such as manufacturing and assembly, hospital and patient care, and Earth and space exploration.

A majority either currently use drones or plan to do so in the next five years for security, surveillance, and threat prevention.

THE FUTURE

Sectors expected to be most impacted by technology in the year ahead are manufacturing, financial services, health care, and energy, the leaders said. A majority noted that implementing smart building technologies that benefit sustainability, decarbonization, and energy savings is a priority at their organization.

“Financial technology will provide more people with access to banking services and the ability to invest,” Paul Kostek, a systems engineering consultant and IEEE senior member, told IEEE Transmitter. “In the energy sector we can look forward to the continued development of green tech. Wind, solar, and microgrids will provide reliable power while providing [a] means to limit [the] impact of climate change. In health care we will see an expansion of the use of telehealth robotic surgery and wearables.”

You can read the full report on IEEE Transmitter.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
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A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
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Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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