There is a significant demand for consumer electronics such as smartphones, as well as a great need for low-volume products such as medical scanners. Ultimately, research allows institutions to explore creative ways of solving difficult technical problems with innovative solutions.
The most prominent areas of research are now not purely set on meeting consumer demand and anticipating future tech trends, but also on rising to significant global challenges.
Prominent Research Areas for Leading Universities
Universities are often the home to leading research departments in the electrical engineering field. The likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, Berkely, and Cambridge are all working to push the boundaries of knowledge and innovation. And, as undergraduates are often engaged in frontline, faculty-led research, their education is not only richer, but they are more prepared for the challenges and future trends that the industry is facing.
MIT has a huge research arm with a focus on bringing together cross-discipline experts to explore new intellectual frontiers and attack important societal problems. One such example is the university's Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL). The lab is dedicated to advancing nanoscale science and technology with the aim of addressing global concerns surrounding communications, computation, energy, health, transportation and the environment.
Meanwhile, another key research area at MIT is machine learning in health. In fact, MIT has just announced a collaboration with Takeda Pharmaceuticals to fuel the development and application of artificial intelligence (AI) for human health and drug development.
A woman working in a laboratory, representing research in the field of biomedical engineering.
Research covers all aspects of electrical engineering from, nanoscale to heavy-duty power. and has many applications. While it would be impossible to give details of each individual research area within, there are some common themes that can be found within our leading institutions:
Modern biology has become intertwined with the algorithmic and conceptual tools of computer science and electrical engineering. Engineering is being used to meet the needs of diagnosis, treatment and mitigation of serious illnesses. For example, circuit design and nanotechnology are being used to design new biological sensors and actuators, organic electronics materials are being used in neural interfacing to develop new tools diagnosing neurological disorders, and ion conductivity polymers are being leveraged to deliver implantable devices for targeted drug delivery.
Intelligent Network Systems
Intelligent control and robotics are being developed to solve the problem of modelling systems and machines to respond appropriately to inputs. Optimisation and mathematical techniques are key to delivering the disciplines of theory and coding, communications, signal processing, remote sensing machine learning and inference. The applications of this area include optical communication, wireless communications and network and computational imaging.
Power and Energy Systems
Research in energy systems is being fuelled on a large scale by the global rise in demand for electricity coupled with the threat of climate change. Meanwhile, many of the devices and sensors we use are limited in both performance and lifetime by energy. Research divisions are working on control and optimisation through machine learning, energy-efficient hardware systems, integrated circuits, energy harvesting, electromagnetic modelling and electrical power applications of superconductivity.
The field of quantum engineering is working to bridge the gap between quantum science and traditional engineering disciplines to push quantum technology further than semiconductor electronics and lasers. Nanotechnology offers the possibility to scale in physical domains beyond the electrical domain to achieve faster speeds, lower energy consumption and higher functional complexities.
Illustration representing artificial intelligence, a key electrical engineering research area.
Investment Areas for Electronics Manufacturers
As we’ve touched on, the field of electrical engineering is huge and continues to grow by the day. Even consumer electronics now intersects with multiple sectors to deliver the likes of big data, semiconductors, robotics and artificial intelligence. To give an idea of the major areas of investment, here is what some of the biggest electronics manufacturers are focusing their research efforts on:
Amongst many research areas, at the end of 2019, Apple announced its collaboration with leading medical institutions to examine hearing, mobility and heart health. The unprecedented medical studies will create new research that Apple hopes will lead to discoveries in the next generation of innovative health products. Meanwhile, the company is looking to expand its machine learning research team to tackle problems using everything from hardware and system software to algorithms.
The company’s research arm is devoted to developing core technologies that can prepare future businesses. Next-generation artificial intelligence is being used to adapt Samsung products and services, breakthrough technologies for mobile communications are being studied, and cutting-edge AI technology is being used to create new intelligent machines.
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.
A company that plans to continue to invest heavily in research and development. 5nm and 3nm CMOS nodes are being developed for advanced CMOS logic, new memory and low-R interconnect 3D transistors are being developed to create a basis for technology platforms and innovations for energy-efficient sub-system integration is being developed to drive forward CMOS logic applications. In addition, the company has heightened its research into speciality technologies like RF and 3D Intelligent sensors for use in 5G and smart IoT applications.
The world’s largest contractor for electronics, and a major supplier to Apple, has recently announced it is devoting more resources to research and development due to changes in market conditions. Core focus areas include the high-tech applications and solutions for security, smart cities, medical and education. The aim of its research is to diversify into new areas in the semiconductor sector and reduce its reliance on smartphone manufacturing.
Future Tech Trends for the Electrical Engineering Industry
The global electrical engineering field has been predicted to grow at a compound annual rate (CAGR) of about 5.6% from 2019 to 2024. A large driver for this growth is the area of consumer electronics, where there has been a rising demand for smartphones, artificial intelligence and voice recognition technology. However, that is not the only area of growth as the world is facing some huge challenges in relation to power, infrastructure and sustainability.
By looking at the core areas of research of leading global universities and electronic manufacturers, it would seem there is a definite trend. While there is, of course, a substantial amount of research effort into the development of smart technology, there seems to be a universal acceptance that the world is facing bigger challenges. Research into biomedical engineering, power and energy systems and nanotechnology is underway in an effort to create solutions to the challenges faced by a rising global population with dwindling supplies.