Crossing the Divide

Bridging the Gap Between Software Engineering and Physical Computing

By Christopher Robison
September 27, 2019

The realms of software engineering and physical computing have often been seen as separate entities. One deals with lines of code, abstract data structures, and virtual environments, while the other focuses on embedded systems, hardware-software interactions, and the tangible world. However, as someone deeply involved in both disciplines—from coding complex algorithms to designing 3D printers—the line separating these two fields is blurring more than ever. Here's how and why these domains should and are coming together.

Software's Growing Influence on Hardware

Software engineering principles have started to exert considerable influence on physical computing projects. Whether it's firmware for a 3D printer, IoT device controls, or embedded systems for robotics, quality software is crucial for hardware functionality. Gone are the days when you could consider hardware and software in isolation; modern projects require an integrated approach.

Why This Fusion Matters

The merging of these two disciplines enables us to build smarter, more responsive, and more efficient systems. For instance, machine learning algorithms can optimize manufacturing processes, while real-time analytics can enhance IoT devices' performance. This cross-pollination opens new avenues for innovation and problem-solving that are not possible when considering each area in a silo.

A Seamless Workflow

Traditional methods often involve a fragmented workflow, where software developers and hardware engineers work in parallel but separate tracks. Integrating these processes creates a more unified, efficient, and, ultimately, successful project. This not only speeds up time-to-market but also improves the quality of the end product.

Practical Applications

In my experience, this integration has multiple practical applications. For example, using software engineering principles to create efficient G-code algorithms can drastically improve the performance of a 3D printer. Conversely, understanding the limitations and capabilities of hardware can inspire more optimized and resource-efficient software.

Educating the Next Generation

Given the interconnected nature of these disciplines, educational programs need to adjust. An ideal curriculum should offer a balanced approach, providing software engineers with basic hardware skills and vice versa. This would create a new generation of engineers who can natively "speak" both hardware and software, much like how many of today's professionals are bilingual.

Final Thoughts

The line between software engineering and physical computing is not just blurring; it's being erased altogether. For those of us who live in both worlds, this is an exciting time. The convergence of these fields promises a future where our ability to solve problems and innovate is not confined to the screen or soldering iron but is a synergistic combination of both.