Electrical and Electronics Engineering: How Engineers Help Design Smartphones

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An electronics engineer works on a smartphone.

Electrical engineers are among the unsung heroes of the ongoing technology revolution. They are impacting everything from mobile computing, to the Internet of Things (IoT), to renewable energy, and beyond. In fact, their behind-the-scenes work is critical in designing something that is omnipresent in the world — smartphones, a device that Pew Research Center determined 85% of the American population owned in 2021.

While much attention is focused on the user-facing design of smartphones and other contemporary electronics, the internal functioning of these devices is just as important to the organizations and individuals who use them. For instance, electrical engineers design a phone’s CPUs, networking capabilities and batteries. These elements not only dictate a smartphone’s look and feel, they also must integrate seamlessly with other key smartphone elements, such as durability.

From a consumer standpoint, the work of electrical and electronics engineering professionals can have a profound impact on the success of a particular smartphone brand. Because of this, it’s important for electrical engineers to fully understand their impact in the smartphone design process.

How Electrical Engineers Influence the Designs of Smartphones and Similar Devices

Electrical engineers have helped evolve mobile devices from cell phones that could merely make calls to today’s smartphones that can snap photos, access the internet, and interact with artificial intelligence (AI). This evolutionary process is far from over.

The buzz surrounding the design leaks of the Apple iPhone 14 ahead of its September 2022 launch demonstrates consumer interest in the work of electrical engineers. Some of this speculation included:

  • The possible removal of the “notch” ( i.e., a black bar cutting into an otherwise edge-to-edge organic light emitting diode screen) — this notch is where electrical engineers hide several advanced electronics, such as a dot projector, flood illuminator, proximity sensor, and infrared camera
  • A pill-shaped cutout where electrical engineers place the front camera and the IR sensor
  • A smaller circular hole where electrical engineers house the dot projector — this hole will be so small, it will be practically invisible
  • A thicker frame to better encase the camera hardware designed by electrical engineers

High-profile mobile tech like the iPhone is hardly the only product that electrical engineers work on, but it is one of the highest paying and fastest growing. Typically, electrical engineers operate largely out of the public eye to ensure the efficiency, safety, and cost-effectiveness of the numerous essential systems underpinning today’s hottest technologies. Their work doesn’t normally catch the public’s attention or fuel rampant speculation like the iPhone series, but it always makes a difference in how numerous in-demand gadgets and infrastructures actually function.

Electrical Engineering and Smartphone Statistics

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), electrical engineers working in semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing had a median wage of more than $107,000 in 2020. Electronics are the building blocks of an enormous industry that continues to expand. IDC, a leading provider of global market data, estimated that 1.35 billion smartphones shipped in 2021, representing a 5.7% annual market growth. Additionally, the market research firm IOT Analytics stated 12.3 billion internet-connected “things” (e.g., sensors, home appliances, etc., all outfitted with specially engineered semiconductors) were active in 2021.

Meanwhile, the 2021 Market Report by Advanced Energy Now pegged the U.S. clean energy market at $240 billion in 2020.  Furthermore, a 2021 Research Dive report projects the global solar energy market to grow 14.6% by 2028, with solar photovoltaic (PV) cells being an instrumental part of this growth.

3 Electrical Engineering Projects

Cutting-edge solar PV research and testing is a prime example of the tasks electrical engineers perform before products are brought to market. Solar engineers oversee the design of PV and thermal systems, diagram connections between solar implementations, establish separate specifications for residential and commercial products, and provide guidance to installers.

These responsibilities are broadly similar to those associated with other common subfields of electrical engineering, such as electronics engineering. Beyond ensuring the viability of solar power infrastructure, the electrical engineers of today and tomorrow might tackle any number of ambitious projects in design and testing, such as the following.

1. Boosting the Efficiency of Wi-Fi Connectivity

Wi-Fi is ubiquitous. Although only a little over 20 years old, it has virtually replaced wired Ethernet in many contexts, to such an extent that many laptops no longer ship with Ethernet ports, while smartphones and tablets never had them to begin with. However, Wi-Fi’s fundamental reliance on wireless signals means it places a significant strain on battery life, especially for mobile devices with power-hungry HD displays.

Wi-Fi-related battery drain has been a long-term concern for electrical engineers. In 2016, one group of engineering students at the University of Washington, working alongside computer scientists, made a breakthrough with the discovery of Passive Wi-Fi, which they claimed uses 10,000 times less power than the state-of-the-art tech for low-power Wi-Fi. It is also more energy-efficient than Bluetooth and ZigBee, two standards pivotal to the IoT.

As of early 2022, passive Wi-Fi is still mostly conceptual. If and when it becomes integrated into mainstream commercial products via precisely engineered chips, it could potentially save battery life comparable to turning Wi-Fi off entirely on a smartphone today. It would also be a boon to IoT devices, which might be able to adopt smaller and less energy-intensive designs.

2. Implementing Laser Applications in Various Electronics

Lasers often conjure up images of futuristic weaponry depicted in sci-fi films and books. In reality, lasers are everywhere, with numerous electrical engineering applications including:

  • Lighting: Lasers are appealing alternatives to LEDs in some communications systems, due to their narrower optical bandwidth. They can facilitate digital point-to-point communications without needing electrical connections between them.
  • Cutting and heating: Lasers can be embedded into equipment used for tattoo removal, medical treatment (e.g., photodynamic therapy), and spectroscopy. In each of these cases, the laser creates a specific chemical or physical reaction.
  • Depth sensing: Lasers are useful for assisting cameras in determining depth, distances and angles. Accordingly, they are engineered into products such as drones and satellites.

3. Boosting Home Automation

Electrical engineering can make life easier and more convenient. Its role in designing smart home devices that connect to the IoT means that it’s now possible to adjust thermostats, clean floors, and turn off lights without leaving a chair.

While these automated processes often achieve simple tasks, like turning something on or off, the design behind them is quite complex. Some of these innovations involve creating a system that features microcontrollers that connect with smartphone apps. Other automated advances use motion or light sensors. Electrical engineers can create these items from their initial inception, or integrate new design concepts into existing devices.

Sometimes, automated home devices can do more than add a layer of convenience to living. For instance, motion sensors attached to lighting systems can automatically turn lights on and off when a person enters a room. This can save energy, which in turn can help lessen an individual’s carbon footprint.

Turning Your Electrical Engineering Ambitions Into Reality

Electrical engineers are at the center of virtually every major development in electronics and renewable energy that moves us forward. Having a master’s degree in engineering with a specialization in electrical engineering gives you the knowledge, technical skills and credentials to secure a position in this vital field.

At the University of California, Riverside, you can conveniently earn an online Master of Science in Engineering degree. Learn more about your opportunities in electrical engineering today.

Recommended Reading:

The Future of Smart Grid Technologies

Power Electronics and Electrical Engineering

What Is Sustainable Product?


Advanced Energy Economy, Advanced Energy Now 2021 Market Report

Cnet, “iPhone 14: Every Rumor, From Battery Life to a Notchless Design”

Energy Efficiency Alliance, Advanced Energy Now 2021 Market Report

IDC, Smartphone Shipments Declined in the Fourth Quarter But 2021 Was Still a Growth Year with a 5.7% Increase in Shipment, According to IDC

Interesting Engineering, “12 Electrical Engineering Projects That Will Impress Your Teachers”

IoT Analytics, State of IoT 2021: Number of Connected IoT Devices Growing 9% to 12.3 Billion Globally, Cellular IoT Now Surpassing 2 Billion

MIT Technology Review, Smartphone Innovation in the Third Decade of the 21st Century

PC, Passive Wi-Fi

Pew Research Center, Mobile Fact Sheet

Research Dive, Global Solar Energy Market Anticipated to Garner a Revenue of $888,311.4 million at a CAGR of 14.6% During the Forecast Period, 2021-2028 — Exclusive REport [372 Pages] By Research Dive

Troops Energy Jobs, Solar Energy Systems Engineer

Wired, “The Future of Wi-Fi Is 10,000 Times More Energy Efficient”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Electrical and Electronics Engineer