Applying Theory to the Real World
In part one I tried to give you a glimpse of what one might do as an electrical engineer as well as what’s involved in getting your degree. In this part I will try to give you an idea of what a typical electrical engineer would do on the job by taking you through a complete project.
Once you graduate and head out into the real world you will begin your next and most important phase of education—learning how to apply theory to real world problems with time, cost, size, power, noise, performance, resources and functionality constraints. It is with these challenges that you will polish your skills and learn the more subtle aspects of engineering that most likely were not taught in college. If you are lucky you will have an experienced engineer to help guide you through this journey. Listen well and learn, it will be the most valuable training you will get!
So, what will you do as an electrical engineer, or EE as it’s commonly abbreviated? You may work independently or on a team with other EE’s and/or software and mechanical engineers, technicians and scientists depending on the nature of the project. For this discussion you will be working with a team consisting of an EE (you) to design the electronic hardware; a software engineer to write the programs for the system; a mechanical engineer to design the enclosure and mechanical parts for the project; a technician to help in building the prototypes.
Designing a New Project
Your project will start with an idea that may come from the marketing and sales group or possibly from a research and development group in the company that has come up with a marketable product. Preliminary discussions will begin to detail the specifications for the project like:
What will the product do? What environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, pressure, dust, moisture, etc.) must it operate in? How big can it be – size and weight? What does it use for power – batteries, solar cells, line voltage? What features will it have and how does the customer interface with it? How big is the market and how much will it cost? What accessories will it have?
During this time you will also begin to work with the software engineer to make sure that the components you want to use will be compatible with the software tools available, otherwise there will be additional cost and time to the project to bring in new development tools. You will also interact with the mechanical engineer as he/she begins to design the enclosure for the product. The package size will dictate how big your circuit boards can be and where they will go. This information is important because it will affect your design on many levels: If the electronics generates heat you will need to cool it, possibly with a fan or maybe just vent holes will suffice. Or, the placement of the circuit board may be too close to another component and electrical noise is an issue. There will be many trade-offs between the electrical and mechanical designs before the final package is complete. Also, you must consider how difficult it will be to repair/replace assemblies, an important consideration for the customer or your product support people. If the customer needs to adjust something on a circuit board then this should be readily accessible and not buried behind some other components.
As you complete your design you may be working with the technician to test the circuits and verify that they perform as you expect them to. You will also test it under various environmental extremes as dictated in the product specifications. This stage will most likely force you to rethink your design if there are problems and several iterations of the design are not uncommon.
All along the design cycle you will find little gems of satisfaction; you may discover a way to accomplish a circuit function that takes fewer parts, saving money and room on the circuit board. Or, perhaps you can add more functionality or lower the power consumption. These are all enhancements to the overall design and something you can feel good about.
If everything checks out, then circuit schematics can be finalized and will be used to design the printed circuit board. The completion of the schematic is another point of satisfaction. This document, which may be many pages in length, can be the culmination of many weeks or months of work. If it is constructed well, it will be easy for another engineer or technician to follow and can be considered a work of art in itself. (If you go on to do the actual layout of the printed circuit board you will find that they truly can be works of art! Take a look at the motherboard in your PC!) You will also create another document, known as the “Bill of Materials”. This a list of all the parts used in the design and it will have all the information necessary to buy the correct parts to build (or populate) the circuit boards. This document will be passed on to the purchasing department to procure the parts for the first (or prototype) assembly. At some point you may find that you have to assist the purchasing department if they have difficulty acquiring some parts. You will also need to provide information to the software engineer, as to how the circuitry works and how they need to develop the code to control the hardware.
This completes the design stage of the project. In part three you will see how the project moves from design to manufacturing.