This article aims to help beginner engineers ensure that they have the skills most often looked for and tested during the hiring process but can also serve as a starting point for experienced engineers looking to shore up weakness in these areas.
Between the availability of almost turnkey design platforms and rising interest in the Internet of Things, opportunities for electronic product development have never been greater. To be a successful designer able to tackle a wide range of challenges, though, a developer should have a number of skills to draw upon. Here are ten of the most common and, in our opinion, valuable skills that electronic product designers will want to have:
1. Performing circuit analysis
From designing simple resistor circuits to analyzing the frequency response of complex networks, designers will need to know how to write and solve the equations of node and loop analysis to figure out how component clusters are operating. Simulation programs can help with the heavy math when needed, but knowing how to set up the analysis will still be necessary.
2. Working with op-amps
The workhorse in nearly every application that requires signals beyond ones and zeroes, the operational amplifier is a versatile device. Used properly, it is an amplifier, integrator, signal conditioner, level shifter, and many more useful analog elements. The trick is in understanding the characteristics and limits of real devices rather than the idealized behavior described in textbooks.
3. Understanding analog filters
While the design of active analog filters may not be needed in all product development, understanding the effect that components have on analog signals is still an important skill to have. The capacitance, inductance, and impedance of both components and circuit traces can alter even digital signals in ways that, if not understood and compensated for, may cause systems to fail.
4. Designing digital filters
These days, most audio, video, and wireless signaling go digital at some point in their travels, with many kinds of signal manipulation carried out in the digital domain. Knowing how digital filters work to manipulate the analog signal that underlies the data stream will prove essential to avoiding surprises, even if a developer only invokes canned functions instead of designing the filter.
5. Designing feedback control
Robots, air conditioning, autonomous vehicles, and many other systems depend on feedback control loops for their proper operation. (And such loops include filters, so see above.) Designers should know how control loops function, how to determine their effectiveness, and how to ensure that they are stable in their behavior. No one wants a system that goes “oops.”
6. Managing hot components
The power dissipation of processors is rising, as is the density of components in small spaces, so component overheating is a common concern. Designers will need to know their options for keeping things cool as well as how to analyze thermal transfer to make sure they have provided enough relief.
7. Working with RF
Not all that long ago, design in the radio frequency (RF) spectrum was a specialty discipline that most developers never had to be concerned about. But with the IoT demanding wireless connectivity and rising clock speeds turning PCB circuit traces into RF waveguides, a basic understanding of how RF signals propagate and transfer energy is proving essential.
8. Appreciating firmware
Like it or not, more than half of the design effort in the electronics industry today involves software, and most electronic systems utilize a microprocessor or microcontroller to provide some or all of their functionality. However, hardware design decisions can have a substantial impact on the ease and effectiveness of code development. So even if not directly involved in the programming effort, a developer should have some understanding of what firmware is, how it’s created, and its role in making things work.
9. Using statistics for manufacturability
Getting a prototype to work in the lab is only the first step in creating a product for market. The design must be robust enough to accommodate all of the variations in component value that will occur during mass production and the wide range of operating environments that the product will face. Statistical analysis is the tool that developers will need to ensure that their design will work in the face of this uncertainty.
10. Managing the career
Along with all their technical knowledge, developers should have some basic business and career management skills. Landing and keeping a job, growing their access to opportunities and compensation, rising in the hierarchy or launching an entrepreneurial endeavor, and maintaining long-term satisfaction in the work effort all require conscious effort as well as interpersonal and team interactions. Working toward a destination, even one that changes from time to time, provides far more reward than simply reacting to whatever comes up.