Do Engineers Design Things Anymore? Electrical Engineering in the Age of ICs

June 19, 2018 by Robert Keim

An engineering career is still a good way to make a living—but for which types of people? AAC's Technical Director Robert Keim reflects on the nature of electrical engineering and how it's changed as technology accelerates.

An engineering career is still a good way to make a living—but for which types of people? AAC's Technical Director Robert Keim reflects on the nature of electrical engineering and how it's changed as technology accelerates.

The English term “engineer” finds its origins in the Latin word ingenium, a noun that refers to (among other things) something clever or inventive. We see this same etymology in the word “ingenious,” which describes either a thing that exhibits originality and clever thinking or a person who has an aptitude for discovering and inventing (it does not mean “genius” in the sense of “remarkably intelligent”). This linguistic background seems to indicate that engineers should be ingenious individuals who design ingenious things.


The etymology of "ingenium" according to Ultralingua. Well, if you insist.


To Create

There are two unifying concepts at the core of this discussion—whether we’re talking about the ingenious engineers of the Roman Empire or the ingenious engineers working for Bell Labs in the 1950s. The first is creation, i.e., bringing into material existence something that previously had only intellectual existence. The second is design, which is a fundamental aspect of civilization and, furthermore, a profoundly human thing—the modern suburban home is quite an improvement over the tents and clay huts used by primitive peoples, but birds have been building their nests the same way for an awfully long time.

It is not difficult to perceive the existential, and reciprocal, bond between these two concepts. Design leads to creation, and creation serves as motivation for design. Will a person take the trouble to design if he or she has no hope of creating something truly new? How can something truly new be created if an intelligent agent does not design it from whatever already exists?


Engineers vs. Engineering

I think that many engineers originally pursued engineering because they had a strong interest in, or a strong aptitude for, creation and design. Certain people are intensely attracted to the process whereby an idea takes shape in the immaterial realm of the human mind and then is gradually translated into a physical reality by means of the designer’s expertise and dedication.

What happens, then, when the engineering profession no longer provides engineers with sufficient opportunity to express their creativity or immerse themselves in challenging (and therefore intellectually satisfying) design tasks?

I’m certainly not implying that all engineers are drifting hopelessly away from the ideal of an ingenious person creating an ingenious device. But perhaps some of us are.

The Age of “Highly Integrated”

The increasing complexity and functional diversity of integrated circuits coincides with the extent to which traditional circuit design is confined within the walls of large semiconductor companies. Highly integrated ICs are certainly beneficial in terms of accelerating and simplifying the design process, but faster and simpler designs may not have the same ability to capture the interest and ignite the creativity of the engineer, especially when these designs sink to the level of “connect the pins” engineering.


Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán.


When I was in college, I enjoyed learning about transistors and thinking about how I might design an amplifier around a discrete BJT. There were all sorts of subtle issues involved—biasing, gain parameters, output impedance, and so forth. Nowadays, much of my PCB design process occurs as follows:

  1. Choose the ICs (or maybe there’s only one IC, because I found something that is so highly integrated that all I need in addition to the chip are a few passives and a connector for power input and data transfer).
  2. Add discrete components according to the recommendations in the datasheets.
  3. Make connections between the ICs based on the recommendations in the datasheets, or based on previous designs.

There is still design occurring here, to be sure, but it’s not very satisfying. And whatever I’m creating doesn’t have the same ability to resonate with my theoretical identity as an ingenious engineer.

The “connect the pins” approach to board design is highly effective from a technical standpoint, but I don’t think it’s so effective from a human standpoint.

As I asked in the title of the article: Do engineers design things anymore? Do we feel like we’re designing things? Or are we primarily following the instructions and imitating the circuits developed and published by a small group of experts?

But Someone Has to Lay Out the PCB...

I don’t see PCB layout as a solution to this issue, for two reasons.

First, it doesn’t represent the core of what we learn as electrical engineers. Subtle electrical concepts are certainly involved but, in many cases, they are a minor or even negligible factor in the process of converting the schematic into a PCB.

Second, a significant amount of the work can be performed by automatic component placement and autorouting. I assume that these features are increasingly autonomous and effective, but I don’t know for sure because I never use them.


Firmware: The Last Bastion?

Maybe some of us find it easy to accept the decay of traditional circuit design because we have transferred our design energies and our desire for creative expression to the realm of firmware. Sure, we mostly follow directions and copy reference schematics when it comes to board design, but that’s because most of the action happens in firmware... right?

To an extent, I think that this is true. And since the beginning of my engineering career, I have derived a great deal of satisfaction and motivation from the creativity and intricate design techniques involved in writing good firmware. But this too is changing as library code and sophisticated development tools allow us to “get the job done” even though we don’t really understand the hardware and don’t have to perform those low-level firmware tasks that are, it seems to me, a more natural extension of our expertise as circuit designers.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about this trend? Are you glad that you don’t have to worry about various complicated details, or do you miss the challenges associated with “old-fashioned” circuit design? Do you think that your current work is more or less engaging and satisfying than it was five, ten, twenty years ago? Feel free to leave a comment and let us know.

  • R
    Raymond Genovese June 20, 2018

    Thank you for a well-written, thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable article.

    While not an EE, I am motivated to respond because the situations that you describe are by no means limited to that field.

    To illustrate, note the change in perspective if one changes your sentence below…

    “What happens, then, when the engineering profession no longer provides engineers with sufficient opportunity to express their creativity or immerse themselves in challenging (and therefore intellectually satisfying) design tasks?” to,

    “What happens then, when the engineer no longer sees the opportunity to express their creativity or immerse themselves in challenging (and therefore intellectually satisfying) design tasks?”

    What might happen is a kind of ennui resulting from the realization that what you have learned in the past does not carry the personal impact and position that it once did. The adjustment in perspective that could be indicated may simply be one of accepting that the challenges have changed, as expected when any collective endeavor evolves and advances.

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  • nathan hale June 20, 2018

    Here to stay.

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  • E
    EE Observer June 21, 2018

    I kind of disagree on some points.

    1. Highly integrated circuits result in faster/simpler design which can be less interesting? Then you should probably go for a larger system that can benefit from the integrated design.

    2. Highly integrated circuits result in simpler layout? Not necessarily. Still depends on board area. If you have a small board with placement and stack-up constraints it can be challenging sometimes. I’m not updated with the latest in EDA but from what I heard from PCB designers before, auto-routing was not that efficient yet. I don’t know now.

    3. If the layout look simple it doesn’t mean electrical properties are negligible, especially if you are dealing with very high speed signals. You have to consider transmission line properties, control impedances, etc. That’s why IC manufacturers provide design guides and device models and recommend simulation. Evaluation boards and reference designs are very useful but if you have a different placement and stack-up, then you have to re-route. So it pays to understand the electrical properties involved.

    1. It is expected that firmware development would evolve. You can probably get by even if you don’t understand the hardware if you have a reliable PCBA that’s proven and tested. However, if you are still debugging a prototype, you probably need to work with hardware folks.

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    • abu1985 June 23, 2018
      You hit it home! Those class A, B, AB, C, D amps we built in school are fundamental to learning EE. What we have now goes beyond bigger with all the small parts we put together. I'm an integrator (controls engineer), and I'm at the mercy of all the components I buy and piece together for the equipment we build. I make drawings, obviously, and instead of it being a PCB, it's an entire machine with testing instruments, motors, wire gauges specced, power supply's, controllers, SCCR ratings (which no one knows what that is, and I barely do). I then program PLCs from scratch and make everything come alive. But we couldn't quickly get these machines together if it wasn't for these ICs. Now for my agreement with Robert Keim. The way I read this article is just the way I felt about EE as a kid. It had NOTHING to do with money or perceived as being smart, but only about how everything around me worked, including the radio in our rusted out van. I remember being about 14, no internet and no connection to any learning of EE, I figured out battery voltage was add together when they are in series, I didn't know what "in series" was but I figured out that using 2 D batteries instead of 2 AA batteries, I could achieve the same function of the device and NEVER need to change batteries hahaha. I was doing it to anything that had AA batteries... Hell, I was hot gluing speaker wires to the inside of stereos where the stock speakers were solder onto to get more speakers working.... I just LOVE making stuff work. I'd like to add that somehow I never let the smoke out until my later years (I got riskier lol)
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  • A
    adx June 21, 2018

    I hear what you’re saying, having worked in all realms. I am wondering myself if it is reaching the top of the S-curve, and soon all hardware will be bought off the shelf or “not made here” (including when it gets too expensive to produce in China). HW design almost becomes a box-ticking function. SW is going that way (or at least I hope it is, it’s easier and more reliable, but a lot less flexible and builds in the capability for extremely big but rare flaws).

    There’s still plenty of opportunities to mess up that hardware using appnotes - they’re not up to the standard of a reference design (not fit for production) and sometimes have glaring errors and newbie-itis. There’s opportunities (sometimes unexpected or significant) to do better than the appnote even for some relatively fixed function chips.

    I don’t think I have never seen or heard of anyone using a PCB autorouter as intended, though I have come across old boards that look autorouted so I have to assume it has been done at least a few times in the past. Even more so for placement. I might autoroute a bus then push it to where I want it to be, see if it sticks. They’re clever, but not that clever, and even if they were, it’s always better to combine two brains (one machine, one human). Most board design is covered by “making sure the copper is touching where it should, and not touching where it shouldn’t”, circuitry is extremely forgiving. But the remaining fraction can get very messed up when people don’t understand the principles involved (like a SMPS chip, following that dubious datasheet recommendation).

    I do miss the challenges of old-fashioned HW and SW design. But not that much. The environment that once rewarded that is gone, and trying to do it these days will result in rent not getting paid and mouths not getting fed. It’s survival mode, like the challenges of climate change, people will have to adjust their expectations to appreciate what they’ve got. We used to have space shuttles and Concordes, it’s clear humans are slipping backwards technologically, I think that’s a good thing. What I do find wholly dissatisfying is when the bigger traditional companies lose their HW competence from the top, meaning they’ve lost the ability to tell the difference between ingenuity and box-ticking (or even to understand what those things are), making any level of technical skill a worthless irrelevance. It’s a race to the bottom after that - S curve soon starts looking like a bell curve.

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  • DKWatson June 22, 2018

    Day one for me as an ‘engineer’ was early September 1976 when I stepped first through the doors on campus at university. The two big questions then, as is still the case today: What is an engineer? and What does an engineer do?

    The most suitable answer I’ve heard is that an engineer derives the best solution to a problem using the tools and materials available within the constraints of time and budget. Two thousand years ago, tools and materials meant hammer and chisel, blocks of stone, pieces of wood and woven hemp. Through the years these have changed and engineers have adapted. Through my first two years at uni we were forbidden to use calculators (even if you could afford one) and restricted to a slide rule. Now we pull up a free, multi-function app on our smart phone and press a few buttons. It’s very difficult even to find a slide rule anymore (even if you could afford one). The tools have changed and we’ve adapted. What tools and materials will be available tomorrow? It doesn’t matter, we will adapt.

    It doesn’t matter that the tools have made basic engineering seem less arduous, the challenges have increased in complexity and the need for engineers to adapt have only heightened in step. What remains core to the concept is the ability of the engineer, some say innate, to dissect a problem and visualize a solution utilizing the tools and materials available within the time and budget constraints. Never misconstrue easier for faster and not all solutions can be as creative or as elegant as we would perhaps wish. Ours is not the luxury of the perfect design, only the best. If a new tool comes along that can shorten the developmental life-cycle and does not compromise the solution, use it. Don’t use it just because it’s there and never throw away your hammer and chisel.

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  • W
    Wa7djz June 22, 2018

    I agree much of the design work in engineering has changed. Especially, if you are a hardware engineer. However, I think it has evolved into systems engineering. There are many cases where better systems thinking needs to occur how devices are used, how products are used and put together. Too often systems have been put together using a “standard” approach which just brings along the same old issues. Certainly, now software is the glue that holds many things together but I personally think it is not as satisfying as getting hardware using discrete components to work. There are also lots of potential for creativity in the Raspberry Pi and Arduino worlds where the processors provide a way to easily mix some software with hardware to make something creative. 

    Regardless of all that, tuning a radio receiver with glowing bulbs inside of it or even mostly discrete parts is better than looking at a computer display which is driving a dongle attached to your laptop!  😊

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  • lawrnce416 June 22, 2018

    of course…embedded systems, microcontrollers…utilize electronics, mechanics (interfacing), and especially programming (C, embedded C, Python)...try using an Atmega16, ARM Cortex, Beagle Bone…for your next “black box” prototype…you need to get out more often…;-)

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  • R
    RThéo June 22, 2018

    I do think highly integrated electronics still remains electronics. You still can build your own BJT or FET amplifiers, that quite intricate to master and really nice pieces of applied physics and electronics.

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  • E
    ecorrales June 22, 2018

    Excellent article, and I have had the very same thoughts. While not a full-fledged HW engineer, do have an electronics background, and extensive SW engineering, from down in machine code, up to the high-level languages.

    I have recently found satisfaction in becoming a “roboticist” as a hobby (for now).  It does allow for not just doing plug-n-play and make-the-connections.  I think this is still a new-enough field that makes it worthwhile to transition into as a professional career.  Or inventing.

    Example: I didn’t want to do what everyone else does: use Google voice-recognition APIs.  I wanted voice-recognition to be personal to me (more secure) and off line.  So I began with a Raspberry, and designed an opamp / comparator circuit with discrete components, and then had to turn the raw digital input into timings, frequencies, etc.  (no ADC).

    Yes, in the end, I did just use a USB mic and some off-the-shelf software.  But I learned a lot along the way.  That I think is still useful.  One thing I learned from going my own way even is to understand there are some limitations not just with my approach, but also with the standard OTS stuff.  And the whys.

    So, yes, do miss it, to your point.

    On the other hand, life is really short, and if I want to actually create some autonomous robot that does something useful, then I can’t spend all my precious time down in the resistors, BJTs, caps, opamps, or all the 1’s and 0’s.

    “Creating” a robot is a different sort of satisfaction. First, it feels more varied, touching many areas.  (“Dr. Frankenstein, I presume?”).  😊

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  • K
    kerose98 June 22, 2018

    As an electrical engineer, I strongly disagree with what this article is saying.  From my own experience as an analog and embedded engineer (including, digital, FPGA, and software), here are my observations:

    1. Much of engineering might be connecting the pins, but that is just a start.  With complex components, it helps that some aspects are already decided.  With recommended components, as an engineer, you need to determine why a particular part is there.
    2. While many of us are not skilled at designing circuit boards, we do need to calculate various parameters around circuit board designs.  A thorough understanding of electromagnetics, RF, microwave, and transmission lines is ever more important in an age of higher and higher speeds, digital or otherwise.
    3. Sometimes, a particular function is necessary at low cost - I know of one company that got every cent out by going to discretes.  You read that right!  They had enough room that they could use cheap surface mount transistors, resistors, capacitors, and inductors in their circuits.
    4. We have to design our circuits to meet EMI/RFI requirements.  For example, I once designed a cable harness for a hospital bed.  What seemed like an easy project turned out to be quite complex.  We had UL and FDA requirements to meet.
    5. I am finding my analog background to be very marketable.  Even digital signals travel through a channel with “analog signal” characteristics.
    6. If you have a 100 MHz square wave, consider this:  Your harmonics dictate a much wider bandwidth than 100 MHz - with the wave being shaped by odd harmonics, (3, 5, 7, 9, 11, etc), it is safe to say that you need at least a 1 GHz channel!  I recommend even more for accurate square wave representation (where wave shape is important).  PS:  I’m a musician with a degree in that field as well (Master’s in organ performance) - next time you talk to your favorite musician, tell them how you use the overtone series in your work (we call in the Fourier series, of course), but it is taught in basic music theory classes.  Frequency, harmonics, and octaves - we use these parameters in both engineering and music (although in music we call frequency “pitch”).
    7. RF/microwave and power are great places to use our skills.  I used to think RF/microwave was black magic, then I realized that basic physics prevails, and it is a lot of fun!  Also, try and design a low noise amplifier or power supply, and you have a real challenge!
    8. What I love most about this field is the creativity:  Not “Can we do this,” but “How can we do this?” is the question I ask and answer every day.  If you are having a hard time figuring something out, see if anyone else has done it - look on the internet and at your local library.

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  • keystoneclimber June 22, 2018

    “First, it doesn’t represent the core of what we learn as electrical engineers. Subtle electrical concepts are certainly involved but, in many cases, they are a minor or even negligible factor in the process of converting the schematic into a PCB.”

    I’ve been reading this site for a long time, and I was quite surprised when I read this statement.  It is true that “it doesn’t represent the core of what we learn as electrical engineers”.  In fact, my schooling didn’t include curriculum on proper PCB layout.  It took many years of reading industry white papers followed by trial and error of many failed designs to learn these concepts.  In many of these cases, the circuit was perfectly fine but the layout prevented the circuit from working properly.  The PCB is the design!  Otherwise, we’d build all our analog, mixed signal and high speed digital circuits on breadboard.  Go ahead and slop up any old layout for a switching power supply or a transimpedance amp and see what happens!  5Vdc is 5Vdc right?  Just daisy chain all your analog and digital ICs on a skinny little trace wherever it is most convenient and see what happens.  Why even worry about ground planes, impedance matching and microstrips?  Who needs shielding to pass CE testing?  This stuff couldn’t be more off the mark!

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    • RK37 June 22, 2018
      Yes, but you have to remember that many people design PCBs that are simple enough to "work" without any special layout techniques. In some cases the performance will be suboptimal, but this may not be noticed. In other cases (low-speed digital circuits come to mind), even a seriously careless layout could be fully functional. The fundamental tasks shared by all layouts are things like placing components, making board outlines, drawing traces from pin to pin, double-checking footprint dimensions. And these are not "the core of what we learn as electrical engineers."
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  • B
    btremaine June 22, 2018

    I pretty much have to agree with you. My career started 45 years ago in disc drives the size of washing machines that stored 5Mb and everything was analog design.Where you can still excel is in system design where you are deep in algorithms and firmware. Where I used to be an analog servo engineer I am now a systems engineer more on the math/algorithm side of things. And you are right, the motivation is for the feeling you get being creative. With ML and AI coming along things will stay interesting for me but I use my EE skills to a lesser extent.

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  • S
    supamas June 22, 2018

    While I understand the dissenting viewpoints, I have to agree with the author in the general sentiment.  If you’re working in a job where you’re connecting the dots between ICs then anyone can have your job.  If design is your passion, then you’ll strive to seek that design job.  In my experience it has driven me to more complicated designs involving high end processors integrated on custom PCBs. 

    I guess you’ll fight for (and learn) what you want to do if you care enough?

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  • D
    ds2010 June 22, 2018

    First and foremost: there is nothing personal to the article author in my reply below.
    Second: everything below is just MHO, which may be not (and doesn’t have to be) shared by everyone.
    Here goes:
    Challenge?  You are lacking the challenge of being able to prove to yourself (and perhaps to the others 😉  your ingenuity?
    Well, then you might be working for the wrong mob or having a wrong hobby…

    Below are my ways to get a decent challenge of a real electronics engineering (yes, I’ve been through all of them personally and am feeling excellent about my engineering ingenuity and capabilities):
    1) Try designing something that is more complicated than just arduino board with the couple of temperature sensors. How about designing a life-support device, like say a lung ventilator, or ventricular assistance pump,  when you have to think not just “nets and ICs”, but also on all SYSTEM levels of safety, fault mitigation and reliability?
    2) Look at your current design and ask yourself: can I make it half the cost of what it is now, keeping ALL functionality? The design challenges constitute not only the technical ones - there is a lot of others, like BOM cost, mass production manufacturability, reliability, regulatory compliance, component second sourcing etc. etc.
    3) Design a small entertaining thing, preferably an electronic toy, but do it all by yourself, everything,  from the ground up, do all stages, including the mechanical work on the case and assembly. Try to follow a DFM (design for manufacturing) rules too. Then give it away to your (grand)kids, watch their joy and feel proud of that the 99.9+% of the Earth population couldn’t do what you did…
    4) Go fix the neighbour’s broken 65-inch 4K TV - without the schematics (cuz I bet you won’t find one on the web), and on the component level (not on the board level, as all repair shops do nowadays) - that will give you a real challenge, for a change! 😊

    Anyway, all in all, my point was: while there is undoubtedly an industry trend to move to the “lego”-type electronics design, this does not eliminate the engineering challenges, but just shifts them to (over?) the next horizons and possibly to the new (4th,  5th?) dimensions. The real engineer (inside us) will always go out and find a challenge, rather than sitting there and complaining about a lack of it… there’s still enough engineering challenge out there - I know that for a fact.  😊

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    • S
      sailorjoe June 22, 2018
      Good suggestions, and I'd like to add another: volunteer as a Mentor on a high school robotics team. This is where engineers are challenged and also get to help inspire the next generation of engineers.
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  • S
    sailorjoe June 22, 2018

    When I started we could buy four NAND gates in a DIP package, and we built logic circuits. But I had the opportunity to work on a transistor logic circuit built years before.  Transistors, resistors, some caps, an entire circuit board for a single gate. That gave me some perspective. Later, I used a 16 bit ALU chip, and lots of other chips, to build a communications system. Later still my entire design would have been programmed in an FPGA.  Now, we’re using software on an Arduino or other processor instead of logic circuits.

    The underlying technology always changes.  But for me, there have been constants.  Math, algorithms, attention to detail, rigorous testing, requirements analysis, DSP, best practices, efficiency, systems considerations, these are the constants of good engineering. 

    Lastly, increasing levels of integration of IC’s makes some things easier and some things harder.  So there is still good work to do, and always important problems to solve.

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  • RWeiser June 22, 2018

    Even if the datasheet tells you how you have to connect the IC to external components, creating a product is still a very creative task, it is the combination of these ICs with analogue circuits, PCB layout, Firmware and mechanical design that makes designing a new device a very exciting and interesting task

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  • MWagner_MA June 23, 2018

    Interesting perspective.  While it may seem to not require engineering, you don’t know, what you don’t know.  If your goal is to design at the hobby level, or where reliability and reproducibility is not critical, the level of integration, does make it easier to make something work.  However,engineering is not about making something work once or even in one production run,but over the life of the product, produced potentially anywhere in the world consistently.  Most application notes are generalized designs in isolation,meaning no other circuits nearby or on the same power buss.  Any changes beyond that can cause intermittant failures or gliches if not handled properly.  Item like changing layer count, operating voltage, clock speed may require changes to the original suggested design.  Even adding TV supression can cause issues, so, yes, ENGINEERING is alive an well in this world of high interation.

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  • S
    simonbaker June 23, 2018

    I started tinkering with electricity/electronics as a kid in the 1960s.  I didn’t understand what I was doing beyond simple electric circuits, but it was fun building electromagnets, buzzers, etc.  When I got my first Knight Kit, I made circuits with transistors but couldn’t really understand how they worked, I could only follow instructions, though I tried to experiment and deviate from the design based on my intuition (such as trying to make a transistor out of two back-to-back diodes—logical in a way, but missing the key concepts).  Still, had some fun.  I tried to learn theory from the Radio Amateurs Handbook because a (genius) friend of mine seemed to be able to do that.  However, when I saw that an inductor had a back emf equal and opposite to the forward emf yet current still flowed, I knew it was beyond my ken.  It wasn’t until college that I took some electrical engineering courses (not as an engineering student) that I finally got what I was looking for—a mathematical “model” for components that allowed creative design to be possible—not that I suddenly became a wellspring of innovation, but at least I had a clue.  I bought an oscilloscope and it was a lot of fun to try circuits and troubleshoot them with the theoretical background to make sense of what I was seeing.  I loved seeing the ingenuity of certain simple circuits, such as a “reflex amplifier” which uses a single transistor as both an RF stage and an AF stage in a simple radio by circling the demodulated AF back through the transistor with clever filtering and counting on reasonable linearity of the transistor to keep the two signals amplified separately.  Now an op amp package with dozens of transistors simplifies the design problem greatly.  There is still some elegant beauty to a single op amp, with some nice formulas to play with and a lot of ingenuity in play, such as making constant current sources, current amplifiers, various filters, etc.  Where I start to get bored is with the board-level (or should I say bored-level) modules that are mostly, as was stated, “connect-the-pins” design.  Very valuable for professionals trying to make a living, and very efficient for the economy, but… less fun—for me anyway.  It does become about firmware/software, and that is a very creative field, but it is not electronics, at least, not the same kind of thrill of wiring up parts and making electrons do your bidding.  Now, as to what do we need to know as engineers—well, the engineers who make the boards still need to know some really nitty-gritty electronics no doubt, especially all the physics of high-frequency effects, ground loops, etc.  As for users of the boards, depending on the level of the board, the confidence of connecting inputs to sensors, understanding impedance and frequency considerations etc. requires a pretty solid engineering background I think.  But confidence is not necessarily fun, it just allows you to know that what you are doing is in the envelope of good practice.  For instance, a math program like Mathematica is virtually impossible to use if you don’t know math—you need to know a lot of math to understand the problem you are trying to solve.  Similarly with engineering, you education allows you do formulate the problem even if there are off-the-shelf boards to solve it.  But is it fun?  For me, not nearly as much as tinkering with transistors.  But the power of high-level modules cannot be denied in the real world.  I will leave on the note that the more you know of engineering, the more likely you can choose more minimal/cheaper parts and simplified design to get the job done.  Maybe not exciting, but very valuable.  And of course, seeing some contraption actually come to life and work as designed always provides some thrill, it really does.

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  • L
    lfrenzel June 24, 2018

    You certainly captured the essence of electronic engineering today.  However, I do believe that the current “connect the pins” approach is more positive than you think.  Here are a few key points to consider:
    • Most electronic design today is of the “connect the pins” kind.  That’s a good thing and it is still challenging for many engineers.  Electronic design is simply the assembly of known circuits and components to form a new product or system.  How else would you design something today without that approach?
    • The whole goal of the semiconductor companies is to make it easy to design products with their chips.
    • A high percentage of electronic design today is less circuit design and more systems design at the block diagram/signal flow level.  There is creativity in selecting and interconnecting the chips.
    • There are an infinite number of ways to interconnect the available ICs to make new, interesting products.  Even old legacy chips are still useful.
    • It is a significant engineering challenge to “connect the pins” in a high speed digital design or RF/microwave/millimeter wave design.  Much of it PCB design.
    • A “connect the pins” or cookbook approach to design is still necessary and valid.  And a challenge to most.  It is the way you learn the limits and possibilities of electronics that can then lead to the kind of creativity you seem to be seeking.
    • If you have not designed anything this way lately, give it a try.  More fun than not.  If it is not intellectually satisfying and challenging enough, don’t do it.
    • Has the EE curricula in colleges ever matched up with the real world of engineering?  It always seems to lag.  It is mostly theoretical but that is a good thing as it provides the background needed.  Real engineering design is mostly learned on the job.
    • They do not each PCB design in college but perhaps they should.
    • Many hobbyists, makers, hams or other DIYers would love to learn the “connect the pins” approach to design.
    Good article.  Thanks!
    Lou F

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  • L
    Lessel June 24, 2018

    Six Munf’s ago I cudent evin spil injuneer, Now i are one!  Dr Watson Watt surrounded himself with hard working,  super creative Engineers with a sense to always do better and whalla- Radar.  Technological engineering continues to fire ones imagination and i never stop seeking answers to my questions,  From a sixty nine Y/O Do it slowly Do it better Geezer.

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  • J
    jlnance June 25, 2018

    I do miss it.  I chose power electronics when I went to graduate school because I figured that no one could put a switching power supply on an IC.  That turned out to be somewhat true, but I ended up in software despite my schooling.  I don’t have regrets about that, I enjoy writing programs.  I do miss getting to sit in a lab and solder things together.

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  • P
    Parkera July 03, 2018

    I think what you are essentially saying is that the days of designing a product based on only five types of components (R, L, C, Voltage Source, Current Source) are gone. Well, the trend is certainly that way, but there are many exceptions that still exist.

    Essentially, an engineer’s job is to create something that meets a specification out of the tools he has available. In the beginning days of radio (1920’s), only the five basic types of components were available (tubes can be treated as a voltage or current source), and many tasks were performed mechanically instead of electrically. Come the 1950’s, another tool became available – the computer. This “tool” required the support of yet another tool – software. In the 1960’s integrated circuits came to market. You could consider these as “tools” or a level of “systems engineering”. Slowly, the mechanical “tools” were used less and less in favor of electrical “tools”, which usually offered advantages in size and reliability over the mechanical alternatives.

    This “systems engineering” of integrated circuits trend is in full force now, with capabilities ever expanding in terms of frequency, power and complexity. Which means more room is available inside the box so that the overall product can be more complex. Still, there are very real limits to the technology. For example, there may be integrated circuits that can control kilowatts of energy, but I don’t know of any that can process kilowatts of energy. You still have to use discreets for that.

    Traditional engineering is evolving away from component-level design toward system-level design, but component-level design is far from dead yet – it’s just not as common as it used to be.

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