It doesn't matter whether you're a mechanical, electrical or software engineer. For an overwhelming majority of engineers, knowledge of electronics is more important now than five years ago.
At first glance, that might not sound like news. But consider this: It's been 62 years since John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley invented the transistor. It's been 37 years since the inception of the PC. And automobiles have employed electronic engine control for more than 20 years.
So what could possibly be new here? How could knowledge of electronics be more important now than five years ago? Engineers who responded to the Design News survey, "The Role of Electronics," said the main difference is breadth. Today, the line between mechanical, electrical and electronic engineering is blurring. Mechanical engineers select sensors. They buy microcontrollers. They employ electronic reference designs. Everyone, it seems, needs to know some electronics.
"Engineers who came up five, 10 and 15 years ago are now having to relearn things," noted Kent Swan, founder of White Bird Engineering (Boca Raton, FL), an engineering development consultant. "Even if they learned things correctly in school, they still have to add to their knowledge base."
'Everything Touches The Hardware'
Swan was among an overwhelming number of survey respondents who told Design News that it's more important now to be familiar with electronics than it was five years ago. Only 3 percent of those surveyed said it was less important.
"It's getting more important every year," added Ali Nekourouh of Brazen Tek (Woodland Hills, CA). "The way technology has been evolving, you have to be familiar with electronics."
Even software engineers said that electronics hardware continues to grow in importance. "It's more critical now than ever before," noted John Olney, a software engineer and Design News reader in Santa Rosa, CA. "Even though I'm a software guy, everything I do reaches out and touches the hardware."
Those who responded to the Design News survey were crystal clear about what they thought was important. In response to a question about the most important components in embedded designs, respondents repeatedly pointed to microcontrollers and sensors. Forty-three percent said that the choice of the microcontroller was "extremely important," while 44 percent said sensors were "very important."
"Performance is our number one need for the future," Nekourouh said. "If the processor can't perform the operation, then you've got a real problem."
Still, some respondents claimed that microcontroller performance is easily identifiable and fairly predictable. Sensors, they said, represent a tougher choice.
"Depending on how a sensor is designed, it can be difficult or easy to interface," Swan said. "It can require a little or a lot of conditioning; it can be sensitive or insensitive to outside influences. Your sensor choice can make you or break you."
Still, the question of component value varied from engineer to engineer. Olney — a software engineer — identified connectors as a critical component. "The connector can cause so much grief," he said. "When you debug a system with an intermittent connector, it can really cause headaches."
'Software Still A Key'
Not surprisingly, opinions on microcontrollers and digital signal processors varied dramatically according to application types. Readers identified three main characteristics as critical in their choice of a microcontroller. The biggest of those was software and debugging tools. Thirty-eight percent of respondents described those as "extremely important."
"Software and debuggability are the most critical things to getting a product out the door on time," Swan said. "If you have bad debuggability or if your tools aren't right, then it doesn't matter how good your microcontroller is. The best thing to do is chuck it. Throw it away and get another one."
The good news, however, is that the vast differences between microcontroller software and debuggability are starting to disappear. Many respondents repeatedly said that microcontroller software and debug tools have made great strides in the past decade. Some said they've reached the point where they can choose virtually any microcontroller and be assured that the tools will be usable. That wasn't the case five years ago, they contended.
"In the last five years or so, we've reached the point where's there's really not that much difference between debug tools," Olney said. "In the past, you would have had vast differences in the quality of software support from manufacturer to manufacturer. But industry-wide today, the quality of tools is quite high."
Software, however, wasn't the only criteria for choosing a microcontroller. Understandably, cost was rated high by many respondents. Eighty-nine percent described cost as "extremely important," "very important" or "important." In a clear reflection of our economic times, only 11 percent said cost was unimportant.
Power consumption was also highly rated. Only 18 percent of respondents said that it was "not very important" or "not at all important."
"It's very application-dependent," said Nekourouh of Brazen Tek. "Generally speaking, cost is more important in consumer applications than in medical. BOM (bill of materials) cost is very big in consumer applications."
'Be Willing to Learn'
One apparent area of recent growth was electronic reference designs. Eighty-four percent of respondents said that reference designs were either "important or "very important."
"Reference designs give me a guide," Nekourouh said. "If part of a configuration is missing, or there's a part I don't understand, I can always assume the manufacturer knows how to do it. It comes down to a time issue. If I have a guide to walk me through, I can always do the job faster."
The same thinking apparently holds true for operating systems. In contrast to a decade ago, when half of all developers wrote their own operating systems, today's market is dominated by commercial off-the-shelf products. In this year's survey, a paltry 18 percent said they write their own operating systems. Even less — approximately 10 percent — said they prefer freely available Linux.
Olney, who recalled that it was commonplace for developers to write their own OS a decade ago, said that as operating systems grow larger, it's no longer sensible for him to write his own.
"There are better things for me to do," he said. "There are commercial products out there. So why would I bother investing the time and energy in writing my own — especially since I don't need to?"
If there was a universal theme among respondents, however, it was no one can escape the need to understand electronics and associated software. The old "throw it over the wall" mentality, once common in companies where electrical and mechanical disciplines were strictly defined, is no more. Moreover, the survey's respondents indicated that reference designs and electronic design automation (EDA) software only take engineers halfway to the finish line. The engineer has to have enough familiarity with electronics to carry the project the rest of the way.
"Even the best EDA systems can only get you part of the way there," Swan concluded. "If you don't have the base knowledge, you're going to be fumbling in the dark. Every day, you have to be willing to learn more and more."