Whether you’re a college graduate transitioning to working life, a young professional changing careers or a seasoned professional trying to stay up-do-date, you should always maintain a handy bag of engineering tools and tricks.
Of course, the toolkit for each engineering discipline will have similarities and differences. The similarities will include general tools that all engineers need at their disposal. Conversely, the differences reflect the specific tools needed for the different hardware-oriented disciplines like electronic, electrical and mechanical engineering.
What follows is a suggestive list of tools and toolkits. It is by no means an exhaustive one. But before going to the list, I’d like to acknowledge three colleagues for their help in compiling this tool list:
- Clive “Max” Maxfield - A well-known electronics and computer guru, author of numerous books including the famous, “Bebop to the Boolean Boogie.”
- William "Ike" Eisnenhauer - Now a senior executive but also an engineer for his entire career (government and industry).
- George Zafiropoulos - VP of Solutions Marketing at National Instruments and co-founder of the Ham Radio podcast.
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General Tools for Every Graduating and Young Engineering Professional
- An Engineer-in-Training certificate and reference manual which provides further evidence – beyond a degree – of general engineering knowledge. Other good resources should include subject review books like Schaum’s Outlines, Google and Youtube.
- The half-life of an engineering degree in the late 1920’s was about 35 years; for a degree from 1960, it was thought to be about a decade. Today, it’s likely less than a decade, which is why advanced degrees – at least up to a master’s degree – and continuing education/certificate programs are so essential to extend an engineer’s usefulness.
- All engineering graduates will need to acquire some of these critical skills during their careers including how best to take responsibility, performing under pressure, dealing with superiors, and communicating with people from different backgrounds.
- Keep up your Excel-Fu skills, especially Macros and how to do "paint/copy" formatting.
- Learn how to use your companies web meeting technology. Practice with screen sharing and camera angles before your first important meeting.
- If you are unfortunate enough to be in an “open concept” office, then get an aircraft carrier flight crew grade headset.
- Remember that the goal is to complete the task or project – not to forever build prototypes, run simulations, play with application feature sets or make pretty PERT and Gant charts.
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Hardware Tools for Electrical, Electronic and Mechanical engineers and Technicians
- Variations on a Swizz Army Knife, for example the Leatherman “Charge Plus TTI” for Electronic Engineers or the "Surge" for any other discipline
- iFixit toolkit or equivalent to fix most electronic hardware problems. According to the company, their free online manual tells you how to repair almost any electronics.
- Safety googles, grounding straps, and a measuring device like a ruler, micrometer and such.
- Others: Calipers, soldering iron, magnifying glass, mirror on a stick and maybe the finger wrench
- Multimeter, with tutorials all over the Internet, e.g., Sparkfun.com
- Tablet with a good scientific calculator program, e.g., Samsung Tab S3, Droid48 (like the old HP48SX style), etc.
Image Source: Sparkfun.com / Third Hand
Hardware Tools in an Office Environment for Electrical, Electronic and Mechanical engineers and Technicians
- A solid LINUX distro on bootable USB can be a real-life saver!
- A good set of mechanical pencils with lead such as the GraphGear 1000 by Pentel.
- A "dry erase notebook,” which is basically a notebook of card backed dry erase pages.
- A Circa notebook or other similar styles with the separate discs for a spine. It’s a great way to keep notes on projects – even if you have a laptop or tablet to do the same thing electronically.
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Prototyping and Test Toolkit for Electronic Engineers and Technicians
Many electronic engineers spend a lot of time prototyping hardware at work. A personal prototyping laboratory complements or might even substitute for a company’s system. A good basic personal prototyping laboratory should consist of the following:
- Computer – To perform tasks like programming and PCB layout without a computer. Pick up a cheap laptop or desktop for around $350.
- Breadboard – A breadboard with an integrated power supply is best.
- Soldering Iron - Spend a few dollars to get a real, temperature-controlled version, e.g., a Aoyue 968. One with a hot air rework station makes it easy to reflow solder on boards and chips.
- Logic Analyzer - Diagnostic tools are a must specially to see what is actually going across serial communication lines. A good choice is the open source “Open Bench Logic Sniffer.” Or consider a portable and relatively inexpensive USB-base protocol analyzer, such as the pocket-sized Mercury T2 from Teledyne-LeCroy.
- Oscilloscope – A must-have for diagnosing all kinds of circuit problems.
- Who hasn’t played with a Raspberry Pi? Well, if you haven’t, you really should especially if you’re doing Internet-of-Things (IOT) development.
- Finally, Also, consider “Vintage Test Equipment: Not Just for Old Engineers”
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Smartphone Add-on Tools
Today’s smartphones have the equivalent if not superior processing power to electronic equipment from several decades ago. Why not use that power to run a variety of useful hardware addon tools? Here’s a short list for the resourceful engineer.
- Thermometer add-on to your phone via Bluetooth device, e.g., from Thermodo. Or use an IR device add-on that requires no physical contact.
- Thermal imaging via thermographic cameras, e.g., from Opgal, Flir or others
- Multimeter for the iPhone iDVM - A digital multimeter which uses an iOS devices for its display, such as the iDVM by Redfish Instrument
- Portable electrocardiography device (ECG) that can be interfaced to a smart phone, such as the AliveCor KardiaMobile.
|Image Source: Flir|
Online/Website Tools and Resources
Many younger engineering professions already have a toolkit that contains their favorite online apps and resources. Here are a few of the most popular ones:
- MAKER is a technology-based extension of DIY culture. Makezine.com is a great site for embedded hardware and software engineers to see all kinds of fun projects. The Maker culture in general supports open-source hardware.
- AdaFruit - Online for learning electronics and making the best designed products for any kind of makers. Includes Raspberry Pi, Microbit, Arduino, NeoPixels, Feather, sensors, robotics & kits!
- Many distribution vendors have their own tool pages, e.g., Mouser, Arrow, Digikey and others.
- Free or student versions of CAD tools, e.g., Autodesk, Mathlab, Catia
- System simulation tools, like Extendsim, Arena, ProModel, Mentor’s SystemVision, NI Labworks, etc.
- Organizational resources:
- NIST Engineers Statistical Handbook
- Nasa Engineering Toolkit
- Open Source Hardware
Image Source: Pixabay
January 28-30: North America's largest chip, board, and systems event, DesignCon, returns to Silicon Valley for its 25th year! The premier educational conference and technology exhibition, this three-day event brings together the brightest minds across the high-speed communications and semiconductor industries, who are looking to engineer the technology of tomorrow. DesignCon is your rocket to the future. Ready to come aboard?
John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.