That Was Then, This Is Now: 4 Ways Engineering Resources Have Changed

For engineers, resources of information have changed in significant ways. But here are the four biggest trends to be aware of.

February 29, 2016

4 Min Read
That Was Then, This Is Now: 4 Ways Engineering Resources Have Changed

It goes without saying that the world is changing and that digital technology has put more knowledge at our fingertips than ever before. But in the midst of the information gold rush we shouldn't forget some of the old, tried and true methods either. The modes of access may have changed but the goal remains the same. And when modern methods fail it never hurts to go old school to find a solution to a problem.

Engineers resources have changed in significant ways, but here are the four biggest trends for engineers to be aware of.

1.) Print Complements Digital

In the old days, every engineer had bookshelves in their offices loaded with technical books and data books. I kept all of my old school textbooks and they served as great reference sources. I remember the thrill of requesting data books from National Semiconductor and receiving a giant cardboard box with an entire set –- I was the envy of all. Not only did they provide parts specs, but they were also a goldmine for application circuits. Catalogues from Digikey, Newark, and Mouser were staples around my student apartment, as well.


Nowadays those jam-packed bookshelves are not quite so jam-packed. Searchable digital media has more or less replaced paper catalogues. While it makes it easier to hone in on what you are looking for, the disadvantage is you can miss treasures along the way. Call me old-fashioned, but I get some of my best ideas and solutions by thumbing through the pages of books and catalogues. While searching for one thing, I run across so much other cool stuff. A precision search is exactly that, and so you miss part of the journey that pre-digital media facilitates, in order to get what you need quickly. Often that is all you get, with no additional nuggets of information to walk away with.

2.) The Death of the Surplus Store

The local electronics surplus store had wireheads that were a wealth of knowledge. There was nothing better than an early Saturday morning going to the electronics sidewalk sale under the bridge in Dallas, then heading to an electronics surplus store like Rondure’s or Tanner’s Electronics to finish out the day. The sidewalk sale started out as a place for hams to buy, sell, and trade their gear and evolved into electronic and computer parts. I built my very first computer with a 286 motherboard (pre-Windows) I purchased there for $75 of my hard-earned faculty assistant money. I had to save up extra for the floppy drives, hard drive, controller card, video card, etc.

Trips to electronics surplus stores were always fun. Not only did they have lots of electronic parts at great prices, the folks on both sides of the counter were a wealth of knowledge just waiting to be asked. From 8051’s to voltage regulators, I learned more about how to use them from Jim Tanner and his customers for real-world application than I ever could have just by sitting in class.

Unfortunately, a lot of those electronics surplus stores have closed, although Tanner’s remains a thriving business in the Dallas area. I have heard that the sidewalk sale is still going strong, but I have also heard that it more resembles a flea market than the glory days of just electronics and computer components.

3.) Tech Support Is Always There

Another great resource was those people who go by the name “field service engineers,” or some variation of that title. Those were engineers that were hired by a company to deal specifically with customers in their territory. The goal was to have someone technical available to help customers design systems and troubleshoot problems, which would enable them to use the company's products. It was often a win-win situation and smart third-party rep companies made sure they also hired folks that were technically proficient in their products or paired them with a field application engineer who was. These guys understandably provided their expertise with an eye toward establishing a relationship that would lead to future sales and increasing volumes, so how fast you would get a response would depend on if you were a big or little fish.

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