The Celtic Engineer is a weekly newsletter produced by Celtic Engineering Solutions. We hope you enjoy it. If you have any suggestions for topics, would like to give feedback or want your email added to the distribution list please send an email to [email protected].
First of all, I want to wish everyone a very happy Samhain. Most of you will celebrate this as Halloween. Samhain (pronounced sow-in) is an ancient Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.
Last week I received an email about the newsletter with some very sage advice. We are not in competition with the best engineers and scientists of the last 200 years, but with ourselves. To that end I would like to discuss some things we can do at the beginning of a project that will help us produce the best product, and enjoy the process at the same time.
I hope you enjoy the artwork for this Newsletter. It was created by Lauren Gates, an up and coming artist from whom we can all expect great things. She is joining the Celtic Engineering Solutions Team and you will be seeing more of her work in the future. What she has captured for us this week is how dynamic engineering is each day. When we start a project, we are going for a ride. We can be dragged along, or we can grab the lion by the tail and ride the wake.
I would like you to imagine two parents. Each has a toddler who has been very busy going about the business of being a toddler. Each and every toy they own is exactly and carefully placed in a stochastic distribution around their room, or the living room as the case may be. The first parent looks around an sighs in exasperation and picks up the toy at their feet and puts it where it belongs. Then they look down, pick up the item at their feet and put it where it belongs. Rinse and repeat. The phone rings, the tea kettle screams the toddler follows you around taking toy out as you put them away. In the end you will be exhausted and will have run yourself ragged.
The second parent looks around the room. In under 10 seconds they take in the different items in the room, classify them and categorize them. There are large and small toys, clean and dirty clothing, spilled cereal, and a dirty toddler. The toddler is placed in the playpen with a toy for entertainment so they are not in the way while the parent cleans up. Then the parent collects all the large toys and places them in the large toy box. A plastic tote is found and all the large Lego-like building blocks are collected and then the tote is put on the shelf. The clean clothes are re-folded and put away. The dirty clothes are tossed in the hamper. The floor is vacuumed and finally the toddler is cleaned up and put in new clothes. Parent and child are happy and ready for the next adventure.
Project Management for the Engineer
There may or may not be a project manager on your next project. Either way each engineer needs to manage him or herself. If you stumble into a project and do the most obvious thing first or work on the part that the most people are worried about or complaining about, then you are like parent number one who picks up the item at their feet and puts it away. They will eventually get the job done but will not really be in control and will wind up feeling like the project dragged them through the process. They will be tired, unhappy and need a vacation. The chances of the project completing on time and within budget are not looking good.
The engineer who plans thing out like parent 2 will enjoy the process and has a better chance of finishing the project early, underbudget and having happy clients because the job was done well. The vision of having the lion by the tail is apt, because engineering is dynamic, fast moving and not just a little unpredictable, but through good practices and careful planning the ride can be exhilarating.
Chasing down the Lion
Preparation for the project starts long before the kick off meeting. One of my hobbies is metalwork. I have been restoring a South Bend Lathe for the last few years and we just acquired a metal shaper (see our Instagram page). The difference between a good tool and a great tool is not all that much. They may both have the same shape and look very similar. The great tool will have a slightly cleaner edge because the machinist honed it with a stone before each use. Honing does not remove much metal, is cleans up the slightly ragged edge and prepares the tool for use.
As engineers, we hone our skills each day by continuing to learn new skills. A little time each day should be set aside to read about or watch a video that helps us improve our skillset. It is like running at the gym when nothing is chasing us prepares us to outrun the predator when that situation arises.
Another preparatory activity is to have your tools ready. For an electrical engineer this means your CAD software. Most people have no idea how much effort is needed to maintain the libraries in a CAD program. I like Altium, but you might like something else. Whatever you use, you need to have a good schematic library and a good PCB footprint library or set of libraries. I organize the libraries so I can easily find what I need. I make sure that the information is up to date. That the colors used are simple and clearly convey the desired information. I make sure that the schematic symbol is attached to the correct footprint so that I can rely on it. Over the last 20 years, I have used many different CAD packages and spent at the very least, hundreds of hours working on libraries. Not because it is the most fun activity, but because doing so makes the design work much easier. When my libraries are in order, my designs have fewer errors and are easier to complete.
Having a good kickoff meeting is critical to having a good project. In a kickoff meeting the scope of the project is defined, the target delivery date and the unit costs are discussed. The team is defined and tasks are described. Communication is set up, if for no other reason then that everyone on the team is clear about who does what and what needs to be done.
As an engineer you may have no control over whether your company has a good kickoff meeting. Regardless of how they conduct the project, you should hold your own mini-kickoff meeting, with yourself. The first thing I do when I start a new project is to hold my own kickoff meeting. This is the 10-seconds the parent used to assess the situation above. You look at the whole task and start asking yourself questions. I usually do this in front of a whiteboard. What are the parts of the project? Will it all fit on one PCB or are there multiple boards? Are there parts that are clear and easy? Are there things that make me nervous, things I don’t really understand and will need to research or ask others for help? I work towards a list of activities with a guess as to how much time each will take to complete. I want that list roughly in the order I will do it. Are there any large activities that will require parallel design? Those are things that I will start, then switch to another activity while something is done on it by others. What do I need from others to do my job? What obstacles do I foresee in the project and what can I do about them? Given the time and unit price constraints, do I think the project will succeed? If not, is there some way I can change something that will make it possible?
What I am doing is making a roadmap of the project for myself. I want to know where I am, where I am going, how much time and money it will take to get there and what the road hazards along the way are likely to be.
Once I start the actual design work, I check the power dissipation on my resistors. It would be nice if I could select a resistor size and then make them all the same on the board. Or if I could choose the resistor size based on the available space. The problem is all parts are powered by smoke and if you don’t check the power dissipation in your resistor, you are likely to find out the color of that smoke.
The same goes for the voltage rating on a capacitor. When I put parameters on a schematic I want to have the parameters, that are needed, visible. I don’t want to have unnecessary ones that will clutter the drawing. To that end, I don’t put the size of the part or the manufacturer on the schematic. Those are things that belong in the BOM. The most important parameter for a capacitor is its capacitance, so that is the first parameter I list. The next most important thing is the voltage rating. I want that on the schematic because if there is a problem I want it to pop out at the person looking at the schematic.
For all the parts on the board, you need to understand the voltage rating. This might be obvious, but there are a few hidden gotchya’s. Making sure you put the right voltage on the part is pretty basic so we won’t talk about that. But when two parts are running at different voltages and you must interface those two parts you need to make sure you understand what voltage levels are being received and transmitted and if those levels are acceptable. If you have ever wondered why they have open collector devices or what a level shifter does, now you know.
The other part of voltage rating has to do with heating. Things that run at a higher voltage may wind up dissipating more power. It is dissipated as heat. Making sure that you have a way to get that heat out is critical. Things that run at higher temperature will usually not last as long as parts that run cooler. Temperature also changes values like the resistance, capacitance and output voltage level. Many parts must be derated when run at higher temperature. The voltage level that a device can operate at safely may be lower at higher temperatures.
Life is hard. Engineering is harder. Owning and operating your own engineering company is harder still. Having a positive disposition is very important. It is very easy to get down and depressed. You may be surrounded by your co-worker and still feel isolated and alone. I have taken the habit of starting a day or a week not by asking or hoping the week is a good one, but by saying to myself, “Today is going to be a good day.” And it will be. Not because of what happens today, but because of how I react to what happens today. Each day is a challenge. Which is great. Otherwise life would be boring and who wants to lead a boring life.
What have I gotten myself into?
Have you ever heard about imposter syndrome? Here is how it goes. Your boss drops a new project on your desk and you look at it and worry that you really don’t know what you are doing, that you are a fraud. You may feel that you got to your current position by luck and not hard work. You don’t deserve to be in your current position. First of all, stop it! You spent years in school. You have even more years of experience. You’ve got this.
You need to prepare ahead of time to be ready for the next project. You need to organize yourself and prepare a plan on how you will proceed through the project. If there are things you don’t know how to do ask yourself a few simple questions. Is this something I can learn quickly? Do I need additional training? Is there a piece of this that I can’t do and will need external help with? Will breaking the project up and making a prototype board to try out a difficult part of the project help? Once you have done these things you are ready to communicate with your customer. Remember your customer is your boss, your co-worker, the production line, the end user or maybe the person who is paying you to do the project. Let them know what you can do and what you can’t or what are the areas of concern. The most important part to this communication is to have a plan. Don’t just say that can’t be done. Be ready to point out the problems and provide alternative solutions. That is what it means to be a good engineer.
Constant Repetition for the Retention of Ideas
Sometimes you don’t get it right the first time. But you need to have the confidence, to believe in yourself enough, to know that if you keep doing the right things and looking back at what worked and what didn’t work and making corrections you will succeed. When you do, you will find yourself in good company.
This newsletter is sponsored by Celtic Engineering Solutions LLC, a design engineering firm based out of West Jordan and Murray, Utah, which can be found on the web at: www.celticengineeringsolutions.com. We are also on Instagram and Twitter. We will soon have a Facebook page. If we can ever help you with your engineering needs please contact us. You can find the newsletter on the company blog, LinkedIn or in your inbox by subscribing. Send your emails to The Celtic Engineer at: [email protected], with the subject line SUBSCRIBE.
Do you know someone who would enjoy the newsletter? Forward them a copy or let them know where to find it.