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Chris Gammell's Analog Life

17 Posts
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KiCAD Schematic Tutorial

Posted by Chris_Gammell Oct 20, 2011

Oh hey, remember me? Yeah, I'm the guy that's supposed to be running this site. Sorry for the long absence. I've been consulting, recording my electronics radio show, managing  a multi-blogger engineer site and even getting married! Jeez, it's been a busy time. Anyway, things have cooled off a bit, so I've freed up some time (for now, never know what'll happen).

I decided to dive into a new project after a long hiatus from hobby type activity. I plan to put an MP3 player and output stage board into an antique radio enclosure. I also decided to document the process, specifically using the open source board layout program, KiCAD. I've been talking about learning the software and doing the videos for a while now, so here it is! The first installment is the schematic capture. I'll add more as the board gets more complex and I need to dive more into the process of actually getting a board fabbed. I'm excited! Hope you enjoy the video and the ones to come!



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2011/10/21/kicad-schematic-tutorial/
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Featured on EE Web!

Posted by Chris_Gammell Apr 25, 2011

I was contacted a while ago and dragged my feet, like any good engineer. But today I was the "featured engineer" on EE Web! Exciting!

Aside from the fact that it was very nice of them to think of me, I'm just as excited to be featured on there along with friends from the electronics scene! My co-host of The Amp Hour (who probably won't let me forget who was interviewed first), Dave Jones has been featured in the past. My co-conspirator for the recently completed 555 contest, hackmaster elite  Jeri Ellsworth has been featured. And someone else I really respect from the hobbyist scene,  Limor Fried of adafruit.

If you haven't checked out EE Web, I suggest it. They have a really clean interface which I like for browsing their articles. The forums are still a bit light on participation but hopefully will fill up with knowledgeable people soon. Thanks again to EE Web for featuring me!



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2011/04/25/featured-on-ee-web/
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My Electronics Workbench

Posted by Chris_Gammell Mar 14, 2011

Aside from the 555 contest I mentioned in my last post, my February was spent building the workbench I drew in Google Sketchup. It was built partially for The Amp Hour, partially for circuits I plan on building and showing off on here and partially for my new business, Analog Life, LLC.

So for today's show and tell, I'll premier the first video ever with me in it on YouTube:

I also had a couple snapshots of the bench in progress:

So my bench is done now and I'm off to put it to good use!



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2011/03/14/my-electronics-workbench/
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The 555 Contest

Posted by Chris_Gammell Jan 30, 2011

I’m guessing if you follow me at all on Twitter or Facebook or just about anywhere else on the internet (I’m not too hard to find), you might know about the 555 contest. I have been talking about it quite a bit on various channels, all except here.

So I thought I’d discuss some of the aspects I might not discuss on other forums because they wouldn’t be relevant. But since this site is basically about me and my interests…well I get to write whatever I want! Sweet!

First off, I thought I should mention Jeri. Honestly, I didn’t know her well when we got started working on the contest. Mostly just talking on Twitter and watching her videos. It’s been nice getting a chance to chat though. She’s just as bright as her videos let on. And it’s always interesting meeting new engineers with similar past experiences. Many of the same struggles I’ve gone through in the past, she has as well. Since she has more experience than me, I’ve been learning stuff from her. When I’m not learning from her, we usually make fun of Dave together! (kidding Dave!)

Next, I thought I should mention the spontaneity of the articles about us and the contest. Have a look at some of them:

So here’s the dirty little secret: we know most of the people that wrote about us. Yup, it’s true. But the interesting part for me is thinking just how often this kind of things happens. A friend/acquaintance calls up and tells you about an upcoming design contest, you might want to write about it, right? Welcome to the world of PR! I’m super happy all these wonderful people decided to write about us, and I don’t think they would have unless we had something fun and intriguing; but still, I thought it was interesting and wonder if the contest could be even bigger if bigger names were setting up the contest in the first place.

And finally, I should point out that as much as I enjoy working on the contest, it’s a ton of work! I’m not trying to complain but it makes me appreciate those that run other similar events (and in the past I didn’t consider it). Sending emails alone and trying to coordinate sponsors across distances can really wear on you. If nothing more, it’s a lot of typing! So not difficult per se, but time consuming.  Not to mention my stellar timing of jumping into this project a week after EngineerBlogs.org started; I really set myself up for a bit of time sitting in front of a computer.

So that’s all from me for now. In case you’ve been lamenting my lax writing schedule, I’m signed up for at least one post a week over at Engineer Blogs, usually on Wednesdays. And I can continue to be heard weekly on The Amp Hour radio show. And if you really want to grab my attention, be sure to check out the 555 contest site and start your entries today!



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2011/01/31/the-555-contest/
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Makeshift Current Sink

Posted by Chris_Gammell Dec 1, 2010

I’m working on a new switcher design and need to be able to test the total current coming out of a boost converter. Here’s what I’m looking at:

  • 0-60V rails (out of the boost converter)
  • 0-350 mA
  • No access to the load that will eventually be connected to the switcher

So what do I need? I need something that can sink current and dissipate any heat that will be generated. If the load is dropping the entire voltage at the top current, that will be:

60V * .350 A = 21W


This is quite a bit of power. I was using the TIP41A that I have on hand, a power NPN transistor in a TO-220 package. With this amount of power, a heatsink is most definitely required. Here’s the simple circuit:

In this circuit, the divider from the incoming source (the top rail) sets the current going to the base ( i_{B}) and this times the \beta (in this case anywhere from 15-60) equals the current down through the collector ( i_{C}). This is not the optimal way to sink current from your source, but it’s a start. The fact that I’m dialing in the current with a potentiometer in a divider that is also connected to the incoming load is not great, but again, this was a quick and dirty way to get up and running. But wait, you think that’s a makeshift circuit? Check out my heatsink:

Yup, that’s a crowbar.

Close up of the attached BJT

I didn’t have any proper heatsinks laying around, so this became my hacked version. During testing, I was looking at 30V across the TIP41A and roughly 300 mA through it. The heat was transferred well from the TO-220 case to the crowbar and the dissipation was decent (heatsinks with fins are better at dissipating the heat). Next I need to step it up and see if this simple circuit can perform under full load. If there was perfect contact between the case and the crowbar, we should see roughly:

Power * R_{\theta_{j}} = \Delta ^{\circ}C


21W * 1.92 ^{\circ}C/W = 40.32 ^{\circ}C


I wouldn’t be putting my tongue on the crowbar anytime soon, but I think that’s reasonable enough to handle this situation.

Now, there are much better ways to do this. I really like my co-host at The Amp Hour, Dave Jones’ video about a programmable dummy load. Hell, he even has a legit heatsink! There are advantages to using a MOSFET over a BJT as well, but I went with a BJT for this situation. Mostly I was just giggly about using a crowbar and thought others might enjoy. So…hope you enjoyed! If not, check out Dave’s video below:



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/12/02/makeshift-current-sink/
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Fast Design

Posted by Chris_Gammell Nov 27, 2010

I’m finally starting to get it.

Apparently in the past the design work I’ve been doing is too slow. It’s too methodical, I have too much time to question my decisions. Well not anymore.

I’ve been working on a time sensitive project recently (sensitive enough that I feel bad writing this post at 9 pm on a  Saturday) and I’ve finally started to understand the reason the part vendors come to talk to me about power module this and fast design that. They come in with these nearly-done solutions and try pushing them on me, only to hear me say something like,  ”Wow, I’d never use that”. I mean, where is the fun in using a power switcher that is damn near complete?

But now that I’m in a situation where I feel the need. I feel the question rising in me…”WHERE IS IT?!”  I expect the answer, the part I’ve been looking for to be sitting in large quantities, in stock at Digikey. I figure I have a very simple, very common problem that needs to be solved not just by me, but by many other engineers the world over.

Honestly, I was looking for a completely integrated module that converts from a 24V bus voltage down to a 5V bus voltage to then be branched with various linear regulators. But there’s nothing out there. No turnkey solution. No simple-as-hell solution. But I want it. I’m willing to pay for it.

And now finally I’m starting to see why they create modules with built in this or that. It’s because there are tons of people out there like me, just trying to move on and get the job done. I’m not quite ready to pay the $20+ price tag certain vendors want, but I’m considering it.

So kudos to all those chip makers out there who recognized the need. But until you have exactly what I want, I’ll be elbows deep in datasheets if you have a new part to show me.



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/11/27/fast-design/
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The Rock Stars of Analog

Posted by Chris_Gammell Nov 1, 2010

Over on The Amp Hour, I’ve been known to call ham radio operators, “ The Rock Stars of Analog“. This is meant for the ones that are out there making their circuits using the dead bug method or otherwise. Jason Milldrum from NT7s.com has confirmed this belief with a picture in his latest posting about his RF kit making business:

Project X Prototype

I mean would you LOOK at that thing??? It’s awesome! Plus, I mean, it transmits radio signals, so it’s just that much more magical. I know the theory behind RF, but I still geek out whenever I think about radio stuff. Anyway, thanks to Jason for posting the picture on his site and on Flickr. Check out his blog for more info as it comes available!



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/11/01/the-rock-stars-of-analog/
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What Is A Power Budget?

Posted by Chris_Gammell Oct 24, 2010

Boy is it hot in here or is it just me? Why’s that gizmo over there giving off so much heat?

Power budgets are a necessity these days. Due to increasing regulation, we’re seeing devices that must comply with efficiency limits in their power conversion (using a switching power supply or otherwise).

So what is a power budget? Much like a budget you might have for your personal finances, a power budget shows where all the possible power will be used by a device to by breaking it down into components and categories. In some situations, you might be told up front that you will have 3W available to run your design. However, sometimes as designers we start by calculating the total power a system needs and then taking actions such as replacing parts or redesigning circuits to cut back power to an acceptable level. So why might someone want to do a power budget from day one?

  1. Power availability — While you might have more power today, it doesn’t mean you’ll have it tomorrow. Designing a system for 3 W power consumption may be acceptable now, but designing a lower power system may meet future regulations. And the trends in the industry point in that direction.
  2. Battery Life — If your device is running off a battery, you likely do not have a choice whether you are doing a power budget. You want to maximize the life of your device on a single charge (assuming it is using rechargeable batteries) and your customers want the same. Just a few weeks ago I was complaining publicly on The Amp Hour about my new device with poor battery performance. Doing a power budget will point to the components consuming the most power so you can later optimize for longer battery life (hopefully this was a design constraint from the beginning).
  3. Heat generation — Heat is an unfortunate side effect of working with electronics. However,  it also has a 3 direct effects on your product and how it is used.
    1. User discomfort — No one likes having a hot laptop sitting in their lap. Nor a cell phone that is uncomfortable to hold.
    2. Circuit robustness — An often quoted specification of an op amp is the voltage offset drift. This sensitivity to temperature can have dire effects in systems that rely on analog accuracy. However temperature changes can create conditions that are unfavorable and could even cause device failure (such as thermal runaway). The heat of the whole system can end up affecting individual components as the nominal temperature inside your device rises.
    3. Product lifetime — The lifetime of a product can be drastically reduced by higher than normal temperatures inside the device. Extreme temperatures can begin to dry out capacitors and cause others to fail catastrophically. While it is possible for systems to fail in a drastic manner, the more likely outcome is a product that does not last for its specified lifetime. An example might be a TV that has a less vibrant LCD after 5 years due to excessive heat and component drift and fatigue. If the product was designed to have lower heat, the product would have lasted longer. For more on how to design and prevent early failures, check out Dave’s video blog about heatsink design.
  4. Cost (sizing) — More power means you need larger components. Other than the obvious requirement of needing more space (duh), it often correlates to higher cost components. Not only will you need larger packages for your components such as op amps and comparators in order to better dissipate heat. You’ll also need a larger power supply with more reliability. If a 5W and 20W power supply with 12V output are compared, the 5W supply has smaller magnetics and less wiring because there is less total current that needs to pass through.

So let’s look at an example power budget (click for a larger version):

As you can see, not much more is required than your datasheets and a spreadsheet type program. Even simpler is a piece of paper but I prefer the built in math functions of the spreadsheet program. The first two columns (A&B) are simply identifiers to allow you to recognize which components correspond to which set of data. The next two columns (C&D) determine the multiplicative factor. If you have 5 components that contain 4 op amps per, then that will consume 20x the power of a device that has the same supply current needs but only one op amp per and there is only one on the board.  The next two columns (E&F) show how much current each individual component contributes and then the sum of all the components of that type contribute. Note that this parameter on a data sheet would be listed as “supply current” or “active current”. The “quiescient” number is when the device is in a resting state and will likely be much less than the active number (and not relevant for this example). Finally, the supply voltage is listed (in column G) to calculate power (using the formula P=I*V) which is listed in column I per device. All of these contributors are summed, an efficiency is estimated (I assumed a poor efficiency linear type supply) and the total power required input to the device is given. Further calculations could result from much of this initial data.

I would be remiss without mentioning something about power budgets: you’re still going to guess about certain things. In fact it will be many different things. You might not have perfect data about your components. You might not completely trust the “typical spec” of one of your components. This is the point where you design in a margin of error. However, just like many other aspects of engineering, this is where tradeoffs come into play. You might want to design in 4 times more power capability than you calculate (to feel safe), but there are cost and spec requirements to consider. You will have to determine how confident you are in your design and how many resources you have available to your design. In the above example where the 5V parts require 408mA from the supply (~2W), I might over spec the part by designing in a part that is capable of supplying 600mA. The (50%) margin of error allows for future expansion (might need to solder in an extra part or two) and also gives a cushion if anything was miscalculated. In some situations this 50% might be too much (think a very low-cost, high volume design) or might be too little (think a military, high reliability design). It all depends on the situation and requirements.

Power budgets can be very powerful depending on the amount of time and effort you put into them. Otherwise they are educated guesses which may or may not be helpful to your project; how helpful they are might also depend on where you are in the design cycle. As stated before, these budgets are more and more of a necessity in a world more power conscious and with devices that continue to shrink. Your customers will expect longer battery life and your products to have yet more features. Teach yourself how to do power budgets now and it will pay dividends for you in the future.



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/10/25/what-is-a-power-budget/
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Homeschooling

Posted by Chris_Gammell Oct 19, 2010

I have lots of thoughts about education, especially higher education. The theme that keeps popping up in my head though is that school isn’t too far removed from teaching yourself. Honestly, let’s look at the learning process:

  1. Encounter a “problem” that needs to be solved.
  2. Do background research and look at past examples of how it was solved.
  3. Apply your newly gained knowledge to the problem at hand.
  4. If a new problem arises that is not encompassed by the recently acquired wisdom, go back to step 2.
  5. Report on your findings to others.

Doesn’t this sound like work? Or studying on your own? Or doing a hobby project? How is this any different?

Since I’ve had this debate with friends before I can tell you what others say. They say that the classroom environment and being shown some of the methods before doing the problem is helpful. That having the theory explained directly helps the brain to acquire the necessary knowledge. That being able to step into the professor or teacher’s office and ask a question is a nice luxury to have. But does this always happen? I know I’ve had teachers I don’t understand (or very much disliked), notes that didn’t make any sense upon second reading and semesters where I’ve taught myself completely out of a textbook (and of course it happened to be the worst textbook of all my classes that semester).

Furthermore, there are resources today that allow individuals to continue learning on their own. Video resources like MIT Open Course Ware (OCW) can replace or augment self learning on particular topics. Message boards can provide a forum to interface with experts and to keep up on recent developments in your industry. The prices of equipment have nosedived in the past 10-15 years, allowing many more people to have a “lab section” in their house. And things like hackerspaces allow for social interactions and places to flesh out more advanced ideas.

So what’s really left? Motivation. When you’re paying $30,000 a year or are spending every Tuesday and Thursday in a classroom somewhere, you’re going to make the most of your time there. You’re going to do the homework and go get the help you need to figure out the subject matter because you aren’t allowed to put it off a month or a year. You’re going to be motivated by the piece of paper you receive at the end of your degree program saying that you completed all of the necessary requirements and did so while meeting or exceeding the expectations of your institution. Or you might even want to just prove you can do it. All of them really are valid reasons, they just don’t exist when you’re teaching yourself at home. External motivation is needed for many people (myself included) to pick up a book on a subject. In fact “motivation, momentary lapse of” is how this post came about. I was reading about active filters for a side project (where the motivation is showing off the side project and becoming “internet famous”) and I started thinking about how similar my current situation is to my former schooling. And all of the self-teaching and gained experiences are occurring without paying the $31,000 a year (yes, you read that right, tuition went up just since the last time I listed the number).

Do I hate higher education? No, I think there are some factors that make it invaluable to those that pursue it (and many more that benefit from the output). I may still try to get back to grad school myself some day. I love that there are institutions dedicated to research that might never get done otherwise. I’m glad that there are institutions that stress the rigor of the scientific method. I love that there are places where learning and advancing knowledge is the main purpose and task of those that attend. But all I’m saying is sometimes this happens in basements and bedrooms too.

Is learning at home without the structure of schools possible, especially in higher education? Does anyone ever teach themselves at home and why do you do it? What problems do you have with it? People currently enrolled in a University, do you find any fault with this thought?



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/10/19/homeschooling/
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Being an analog engineer, I’m around “more experienced” engineers on a daily basis. However, a group of younger engineers often find ourselves acting much older than we are, shouting things like “Get off my lawn!” and “Back in my day…” (really, we had a whole list).

Anyway, another common one that comes up is “They don’t make ‘em like they used to!”.  Do we as engineers know WHY they don’t make them that way anymore? Of course we do. The lower reliability and requirements for many more people to assemble the devices honestly doesn’t make sense these days. With lower priced labor the world over and low tolerance for waste and inefficient processes, I know I wouldn’t make the proverbial “them” that way anymore. It just doesn’t make sense.

But why am I mentioning this? In episode 12 of The Amp Hour, Dave Jones and I were discussing the Tektronix scope that I currently have disassembled and am attempting to piece back together in working order.  It’s the 485M, the military version of the very popular scope.  Right now I’m looking at getting the power supply back on its feet, the voltages were woefully low. More on that in later posts hopefully. For now, let’s concentrate on looking at the awesome design tactics and fabrications inside an old scope.

Note: I am a pretty bad photographer, please excuse any non-professional looking images.

A view of the quite complex button schema of old Tek scopes. Each button controls an individual switch, pot or selector switch. And yet it has many of the features of modern scopes match these exactly.

I LOVE modular design and this is a great example. If a technician (a Tek Tech?) found that a module wasn’t performing correctly this entire module could be switched out to check to see if it is indeed this module.

A closer view of the module. Of note is the resistor jumpered directly across the signal lines of the end connector. Perhaps this is a later fix for a customer issue. It’s also a good view of a mechanical connector that reaches all the way back from the front of the module. It’s a compound switch, pulling on it activates the arm in one direction and pushing on it does some other completely different action.

A close up view of the modular connector. I also like seeing the layout patterns done by hand before CAD programs were prevalent. Interesting to see where they flooded the ground planes.

A closer view of the analog components on one of the modules. Notice this was mainly resistors and a smattering of socketed op amps.

Another view of a mechanical arm reaching all the way to the back of the chassis. Likely a custom part as discussed on The Amp Hour.

This selector switch was the main voltage range switching. It had a compound action as well (inside was a fine tuning I believe) whereas the outside switch was the larger 1-2-5 multiple decade switching.

And finally, a view from the top. Note the >7 kV warning on the CRT tube. No touch!

So there it is, as Dave calls it, “nerd porn”. Isn’t it interesting to see how instruments were constructed not too long ago? It sure was more labor intensive and likely much more expensive than you can pick one up today on ebay. The benefit is that the hand-made and through-hole nature of this board makes it ripe for fixing AND without straining my fragile old eyes. Dangnabbit!



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/10/19/they-dont-make-em-like-they-used-to/
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I recently had the opportunity to ask some questions to Mike Demler , electronics analyst and writer at The World Is Analog . He has many years of industry experience, culminating by recently joining DIGDIA , a strategic consulting service that helps with market analysis and business planning. Let’s see what he had to say:

Chris Gammell: Can you please explain your background?

Mike Demler: Explaining it may not be that easy, but I’ll give it a try.

I grew up in the city of Buffalo at the peak of the U.S. space program, and had an early interest in science. My parents nurtured that a lot, and my Dad always had some TV parts around from his part-time repair business. Those were the influences on my decision to study electronics in high school, and then as an EE student at the University of Buffalo.

In the summer after my junior year, I vividly remember reading the book “Analog Integrated Circuit Design” by Alan Grebene. It’s probably more accurate to say I tried to read it, as I know I didn’t comprehend it all so I kept borrowing it from our public library. I very much wish that I had a copy today. I was fascinated by the combination of electronics and physics involved in actually being able to create something in silicon, and that’s when I decided what I wanted to do… I wanted to design integrated circuits.

It wasn’t easy, as UB was about as far as you could get from silicon valley both geographically and academically, but through lots of luck, some independent study, the help of our department chairman and being in the right place at the right time… I got my first job as a Product Engineer for Texas Instruments in Lubbock, TX. That was my launching pad. Someone once told me that ‘TI’ stood for Training Institute, and it certainly was for me. I completed an MSEE at SMU after moving to Dallas, then went back to NY and the GE R&D Labs. We developed some very advanced (for the time) analog technology there, and my TI experience prompted me to move on to GE-Datel where I commercialized the semiconductor process and led development of a new ADC product line. After GE once again exited semiconductors, I took on a similar role starting the semiconductor product line at Unitrode-Micro Networks. I was working there when I wrote the book “High-Speed Analog-to-Digital Conversion”.

Starting up new product lines led me from engineering to sales, marketing and business development. It was during the dot-com startup/IPO boom, and I moved into EDA at that point. I worked for small pre-IPO companies like Meta-Software, then did a startup in Antrim Design Systems that moved me to California. I have also worked for Cadence and Synopsys, and completed an MBA a few years ago. Now I work as an industry analyst, focusing on new disruptive technologies in mobile wireless.

CG: How does your experience in the EDA industry and the semiconductor industry affect your work now?

MD: I’d say that it gives me a unique perspective on the role of those components in the broader electronics ecosystems, such as the wireless industry. When I was in EDA I worked for a while on vertical market strategies. Though they wish it was otherwise, EDA is a small component in a much bigger picture, and most design tools are not easily differentiated by end-market application. Now I get to have the higher-level view of where the customers of the customers are going, and I try to provide insight on how it all fits together both top-down and bottom-up.

CG: What kind of companies do you interact with as an analyst?

MD: I mostly focus on the wireless industry, and currently I am working on an analysis of the Android ecosystem. The variety of companies is almost endless, especially since I try to provide that unique point-of-view from chips to consumer electronics, to services and applications, networks, etc. There are big companies like Cisco, Intel, Qualcomm, Motorola, HTC, LG, Verizon, AT&T…. the list goes on… to numerous small companies, some that are behind the scenes that you are unlikely to hear of unless you are in the industry.

CG: How soon before a product comes out do you get to hear about it?

MD: I don’t get that much special advanced notice of future products, but I think that one of the values I provide is that because of all the sources of information I have, I can tell where things are going ahead of time. Companies sometimes provide advanced information under NDA, that could be from one quarter to a year before you see it in a product. You can also learn what sources of “unofficial” information to trust. The most pointless advanced information I get is when a PR rep send me an unsolicited press release “under embargo” before a major trade show or conference. I haven’t seen one of those yet that was a big deal.

CG: What kind of impact can your work have on the industry? Are there consequences to being right or wrong about your industry predictions?

MD: I wouldn’t presume that I influence the industry in general, but I can have an impact on individual companies that use my research and insight. I stay away from far out predictions, and you won’t see any press releases from me that say “DIGDIA forecasts X million users of Y in 2014”, that you see every day from other analyst firms. Those forecasts are vaporware designed to get repeated on the internet. If I am right about trends and I point out important factors in one of my strategic analyses it improves my credibility. If I am wrong, then not.

CG: Your blog is called “The World is Analog”. How do you view the role of analog in devices today and what role do you think they’ll have tomorrow?

MD: My point of view in “The World is Analog “ goes back to my answer to your first question. At the risk of being seen as a technology bigot, everything is in reality analog. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate the aspects of design that are digital, or computer science in general, etc. but nothing works unless you build it, and all devices are governed by the (analog) laws of physics. Digital is just an abstraction of the underlying analog behavior. Those analog physical aspects of a design are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore even in digital design; factors such as dynamic voltage variation, power management, statistical process variation, etc. On the other hand, analog circuit functions are enhanced by digital controls, and that inter-dependence will continue to grow going forward.

CG: What do you see as the future for electronics? What kind of devices will people own in 5, 10, 20 years from now?

MD: Electronics will continue to grow and enhance so many aspects of life. The 5-year horizon is what I am focusing on, which will be dominated by ubiquitous wireless connectivity to the internet. This is going well beyond smartphones–to other areas of consumer electronics, energy management, home security, and health and medicine. Those describe some of the broad categories of devices people will “own”. I also see bioelectronics, I suppose you can call it call it bionics, as one of the big growth areas. Today we have devices like pacemakers that help to control heart function, but imagine how nano-electronics and smart wireless sensors can be used to monitor and control other body functions. Transportation is another area where we are just beginning to see what embedded electronics can do. I think the cars that can automatically parallel park are amazing, but people seem to take an advance like that for granted. We will see more “connected vehicles”, with real time 4G wireless connections for information, traffic control and numerous other functions.

CG: It seems that you have transitioned to the business side of things from your early days in engineering. How do you interact now with managers, engineers, marketers and others in the electronics world?

MD: Well, I’ve been in all of those roles, so hopefully it helps me to better understand where people are coming from when I interact with them.

CG: Where do you view the industry itself going? Will all electronics end up in Asia? Will things ever move back towards the US?

MD: There is no “moving back”. It’s like Thomas Friedman wrote in “The World is Flat”; manufacturing will always go to the lowest cost location. Everyone needs to take a global view in every industry today.

My greatest concern is education. By growing up during the Apollo space program, I benefited from a societal focus on developing advanced technology. The U.S. needs to work harder to develop more scientists and engineers amongst our own citizens. I hope that environmental concerns might stimulate the current generation of students in a similar way, but I can’t say I’m optimistic at this point.

CG: Is there a maximum growth potential for the market? Won’t people stop needing devices? What happens then?

MD: No, the market for electronics devices will grow many times over where it is today. I don’t limit that statement to mean only consumer electronics devices. We can only carry or interact with so many. But the connected world is only beginning to be developed; for in-body, in-home, in-vehicle, in the environment.. the list is endless.

Many thanks to Mike for taking the time to explain his view on the (apparently analog) world. As you may have noticed from other posts on here about talking to various professions, I’m very curious about the electronics ecosystem.  I find it fascinating how different job functions look at similar situations, especially when those people are selling or buying products from one another. The customer in one scenario often turns around and becomes a supplier to someone else. The interdependencies are intriguing. You may also notice that I have been targeting people that write for their own sites or for their companies sites. While I intend to focus on the less well-known positions eventually, why not show off the great content they have already written on outside sites? Be sure to click through to their relevant posts from the links above.

Two questions:

  1. Do you (the reader) enjoy seeing these perspectives? I know I always appreciate the freshness that other perspectives add to this site, but am not sure that others feel the same.
  2. Do you have any questions for Mike specifically? These can be questions about the future of the industry (though I thought he gave some good explanations on the direction) or his past experiences or really anything!

Please leave your notes or questions in the comments area!



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/06/15/a-talk-with-an-electronics-industry-analyst/
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This is part 3 of 4 in a series about ESC Chicago and the Sensors Expo and Conference. See previous posts about Day 1 and Day 2.

I imagine if a doctor was diagnosing the medical condition of the embedded community, he would walk into the tiny exam room, take one look at the embedded community sitting there in its socks and underwear on the crinkly disposable exam table cover and say:

“Yup, still fragmented.”

What do I mean by this? It means that even with my posturing about the need for community AND my lack of expertise in the topic, there are some undeniable rifts in the embedded community. And they will always be there. Why?

  1. Too many vendors with their own pieces of silicon
    • Guess what? Companies like making money! Amazing, right? I can name at least 5 monstrous companies that produce independent silicon chips, almost always with similar cores that rhyme with “schlARM”. They have their niche areas and peripherals that are used in that segment; examples areas that a vendor might try to target are motor control, display processing, low cost, low power or RF. But in the end, the very things that distinguish them from their competitors and therefore allow them make money, also drives the community apart.
  2. Too many closed doors
    • Another problem on the vendor side can be the amount of information provided to the people working on their chips. Without open access to the information, users are forced into the “camps” of the vendors in order to access features buried within the silicon. Less mobility between chips means more fragmentation.
  3. Too much software
    • Well what about abstraction? For those out there that are more on the analog side of things, abstraction is writing code that isn’t controlling something directly. Think about it like you’re a teacher. You care a lot about turning the lights off in your classroom and want to teach your kids about why it’s important in order to save energy. In a non-abstracted case, you would tell each of the kids to turn the lights off when it’s their turn. Perhaps Wednesday it’s Johnny and Thursday it’s Susie. So you tell them directly. Abstraction in the simplest sense would be assigning Bobby to remember whose turn it is each day of the week. That way, you only have to tell Bobby to have someone turn off the lights; it’s the same every time. Bringing it back to processors and the embedded community, if things were abstracted, you could always tell “Bobby” to do the same thing and he would have close to the same response each time. Well there is such a thing that even the layman such as me is familiar with: operating systems. But this isn’t like the PC world where the choices have been culled down to a select two or three. There are embedded versions of larger OSes (think Win CE or Embedded Linux) and RTOS (Real Time Operating Systems) which are an even lighter version of their half cousins named previously. Beyond that there are superloops and other small implementations. The point is, there are a lo00000t of choices for software for a looooot  of different processors. It’s fragmented. But why all the trouble? Why do we need so many choices?
  4. Too many market segments
    • It’s true. That’s why embedded has been growing steadily for the past 20 years and will likely continue to keep growing. There are a lot of  different needs! I guarantee you that engineers working on high-reliability industrial controls don’t care that much about Android. Sure, it could work, but it’s a new OS with lots of potential bugs and doesn’t really fit the needs. Similarly, handset makers don’t want to use reliable code from 10 years ago because all the reliability in the world doesn’t make a flashy new interface for mobile, web-enabled handsets. Chip vendors pick and choose to play to specific segments, as do the software vendors, creating hundreds of potential combinations; it’s much more likely that whatever current developers are working on though is a much smaller combinatorial subset. And so the fragmentation continues.

I know that analog is my niche and that there are some very compelling cases for using it in different areas of electronics. But I’m not stupid; there was a reason I took interest in the embedded space and why you should do the same. Everyone will continue to expect more from their devices, whether scientific, consumer or somewhere in between; if you’re on the internet reading this post, you’re likely used to the benefits of Moore’s Law and will continue to be.

What I’m trying to say is that there is value in learning about embedded systems; learning about some component of embedded computing is better than ignoring it. As software continues ascending into further levels of abstraction (think Python instead of C), there will be fewer people around that know how to reach down into silicon and flip a bit. Knowing how to do so not only will help you in your day to day tasks, but could make you a very employable engineer/programmer.

And who knows, perhaps embedded design will be the next black magic, much like analog is considered today!



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/06/10/final-thoughts-on-the-embedded-community/
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I’ve asked communities I’m a part of where all the electronics sites are. The truth is there are some out there, and the popular ones are there for a reason. They produce a lot of great content and highlight engineers and hobbyists who really contribute a lot to their respective communities. But why aren’t there more? Are electronics just innately uninteresting? I don’t think so–obviously–or else I’d have a bit of a conflict of interests. So what is it that prevents more people from publishing sites about electronics?

  1. Secrets
    • Even on my own site, I don’t write about my work. I go to work for 8+ hours a day and work on some really cool stuff. I enjoy it. But there’s no way I can talk about every problem I run into. That’d be ridiculous! Now contrast that with someone who works in the politics. It’s all out in the open mostly, and the rest is just opinion. As long as they don’t say something that will get their boss in trouble (or more likely, as long as they agree with their boss), the site is a boon. Same for PR, marketing and lots of other sectors. Blogs and websites about their work seems complimentary. Sure they don’t share everything about the behind the scenes, but in those cases, the more info that’s out there, the better. In engineering, it’s often the secret sauce of a company that is the most important…and also the most protected.
  2. Access to Industry Info
    • So maybe you decide you’d like to write about a technology company from the outside. Lots of sites already do this kind of thing. There are tons of Apple fan sites, right? Well, yes, but again they’re writing about things that are public–or in recent times about phones that were found that weren’t meant to be public. The engineers behind the scenes at Apple can’t write about their experiences due to NDAs and trade secret protections. Nor for big companies with exciting products like Intel. Sure you can write about what’s out in the marketplace now (such as the i7), but you can’t write about how they tweaked with the design in order to make it better than previous generations. Nor can you write about the impressive geometry shrinking that is occurring to keep pace with Moore’s law and how that affects your EDA tools.
    • NOTE: I might consider industry magazines such as EETimes, EDN and Design News to be an example of companies that have access to industry info, EXCEPT I consider them as news sources about the industry and not about engineering.
  3. The Speed of Science
    • Unfortunately, real science is slow. Even pseudo-science is slow, with the new hot products being released only so often. And beyond the discoveries being announced via PhysOrg or IEEE or Engadget, what is there? Whereas there may be political sites that can subsist on just reporting the news of the latest scandal (and all the details and conjecture associated with it), science and electronics has a limited amount of new information to report upon. Without as dynamic an atmosphere, there are bound to be fewer sites reporting on the news of the industry.

Of the sites that are out there about electronics, some really stand out in my mind. The Electronics Engineering Video (EEV) Blog, Chiphacker, Discovercircuits.com and so many more. They provide great services to people, which keeps them  coming back. But what about these sites really draws people in? I’ve pondered this question in terms of what might make more people want to read my site. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. Instruction
    • No doubt that people utilize the internet as an instructor for their latest projects. In fact, I’ve tailored some of my own more popular posts (about how op amps work) towards teaching people in certain niche areas. Some of the best sites out there (such as Instructables), helps people to learn about their project or the subject they are studying. The mere fact that they are offering free information (that is assumed to be correct) is a very big draw for the masses. Unfortunately, as far as competition goes, there are some major leaders in terms of “how things work” and the smaller players often fall off the map, hence fewer parties trying to explain a topic like when to use analog versus digital circuits.
  2. Personal Projects
    • These sites are my personal favorite and easy to spot as a favorite of many others. Why? Because the site continues to showcase technology applications that likely have never been seen before. No, the technology itself is pretty standard; Arduinos and other simple microcontrollers are often the basis for many of the designs. However, the application is usually different and almost always intriguing. Sites such as Make magazine and Hack-a-day showcase the latest uses of technology in novel situation

While I don’t think the hardware sites have quite reached the critical mass that software development sites have reached, I’m not worried. The hobbyist movement continues to grow and I believe the general population has been re-warming to the idea of working on electronics (at least some part of the population, that is).  Given the slow uptake of the hardware community with new media, it’s not all that surprising that we haven’t seen as many sites as we might have expected. However, I think we’ll be seeing more soon. What do you think? Have I missed any big categories of websites? Or are hardware engineers and their respective interests always doomed to remain in the shadows?



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/06/01/where-are-all-the-engineer-sites/
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A Slightly Changed Course

Posted by Chris_Gammell May 31, 2010

Holidays have been used in the past to paste some pictures together for my background image. This time it was a change of role as well. As I’ve once stated, I don’t really like the “sustainability” title on things. It’s much too management whereas I like focusing on engineering. So I stuck to the “renewable energy” stuff, or so I said. In the meantime I’ve realized that I really don’t write about renewable energy anymore. It turned out it WAS a passing phase for me, as Cherish from “Faraday’s Cage is where you put Schroedinger’s Cat” once said in the comments of a post.

Don’t get me wrong, I like renewable energy. I like it a lot. It’s definitely important, especially given the oil snafu’s of late. But in terms of what I can add to the conversation and where I feel I fit best, I think I would choose analog electronics before renewable energy. Anyway, it doesn’t matter much; if I start writing about renewable energy a whole lot more, I’ll just change it back!

In other news, I’ve changed up the headings at the top of each page. I’ve removed some things and added another. As I’ve written about in the past, I’ve been searching for alternate sources of income. I’ve decided to offer my non-day-job time to anyone who needs help on their projects. No, it shan’t be free, but I will promise the first 3 projects 50% off my standard rate. If you have any needs for electronics projects, please look at the services I offer and how we might work together.  Then give me a shout and we’ll start working on your exciting new project together.



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/05/31/a-slightly-changed-course/
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As more circuits get pushed into SoC (Systems on a Chip), the software that designs them becomes more and more important. Well, it’s been important for a while now. Important enough to be a multi-billion dollar industry. Biiiiig money.

Harry Gries is an EDA consultant with over 20 years in the electronics industry in various roles. He now consults for different companies and also writes a blog about his experience called “Harry…The ASIC Guy”. I love hearing about the different pieces of the electronics food chain and Harry was nice enough to take some time to talk to me about his work. Let’s see what he had to say…

CG: Could you please explain your educational and professional background and how you got to where you are today?

Harry The ASIC Guy (HTAG): My education began when I was raised by wolves in the Northern Territory of Manitoba. That prepared me well for a stint at MIT and USC, after which I was abducted by aliens for a fortnight. I then spent 7 years as a digital designer at TRW, 14 years at Synopsys as an AE, consultant, consulting and program manager. Synopsys and I parted ways and I have been doing independent consulting for 3 years now. A good friend of mine tricked me into writing a blog, so now I’m stuck doing that as well.

CG: What are some of the large changes you see from industry to industry? How does company culture vary from sector to sector?

HTAG: Let’s start with EDA, which did not really exist when the aliens dropped me off in 1985. There were a few companies who did polygon pushing tools and workstations and circuit complexity was in the 1000s of gates. Most large semiconductor companies had their own fabs and their own tools. Gate arrays and standard cell design was just getting started, but you had to use the vendor’s tools. Now, of course, almost all design tools are made by “EDA companies”.

As far as the differences between industries and sectors, I’m not sure that is such a big difference culturally. The company culture is set from the top. If you have Aart DeGeus as your founder, then you have a very technology focused culture. If you have Gerry Hsu (former Avant! CEO), then you have a culture of “win at all costs”.

CG: How hard was it for you to jump from being a designer to being in EDA? What kinds of skills would someone looking to get into the industry need?

HTAG: The biggest difference is clearly the “soft skills” of how to deal with people, especially customers, and understanding the sales process. For me it was a pretty easy transition because I had some aptitude and I really had a passion for evangelizing the technology and helping others. If someone wanted to make that change, they would benefit from training and practice on communicating effectively, dealing with difficult people, presentation skills, influence skills, etc.

CG: With regards to the EDA industry, how much further ahead of the curve does the software end up being? For instance, is EDA working on software necessary to define the 13 nm node currently?

HTAG: As you know, the industry is never at a single point. Rather, there is a spectrum of design nodes being used with some small percentage at the most advanced nodes. Most EDA tools are being developed to address these new nodes, often in partnership with the semiconductor manufacturers developing the process node or the semiconductor designers planning to use them. The big EDA companies are really the only ones, for the most part, that have the resources to do this joint development. Whatever is the newest node being developed, some EDA company is probably involved.

CG: You have written about the nature of the industry and how there being few players affecting the nature of the system. What kinds of limitations do you see in the industry due to the economies of scale (TSMC dominance, for instance)?

HTAG: Consolidation is a fact in any industry and a good thing in EDA. Think of it as natural selection whereby the good ideas get gobbled up and live on with more funding (and the innovators are rewarded); the bad ideas die out. Most small EDA companies would want to be bought out as their “exit”. At the same time, there are some “lifestyle companies” also in EDA where the founders are happy just making a good living developing their tools and selling them without having to “sell out” to a larger company. For all these small companies, the cost of sales is a key factor because they cannot afford to have a larger world-wide sales direct force as the larger EDA companies have. That’s where technologies like Xuropa come into play, that enable these smaller companies to do more with less and be global without hiring a global sales force.

CG: What drives the requirements placed upon new technology in the EDA space? How are the products developed? Are there a lot of interactions with specific big name designers (i.e. Intel) or does it shade more to the manufacturers (TSMC)?

HTAG: In fact, a handful of key customers usually drive the requirements, especially for small companies. When I was at Synopsys, Intel’s needs was the driver for a number of years. Basically, the larger the customer, the greater the clout. Other customers factor in, but not as much. The most advanced physical design capabilities of the tools are often a collaboration between the EDA company and the semiconductor manufacturers (e.g. TSMC) and the also the designers (e.g. Qualcomm). Increasingly, EDA tools are focusing on the higher-levels and you are seeing partnerships with software companies, e.g. Cadence partnering with Wind River.

CG: A good chunk of chip design is written and validated in code. This contrasts with much more low level design decisions in the past. In your opinion how has this changed the industry and has this been a good or bad thing? Where will this go in the future, specifically for analog?

HTAG: Being a digital designer and not an analog designer, it’s all written in code. Obviously, the productivity is much higher with the higher level of abstraction and the tools are able to optimize the design much better and faster than someone by hand. So it’s all good.

For analog, I am not as tied in but I know that similar attempts are being tried; they use the idea that analog circuits can be optimized based on a set of constraints. I think this is a good thing as long as the design works.  Digital is easy in that regard, just meet timing and retain functionality and it’s pretty much correct. For analog there is so much more (jitter, noise margin, performance across process variation, CMRR, phase margin, etc, etc). I think it will be a while before analog designers trust optimization tools.

CG: It seems that the EDA industry has a strong showing of bloggers as compared to system level board engineers or even chip designers. What kinds of benefits have you seen in your own industry from having a network of bloggers and what about EDA promotes having so many people write about it?

HTAG: I think blogging is just one form of communication and since EDA people are already communicators (with their customers), they have felt more comfortable blogging than design engineers. Many of the EDA bloggers are in marketing types of positions at their companies or are independent consultants like me, so the objective is to start a conversation with customers that would be difficult to have in other ways. A result is that this builds credibility for themselves that then accrues to their company. I think there has also been a ton of sharing and learning due to these blogs and that has benefited the entire industry. On a personal level, I know so many more people due to the blog and that network is of great value.

CG: How has your career changed since moving back out of the EDA space and into consulting? What kind of work have you been doing lately?  How has your experience helped you in consulting?

HTAG: It is interesting to have been on the EDA side and then move back into the design side. Whenever I communicate with an EDA company, whether a presentation or a tool evaluation or any conversation, I can easily put myself in their shoes and know where they are coming from. On the one hand, I can spot clearly manipulative practices such as spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about a competitor and I can read between the lines to gain insights that others would miss. On the other hand, I also understand the legitimate reasons that EDA companies make certain decisions, such as limiting the length of tool evaluations, qualifying an opportunity, etc.

Most recently I’ve been working on some new technology development at a new process node. It’s been interesting because I’ve been able to dig deeper into how digital libraries are developed, characterized, and tested and I’ve also learned a lot more about the mixed-signal and analog world and also the semiconductor process.

Many thanks to Harry for taking the time to answer some questions about his industry and how he views the electronics world. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments or pop over to Harry’s main site and leave a comment there.



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/05/25/a-talk-with-an-eda-consultant/
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