Engineering Health Life Work

Standing up while working

I had an opportunity to go to a conference last week where I stood in front of a booth for 4+ hours. By the end I was chugging coffee to stay awake and my lower back hurt so bad that I had to lean on the table in order to appear that I was still functional as a presenter and engaged with people that came up to talk to us. I really couldn’t believe how much things have changed. When I was working night shift in the fab, there would be nights where I would stand for 8+ hours of a 12 hour shift, oftentimes standing in front of a machine, modifying something on a touchscreen. I know this could have been even worse and that many people deal with even longer and more strenuous hours, but the difference between my old work environment and my current one is pretty glaring to me.

So once I was back in my comfortable office chair in my cube, kicking back, staring at my computer monitor and once again chugging coffee to stay awake, I realized I have to change something. Even though I enjoy many parts of my job, the computer is a necessity and I have to deal with working on one, sometimes for hours at a time. Like any brash young man, I decided to act first, ask questions later: I hoisted my monitor up on a shelf above my desk, placed my keyboard on top of an unused garbage can turned over and put my computer mouse up on a couple boxes, all roughly at my eye or arm level. I now had a makeshift standing workstation and looked like a certifiable geek. Now that the action was complete, I ask: why would someone want to stand while working? A little Googling resulted in a fine piece of supporting information on why someone might want to stand while working. Allow me to summarize and expand upon these ideas:

  1. It’s healthy — Intuitively, standing makes more sense than sitting at a desk. Evolution has shaped humans so they can hunt, gather, assemble, reproduce, eat, sleep, etc. There wasn’t too much time spent developing as creatures that push buttons while hunched over in front of little screens (obviously this will be the future of the human race). Standing makes sense from many health perspectives, so let’s dive even deeper into this concept.
    1. Bloodflow — Similar to the point above, the human body wants to exist in a straight line, where the heart does not have to pump blood around 90 degree angles (your knees, etc). There are also less places for blood to pool when you are standing (your feet, perhaps) and less chances of circulation being cut off to extremeties (fingers, toes). The tradeoff between potential pooling of blood in the feet (which can be walked off) versus better overall circulation is definitely worth it.
    2. Posture — Slouching is SO easy when you are sitting in a comfy office chair, even one of the posture enhancing chairs that go for $800+. I happen to be an expert at slouching in my seat so I don’t need any help from a chair.
    3. Alertness — If you invent a time machine and go back a few hundred thousand years and I bet you won’t see a caveman rolling around in a desk chair, hunting his prey. Sitting makes me sleepy and I hope to eventually wean myself off of coffee as a result of standing up while working.
    4. Concentration — This has been the most surprising side effect for me thus far. I can basically see everyone who walks by, as opposed to hearing them before. One might think this would distract me from my work, but either I am becoming indifferent to seeing people pass me or the increased bloodflow and endorphins reaching my brain are telling me that it’s ok to keep reading a paper on an op-amp or whatever I happen to be perusing.
    5. You won’t get sick — Seth Roberts is a professor emeritus from UC Berkeley who has been doing self-experimentation for 12 years for self gain and in conjunction with his research. Along the way he some how correlated standing while working to a marked reduction in the number of colds per year. This alone is enough reason for me to try it.
  2. Visibility — I am 6 feet tall, exactly. Standing does two things for me. First, it allows me to see out the windows that would usually be blocked by my cube wall. This may come back to bite me on a dreary winter day in the Great North, but I’m willing to risk it. Second, the unintended consequence of being noticed by others, including management. This is not a concern of mine either way, but I think it’s interesting nonetheless.
  3. Accountability — Again, the height of my monitor is enough that it just shows over the top of the cube walls. I’m not saying I’ve ever been a devious employee, but allowing others see what I am doing on your computer definitely has me checking CNN and Reddit less frequently (wasn’t much to begin with). If I do decide to take a break, I look at what I want to see (headlines) and get back to my work. With a tightening of belts throughout the industry and the looming possibility of recession, now is a great time to work extra hard and show your company just how valuable you are.

To be honest, I haven’t been standing while working for very long nor do I know if it will last. If even half the benefits listed above are true, then it will be worth looking silly at work until my co-workers get used to me standing while working. Have you ever considered doing something like this? If so, please let me know in the comments.

Analog Electronics Digital Electronics Engineering Renewable Energy

Power Saving Techniques

Two things will make people want to use less power: not giving them much to start with and making it prohibitively expensive. Both of these scenarios seem to be dovetailing right now with the shrinking of many devices and energy becoming an ever more expensive and sought after.

Sure, there are people out there trying to create and harvest more energy. Either through more drilling, more wars, more acquisitions or new technologies. But eventually, people start to question why we are using so much energy in the first place. Instead of running device batteries into the ground quickly, why not draw less current? Instead of putting a bigger more expensive battery on a device in the first place, why not come up with new techniques to conserve power? Instead of paying high prices for energy and polluting the environment, why not conserve energy in our devices so that we don’t need as much energy overall?

Here are some of the methods that designers use in increasing numbers to reduce power consumption

  1. New chips — The basic idea is the same for any chip: Try and have the same or better performance of today’s chips with incrementally less power.  Most often, the best way to do so is to reduce the number of electrons it takes to store a value or drive another circuit (or whatever your task may be). However, there is a lower limit to how few electrons are required to complete a task (one, duh). How do we get less electrons doing these tasks?
    • Smaller geometries — Moore’s law tells us that process technologies will allow a doubling of technological ability every 18 months. This could even be a faster rate than previously thought, according to one of my favorite futurists, Ray Kurzweil. As fabrication facilities race to leapfrog one another to the next smallest process technology, they also help to reduce the number of electrons running through a device. If you look at the path of an electron along a trace on a microchip or op amp, it resembles a “tunnel” that electrons flow through. As process technologies get smaller and smaller (32 nm, anyone?) there is less room for electrons to flow through and thus, less power is used.
    • New materials — If you have less electrons flowing through a semiconductor, that means the total current flowing through the semiconductor is lower (current is defined as the number of electrons [measured in charge] flowing past a point for a period of time i.e. Coulombs per second). While less current can also mean less noise (fewer electrons bumping into other molecules and heating them up), it also means that if there is more resistance in a connection between two points, it will be harder for the electrons to travel that distance. As such, semiconductors are now made with new doping compounds (the molecules they force into silicon) or they forgo the silicon and try entirely new materials (Gallium Arsenide is a good example). These new materials allow for more efficient transistors and lower power consumption in devices.
    • New architectures — National Semiconductor has been pushing a new, more consistent power metric called “PowerWise“; it is targeted towards the mobile market and the “green revolution”. While this is a bit of a marketing move, it also helps to highlight their most efficient products across the different product types (LDOs vs Switching Regulators vs Op amps, etc).  Some of these newer, higher effeciency products use new architectures, as in the case of some of the switching regulators
    • Lower supply voltages — This one affects me on a more regular basis. Sure, the lower potential across a junction will drive less current in the off state (Iq) and will have less noise due to lower potentials; but this also throws a wrench in the works if you’re trying to find parts that will drive some significant currents or have any kind of large allowable input voltage ranges to a circuit without bootstrapping the supplies.
  2. PWM — Pulse Width Modulation (or PWM) is an easy way to reduce power in LED lighting situations. The idea is based off the fact that the human eye cannot determine the continuity of a light signal if it is below a certain frequency; instead, pulsing an LED on and off quickly will translate to the human eye as a lower intensity than an LED lit continuously. This idea is used regularly in portable electronics to dim the “backlight” of a laptop screen, cell phone, GPS device, etc. The duty cycle is the time that a device is powered divided by the total time it is on; usually it is given as a percentage. So if an LED is lit for 1 seconds and then off for 3 seconds (1 second on divided by 4 seconds total), the duty cycle is 25. In that example, the LED would appear to be one quarter as bright as a fully powered LED, but will also save a little less than 75% of the power normally required. The power saved can never be the entire difference between the normal case and the PWM case because some amount of power is required in order to switch between the on and off states.
  3. Microcontroller/Code Improvements — One of my favorite new blogs, written by Rick Zarr of National Semiconductor, has two great posts about the energy content of software. In it, he points out some of the ways that software can intelligently shut down portions of the code in order to reduce redundant processes and save on processing power. However, the points that I really like are the ones  he makes about making the simplest possible solution that will still get the job done well. This could mean cutting out some software libraries that were easier to just include in a project or learning how to properly construct a software project. Other techniques could be a combination of better coding and PWM: putting a device to “sleep” for a set period of time only to have it wake up at set intervals to see if it is needed.
  4. Going Analog — One last great point that Rick makes in his first post about energy saving techniques in software actually relates more to hardware. Instead of using a DSP, an ADC and some coded FIR filters, why not pull the filter back into the analog domain? Sure, it’s a little more difficult at the beginning but there won’t be any quantization errors (the error that comes from approximating a real signal with a digital signal). Analog engineers can do the same task with an active filter as digital engineers can do with a digital filter for many simpler applications. With the lower part count and the lower strain on the system of not converting a signal from analog to digital and back again, designers can save some significant power.

The final solution to our energy problems will be a combination of power saving techniques and new renewable energy sources. With some of the above techniques, designers will be able to use smaller batteries that allow longer usage times and have less of an impact on the environment. Please feel free to leave comments or any other power saving techniques you have heard of in the comments!

Analog Electronics Economics Engineering Politics

Possibility of Recession

I’m sure it’s one of the first times I’ve ever thought this, but right now I’m really glad I didn’t go into finance for a career. OK, that’s untrue, even though the money is good for them, I’ve always recognized that the lifestyle stinks. But holy moly, those guys (and gals) are probably not having a great time right now, even if they’ve socked away money before this month.

As any part-time pessimist would do in rough economic times, I’ve been thinking about work and how I could be affected by an extended recession. I’m not too worried that a possible economic downturn will have me out on the street tomorrow, but of course I wonder what might happen in the near- to mid-future. Furthermore, being the perpetual optimist, I am trying to see how a recession could be good not only for engineers, but also for engineers (and others) in Generation Y. So for now, forget about golden parachutes, let’s think about silver linings:

  1. Hard times — You know what people who were around in the depression era love talking about? Hard times. You know why? Because they made it, that’s why. So listen up! They weren’t handed jobs and houses and pre-packaged suburban Lego™-kit lives. They put up with some sucky times and earned a lot of what they got. Fast forward 80 years and you have Generation Y, the helicopter parent driven careers with high salaries and lower skill levels than many engineers leaving school 20 years ago. I’m not saying I’m not grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and the work I’ve been allowed to do, I’m just saying that a wake up call could help our generation in some subtle ways. Who knows, maybe in 80 years we’ll be the ones telling the young whippersnappers how good they have it.
  2. Weak dollar — I hear a good deal on NPR about how the credit crunch is the most worrisome aspect of a flailing economy and I agree it can really hurt companies if they do not have access to capital. Poor cash flow through one business can affect the next and the next and so on because companies are not capable of buying the products they need to get their job done. However, something a lot of economists are failing to mention is how the bailout and the economy in general is pushing the dollar to new all time lows. For engineers, with jobs being outsourced daily, this can be somewhat good. It has been cost effective to send manufacturing jobs overseas and even some design jobs, but that has been because of discrepancies in currency (no thanks to the Chinese government). If the value of the dollar drops off, it’s unlikely that textile mills will be popping up in Cleveland like they do in Malaysia or India. But maybe a few more manufacturing jobs will stick around. And maybe a manager or two will think twice about the equivalent cost of sending a design job overseas where they might have to spend some extra time fighting the language barrier.
  3. More start-ups — Somewhere along the way, bright young entrepreneurs who can’t get jobs at their local global conglomerate because of a hiring freeze end up saying “Hey, I can start a company! I’m already not making money, it wouldn’t be any different!” Don’t believe me? Google started in 1998. It flourished through the entire tech bubble mess. Yeah, there’s an example for you. Hard times, especially when it’s hard to get loans or credit, make the environment particularly well suited to software start-ups, where fixed costs (factory equipment, raw material, Swingline staplers) are much lower than they would be for a widget making facility.
  4. Repair — Some of the best lessons I’ve ever learned in electronics was trying to fix something that was already broken. I’m trying to fix a broken piano right now and it’s already been an enlightening experience. In the spirit of all things renewable, why not fix the gadgets we have instead of creating new ones we don’t need (“Oh look, this refrigerator has GPS!”). As the world goes more digital and parts get smaller, there’s less troubleshooting and more “throw out that board, put in a new one”. But even having younger engineers analyze failures on a system level can have a positive effect on their understanding of said systems.

I would love to tell you that everything is hunky dory and that the economy will have a continually positive growth rate forever. But seriously, that’s politicians’ jobs to lie about that. I’m just saying that in the event of a recession, people deal. I’m not planning on going all grapes of wrath and trying my hand at farming in the dust bowl, but I feel (perhaps overly) confident that I’m flexible enough to weather any economic storm brewing on the horizon. Do you think you are? Let me know in the comments.