Economics Engineering Interview

A Talk With An Electronics Industry Analyst

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!

Analog Electronics Blogging Renewable Energy Sustainability

A Slightly Changed Course

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.

Analog Electronics Music

Wurlitzer 200: Fixed

I am very excited to announce that the Wurlitzer 200 is fixed and operational. I say Wurlitzer 200 instead of 200A because a nice chap emailed me and let me know that I actually had an earlier model. Either way, it works and it sounds delicious.

Wurlitzer 200

Really this post is to gloat a little and to post the sound samples I recorded with my friend Joe. He is a great piano player and shows off the awesomeness of the Wurly better than I ever could. I also wanted to lay out some future posts about the Wurlitzer that I plan to write:

  1. Things learned about fixing the Wurlitzer. Schematics and my own drawings included.
  2. The importance of grounding for a clean signal and how it can affect other types of electronics.
  3. How transistors work and how the broken transistor on my Wurly was causing me grief.
  4. How fuses work and when to use them.
  5. Any others requested/suggested through the skribit box on the right.

Finally, here are the sound samples Joe and I put together today. It was fun recording again. For full disclosure, there was digital delay on the Wurly and there was some processing on the drums too. Also, I apologize that the drum tracks are a little loud; it’s because I’m an electrical engineer, not a sound engineer (and definitely not a professional musician). Enjoy!

Analog Electronics Blogging Life

Blogging Keeps Me Going

As you may have all noticed (or at least those that read here more often-ish), I have been posting less lately. Partly because I am fixing up a new house and partly because I have not felt very inspired. I think the recession is starting to get me down a little unfortunately. Worrying takes its toll as I’m sure many can attest to.  But fear not! I have some things I would like to reaffirm about why I enjoy blogging thus far and why I think it’s a good idea to keep going with the blog:

  1. Resume 2.0 — I have seen it written that blogs are the new resume. I believe that a little bit, but only for certain industries. If you’re in a field like marketing or PR, you’d BETTER have a blog, and it should be better than the other gazillion marketing blogs out there. The people in non-traditional writing fields like engineering don’t have quite as much competition but I’ve never seen whether employers like new hires to write blogs. Heck, some might even discourage it for fear of a leaky mouthed employee talking about the company’s next great patent or product (I’m so much smarter than that though).  Any way you look at it, if you have a blog you are much more visible to employers than those without a blog.
  2. It opens new windows — My site is hardly a high traffic site. However, I get enough visitors that when someone leaves a comment I can take the time to write them back and try to get to know them. Already I have emailed with some people in the industry that I don’t think I would have ever met otherwise. I have had some people contact me for job interviews and others contact me about potential projects. I like that the blog helps me communicate with people.
  3. Build a brand, brand yourselfChris Gammell is a brand now. It’s a search term. I’m even thinking about making it into an LLP. But when all else fails and people don’t make that association, scream out what you want people to know you are. That’s why I bought Analog last month. If nothing else, blogging has taught me a lot about marketing, especially with “New Media”.
  4. Options, Options, Options — I’d like to think if nothing else in this down economy, I might have a few more options than my non-blogging engineering brethren. I think of writing for magazines, trying to blog full time (probably would need more people in the world interested in engineering), consulting, doing contract work, shifting completely and trying marketing (see above) or looking for another engineering position and advertising myself on my blog. While I have learned more and more that it is your experience that gets you a job, the tough part is showcasing that experience to an employer.
  5. Analog electronics suits me well —  I’ll be honest. I feel that my strengths lie in improving upon existing ideas as opposed to coming up with completely new ideas (engineer vs. scientist). And I think analog electronics intrigue me because even after all of these years since electricity was discovered, there are SO many things that are hard to get right. And there will always be problems with analog circuits where others will need help. You can put everything into digital format but there will still be significant portions of a circuit that need to be processing analog signals. Not only that, I could see a future where more signal processing moves back into the analog domain. Ka-ching!
  6. Renewable energy has a long way to go — I love writing about analog because it makes me geek out. I love writing about renewable energy because it’s such a new and exciting field with so much going on and so many new developments. While I don’t like talking about things “going green” just for the sake of it, I really do think there are some significant advances in the technology that need to be discussed (or dismissed).
  7. I like writing — Of all the things that blogging has taught me, I was most surprised at enjoying finding my writing voice. Perhaps it’s my creative side trying to escape or perhaps I enjoy others reading what I have to say. Either way, I like trying to get my ideas across to people, especially difficult technical ideas that may have been inaccessible otherwise. I hope you enjoy it too.

I know this and other posts have been a bit more introspective lately, but I think that’s what tougher times do to people. We stop expecting answers to be external to ourselves and we start to analyze how we can enjoy what we have and what we do. I fully expect to publish more technical entries in the near future because that is something I enjoy doing.

If you have posts you would like to see, technical or otherwise, feel free to suggest them in the skribit box to the right. Others can vote on ideas and I will write them if I can. If you have anything else to say, the comments box is always listening (as am I).

Photo by Woplu

Analog Electronics Digital Electronics Engineering Learning

Designing For The Long Term

I was at the gym the other day and glanced over at a fellow gym-goer on their cellphone. I did a triple take as the phone was a flip phone that was maybe 4 inches wide and 5 inches high on each flap of the flip (making a 10 inch phone when completely extended).  On my third glance at this monstrosity of a phone I realized it was in fact a Blackberry that he had pulled out of it’s case/holder but the case looked like the bottom half of a flip phone. It got me thinking about design longevity.

I think back on the cell phones of the past and recent past and remember how clunky and awkward they were. That was maybe 5 years ago and those phones have long been sitting at the back of peoples’ desk drawers or hopefully donated to causes that recycle phones. I am amazed that these phone manufacturers continually get away with phones that will be obsolete in 5 years maximum. Why don’t we expect more from our mobile devices (in terms of longevity)? Do we really think your phone will last more than 3 years?

My most recent phone just passed away after 2 years. In my case I MAYBE dropped my phone in a bowl of soup, but I think it just got one of the external speakers; really I think the kiss of death was something a bad battery (which was not contaminated with soup). But even if it lasted another year and THEN died, would I have been upset? I don’t think I or most people would be because we have come to expect consumer products to have a shorter life span.

How do we design electronics for the long term? There are a bunch of great examples of electronics that have been built to last:

  1. Military designs –Aside from the humongous budgets that most contractors have for their military products, the specs on military designs can be equally large in scope. Translation: The military gets high quality products that were expensive but are built to last. These products are often ahead of the technology curve (thanks to the money available), so the technology often goes obsolete later too. The final piece is that the harsh environments encountered by military personnel requires gadgets that are sturdy enough to last for a long time; the ones that function in the field can continue to do so for a long time. A good example would be this emergency radio which was recently torn down by EETimes after an eBay purchase. The 1950s internals reveal high quality workmanship with components that match.
  2. Space designs — Although NASA’s budget has been cut back since Bush has taken office, this research intensive organization has produced some of the finest inventions for human kind. Not only that, they have a mandate to create equipment that can last for long periods of time. My favorite example is the Voyager 1 satellite, currently exiting our solar system and headed further than any other human instrument has ever been. Not only that, but this advanced spacecraft started taking up close pictures of Jupiter and Saturn before I was even born (first passed Jupiter in 1979). The fact that this machine is still functional, still running tests and still capable of sending back data until 2025 (est.) is mind boggling. Not only that, but the spacecraft has not had the advantage and protection of the earth’s ionosphere, so it has been taking much more direct cosmic radiation than normal electronics.
  3. Power companies — These terrestrial behemoths don’t have to worry about cosmic radiation quite as much as the NASA folks, but they often have materials carrying hundreds of amperes of current over long distances. Unfortunately, these systems are in need of some updating (especially to accommodate new renewable energy resources onto the grid), but once they are built, I’m sure they will hold up. Usually power companies achieve longevity in their equipment by using high quality, high strength materials that are designed with enough overhead to manage higher loads that they expect to see (i.e. A copper wire that is designed to carry 1000A of current, but only carries 600A on a regular basis).
  4. Nuclear Facilities — Some of the remnants of the Cold War include the control systems that decided whether missiles would fire or not. These are still some computers operational today in Russia that (we hope) are still making logical decisions. While I don’t agree with these computers in the first place, I sure hope they continue to hold up, otherwise it will prove to be a doomsday device. Proper shielding from radiation and free radicals help to prevent aging damage to electronics from fissile material, in addition to starting with high quality, military-grade products.
  5. Autos — While the auto industry might be falling on its face currently, the designers in Detroit used to help drive new technologies in many other walks of life. Looking at cars that have lasted since the 50s and beyond, we see examples of simple yet elegant electrical designs that were meant to last. Cars have not always had the GPS systems of today (which I’m guessing will have a much shorter lifespan), but have had electronics powering the wiper blades and the spark plugs for a long time. These systems in vintage cars require some maintenance and the occasional fuse replacement, but on the whole are sturdy enough to continue powering well-cared for vintage vehicles.

So these industrial/military and some commercial applications obviously present the need for longevity in finished products. However, designers need to consider many different parameters of a system in order to produce the best product for the long term.

  1. Communication protocol — This item applies most directly to cell phone makers and is a decent excuse for their short life products (but does not excuse everything about them). Unfortunately for phone users (and fortunately for phone makers), wireless protocols are always changing in order to try and achieve the highest bandwidth, usually through higher frequencies or different transmission methods. So once a technology changes for good, older phones become obsolete (and the phone makers happily sell you a new shiny one). This problem also exists when looking to the internals of products; to prevent obsolescence due to outdated protocols, they should be standard to the industry in which the product will be used, simple enough to incorporate into a new standard (and included legacy support) and well documented. Nothing is worse than having a 20 year old device that works fine but can no longer transmit information. An example might be an industrial test fixture on an old computer that only has a 5.25 inch floppy drive. The test fixture might work great, but getting data off that computer is no longer viable so the entire setup is obsolete. A tried and true method for machines to communicate has always been serially and with good reason. While a newer communication protocol might require myriad signals that are not available on an older product, most improvements to a serial signal are often speed (increasing the frequency of the oscillator driving the serial line) or encoding. Since devices can be re-programmed to send a new encoding or you could slow down the device on the receiving end, serial communications seem to be a viable solution for lots of applications.
  2. Long term drift of components — Designing for 10’s of years often requires attention to detail and deep pockets. The most important first step is to watch for this parameter on a data sheet for any critical component (marked as “long term drift”, often given as a percentage change over a specified period). But beware, many vendors simply leave this data off of their spec because they either do not think it is relevant, do not want to display poor data or because they don’t know what it means. In any of these situations it is critical to demand this data or to perform testing yourself in order to create lasting products.
  3. Susceptibility to thermal stress — Size matters when it comes to handling thermal stress; this is partially why older electronics hold up so well. The smaller components on a device get, the less heat they can dissipate (assuming similar materials in a larger package). A good example would be resistors. A 0603 resistor (.6mm x .3mm) can only dissipate 1/10 of a watt while a standard through-hole component can dissipate 1/4 watt on average. This is a trade-off that must be made in any system designed for portability, but could result in lower product lifetime (especially in high heat or high current situations).
  4. Standard packaging — The chip industry is a highly competitive environment where silicon designs are always being touted as the next best thing. Unfortunately for older products, this can often mean that components such as op-amps or a buck converter will no longer be produced. It’s a symptom of being in a dynamic industry and has to be dealt with. The best way to combat obsolescence is to create projects that have standards designed in to them. Thinking about creating a great new analog circuit with a non-standard pin-out in a device package that is so obscure that you have trouble finding it in catalogs?  Why not try making some other compromises on your circuit board and squeezing in a proven SOIC-8 with a pin-out similar to 4 other op-amps. You’ll be happy you do in about 4 years when that op-amp you’re using goes obsolete.

There are probably other ways to help design a product with a long life span, but these are a good start. A common theme is to pay more for higher quality components, which might not be preferred in certain situations. However, designing products for the long term can help save money year after year by not having to replace products or maintain sold products so spending a little more up front could pay off in the end. Some newer consumer electronics industries create new products each year either to drive demand or to fulfill needs after older devices break (which they may have produced).  In the process, they try to drive cost down by using the cheapest parts available; this can cause failures and unhappy customers. To design a long term product, costs and long term design considerations must be balanced.

What’s the longest period you’ve ever had a piece of functioning electronics? What kinds of changes did you see over the years? Have you ever created a low cost design that lasted more than 5 years? Let me know in the comments.

Analog Electronics Digital Electronics Engineering

Circuit Board Design (And How It Has Changed)

Products today mostly use Printed Circuit Boards (or PCBs) to successfully route signals from one component in a circuit to the next. There are multiple layer circuit boards with printed metal “wires” that run between the various elements in a circuit. However, this was not always the case. In the good ol’ days, there were different variations and precursors to the PCB. Some of these included point to point wiring (just soldering a wire between say a resistor and a capacitor), wire wrap boards (think of a point-to-point board on a grid with more wires than you’d know what to do with), acid etched copper on dielectric (think of a 1 layer PCB with very large and rounded signal traces) and many others. These kinds of boards had many many different methods but also had less restrictions than modern designs. In fact,  Paul Rako from EDN recently wrote a great article on prototyping using some of these older methods. He references many techniques of the greats like Bob Pease and Jim Williams and their rapid prototyping techniques. It’s an information rich article and I would highly suggest checking it out. OK, back to the party.

So what has changed when moving from older boards and circuit designs to newer circuit boards?

  1. Speed — There’ s no denying that the boards of today are faster than those of yesteryear. The extremes are apparent in the RF industry which is/was doing well because of the cell phone becoming the hottest platform to develop for (PCs are still around of course but the excitement is in the cell phone industry).  When frequencies get into the GHz range and you’re trying to guide signals instead of wire them, you know that your boards will be finicky. Additionally, the speed increase is not limited to the RF industry as many new designs have at least some component of a clocked digital system on them. Even pushing into the MHz range can be difficult with older board techniques. Wiring point to point is not as viable with high speed signals, especially when you have upwards of 32 wires between two components (a data line).
  2. Size/Type of components – This is another symptom of newer industries. As products go increasingly mobile, parts begin to shrink out of necessity or because the cost of making the older, larger parts becomes prohibitive. As such, the boards have made a large change going from through-hole components (like the capacitors in the picture at the top of this site), to Surface Mount Technology. This has affected the construction of final boards (SMT usually requires machine placement for quick and reliable boards). This also means that the amount of power a board containing only SMT parts can absorb (when the board is considered as one entity) is reduced as the smaller SMT parts cannot handle as much current without blowing up.
  3. Number of connections — I’ve included a picture of wire wrap from the Wikimedia commons site below. Notice anything about it? It’s ridiculous! And I would encourage you to go to the Wikipedia page and look into some of the other types of wire wrapped boards. Now let’s look at a common package today, the Ball Grid Array (BGA). This type of package uses little solderballs on the bottom of the package to adhere to the board. It is glued on at first and when you reflow (heat up to make the solder melt), the balls fall into place on whatever PCB you have produced (assuming you have made the PCB correctly).  BGAs start around 144 pins (maybe 196?) I believe and go to upwards of 1000 pins per part. Can you imagine trying to hook up 1000 wires like below? I don’t think so.
  4. RoHS — Lead is bad for the environment, for your health and for any children who decide to ingest it. In fact, the only people who speak the wonders of lead these days are cranky analog engineers such as myself, trying to solder something (I’m a 6 out of 10 on the cranky scale). Why do we love lead? Because Lead-Tin (Pb-Sn) solder is much easier to work with due to the lower melting temperature and higher thermal capacity.  So as RoHS becomes more widespread, with the Silver-Tin (Ag-Sn) solder that is more difficult to work with, it become another element of board design that must change.

So obviously some stuff has changed. Some is for the better, some not so much. Let’s look at board problems encountered in modern day printed circuit boards in order to see the problems encountered as circuit boards have become more inexpensive and repeatably made:

  1. Capacitance in the board — Printed circuit boards are constructed from a non-conducting material so that signals do not leak from one lead to another. However, in constructing the perfect insulator, they also created a material with a significant (but not huge) dielectric constant. This means if two signals are routed over top of one another (acting like plates), then the sandwich of the signal and the dielectric will act like a capacitor. Not only that, but as you increase the frequency of a signal (with speeds upwards of GHz), the capacitor looks more and more like a shorted wire! This phenomenon is known as “cross-talk” and can affect myriad high-speed or high voltage situations.
  2. Inductance in the leads of a chip — Before the BGAs mentioned in point 3 above, there were packages (usually square) with leads coming out the sides known as Quad Flat Packs (QFPs). The leads coming out of them vary in thickness, but usually get thinner as there are more leads on a chip. As the leads get thinner and longer, the inductance of those leads goes up. We remember that inductors are the “opposite” of capacitors in that they allow low frequency signals to pass and block high frequency signals. In a system that is mostly high frequency signals (think digital), the inductance of the leads can have a serious affect on how well a signal propogates from one element on a circuit board to the next. BGAs have started to reduce this problem, but the cost of dealing with BGAs can be quite prohibitive for smaller operations.
  3. Timing — In a high speed system that requires signals to depart a component at a certain time and arrive at a different component a short (predictable) while later, there are many things that can prevent the signal from arriving undisturbed. We’ve already seen the capacitive and the inductive effects mentioned above, but what about resistance?  Although everything has some amount of resistance, the lines in a board routing one component to the next can have an affect on the overall performance of a circuit. If one of these lines is longer than another than there will be a noticeable difference in the resistance of that line. Most importantly, when comparing the impedance (sum of the resistance and the frequency dependance of the impendance and capacitance) of two different lines going between components (say a processor and a RAM chip), differences can cause the signals to arrive at different times in different conditions. The rise times, the fall times, the over shoot, the under shoot, and the general shape of a signal can all be affected by the characterisitcs of the connection. It is useful to remember that every connection really acts like an RLC filter circuit, the only difference being how much resistance, inductance and capacitance are present and how they will affect the final signal.
  4. Ground/Power Plane — Other advantages a circuit board brings, especially multilayer circuit boards, is the ability to route a plane of power or a grounding plane underneath a portion of a design. If we think of a PCB as a large sandwich, the grounding plane would be like a slice of cheese, running underneath many of the different components of a circuit but not necessarily connected to them. If you design a circuit to have “vias” then an example component on the very top of a circuit board can connect down to the plane and access the power, ground or whatever signal happens to be running underneath there. This technique can be quite useful if you have many different op-amps in a certain area that will require positive and negative power supplies. Or if you have a large connector that requires a majority of pins to be grounded, a grounding plane can be useful to quickly connect many signals to the same net. However, as with any system, there are real-world consequences to deal with; in this case, we have to deal with electrons acting like electrons. With grounding planes, all of the pins on a board that are tied to ground will technically be at ground, however if one pin happens to have a large current going into the ground, then that area might have a slightly higher potential (voltage) than other ares of the grounding plane. This could have some definite effects in sensitive electronic situations and should be considered when designing a new PCB.
  5. Heat/Warping — A major downside to PCBs is the rigidity of the material; worse, when it heats up, it can often warp and become unusable. This could also be a problem in acid etched and wire wrap boards (the warping), but since the connections are often either larger traces or wires, the chances that the warping would break the connection are lower. Worse yet, the example above (dumping current into a ground plane) can create its own heat and warp a board without even being in a heated environment. Thermal budgets become important in any new PCB design and you should be mindful of them. Some SPICE programs even allow you to check out what the heat/power dissipation will be before putting the components on a board.
  6. Low Power — Unfortunately for high power circuit manufacturers, PCBs require extra care when they contain high voltages or high currents. Newer boards are often optimized for power savings, so high power situations are not as much of a priority for the tools that create PCBs. There are often constraints in the layout programs to ensure proper safety requirements, but other steps might be necessary, like separating high power lines from one another so they do not spark or create noise on other lower power lines.

Printed circuit boards allow for reliable products that can quickly be deployed to customers or used in a lab situation to test new circuit configurations. As long as you are mindful of the pitfalls of PCBs listed above, you can create circuit designs that can do just about anything imaginable.  If you have any suggestions on how to create better PCBs or circuits in general, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Analog Electronics Learning Life Renewable Energy

Buying a House and Making It More Efficient

So usually I don’t like to write about my personal life on here too much, but I had an offer accepted on a house yesterday and I think it’s relevant to topics discussed on this site. Yes, I realize that the housing market is down and that it will likely only get worse. And yes, I realize I’m young and a house is a big responsibility. And yes, I know home ownership can be a daunting experience from upkeep to sales to everything else bad that can happen. But there are some great things about houses too, namely tax advantages and being able to do whatever I want with it (within reason). Plus, I feel that every home can take advantage of advances in conservation and renewable technology, even if they are already in good shape and the energy bills are low.

  1. Insulation — A no brainer, this is a great way to reduce the amount of energy leaving your home. A friend and I were talking about older houses and he made a good point that houses built in the 50s didn’t always worry about insulation. It was decently inexpensive to just crank up the heat. Now with gas prices rising (don’t worry, this temporary lull won’t last), it becomes a necessity to conserve the energy we burn. My friend also mentioned a possible tax break that exists; if not, I would hope the next administration includes something in their renewable energy plan. Remember, conservation is the cheapest method of energy savings right now.
  2. Windows — One of the most frustrating things in cold weather is walking up to a poorly insulated single pane window; it rattles, it frosts and it let’s chilling temperatures through. Windows are one of the best ways to lose heat and waste energy in the winter, especially in the great north. It feels like it literally is sucking the heat from your house. Sure, double pane and triple pane vinyl windows are a good start and will stop 90% of your heat loss. However, A great story on NPR about legacy technology from the 70s tells about how a simple coating can stop heat loss in the winter and block heat from coming in during the summer. The low emissivity (or “low e”)coating basically just blocks out infrared radiation from getting through (think of those waves you see rising from blacktop on a hot summer day). Windows were already proficient at blocking convective heat flow (think warm air), but the radiative piece was missing. Look for the low e rating when purchasing your windows and you could see some significant energy savings.
  3. Efficient Devices — Every time the compressor kicks on for my current refrigerator, I can’t help thinking about how much electricity is being wasted to keep my food cool. While it isn’t great to throw out the old clunker fridge just to buy a new shiny energy STAR certified fridge, it might be better in the long run to get something that will save energy (even at the cost of greater consumption). If you’re really crafty, you can always turn that old fridge into a meat smoker (think ribs), a bookshelf or even a planter. Remember, don’t just throw the old fridge in the basement and keep running it for frozen goods. If it’s truly an energy vampire, unplug it from the wall and find a different use for it.
  4. DC Power Outlets — Instead of plugging in cell chargers that are burning power no matter if you are charging something or not, why not have a few lines in your house that are set to a specific voltage, say 6V (most devices are running 3.3V these days). Then when the 6V comes to the wall, you could have a “tuner” based on a buck converter that would dial down that voltage to the one you need. Delivering power from a central source could be controlled remotely, so you could close a relay at the source and no power would be delivered to the converter unless “asked for”, and there would be very low losses in the system.
  5. Solar panels — I wrote last time about GreenField Solar and their new solar concentrator, which is very reasonably priced and could pay itself off in less than ten years if it works as advertised (1500 W output). However, in northern climates, it’s often better to get more total exposure by having a larger array of panels collecting the most light possible, even if at lower efficiency. This requires more space of course, but you might be able to get lower cost panels if they are older and assumed to be less efficient. A friend and and I are talking about trying this in the backyard (which is sizable) and doing some measurements on the power we could harvest even in the Cleveland winters. The eventual goal would be enough to power a shed or outhouse for a small music studio, but that will take some work. Wind might be a better candidate, but that would require more infrastructure (AC-DC conversion) and the turbines are still quite expensive (if not beautiful and artistic in some cases).
  6. Do an energy audit — Sometimes the places where you waste the most energy are the least expected. Have an electric water heater? You might be paying out the nose for your showers and washing dishes. Air conditioning unit more than 10 years old? Maybe that’s pulling hardest at your electricity usage. Do you own a programmable thermostat (the kind that shut off heat when you’re not usually home or asleep)? This simple device will save you hundreds in electricity and natural gas savings. Energy audits are usually offered for free by your energy companies. Look them up and take advantage.

So part of me is terrified at the prospect of owning a home but the other part is pretty excited about what I can do with it. I think using it as an example for simple home fixes and ways that analog electronics projects can help to save money and carbon emissions will be good for my conscience and for this site. If you have any ideas on home projects, please leave them or a link to them in the comments.

Analog Electronics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

EEStor not delivering

I used to read Popular Science religiously. Those great stories about the new technologies were so exciting, sometimes I had trouble sitting still. And the best part was turning to the back where you could buy some DIY kit! I remember there were “lightsabers” and “hovercrafts” and flying vehicles, all available in kit form. I have since stopped reading Popular Science, but I could very easily imagine some of those ads on the back. One might just happen to read “Batteries no longer necessary. Ultra-capacitor is the wave of the future! Cheap energy for all!”. Of course, these are in fact the headlines for an Austin based company EEStor.

So I’m going to say it. I don’t think EEStor will deliver on the hype surrounding them. Even the more recent endorsements from third party auditors, a deal with Lockheed Martin and their ongoing partnership with ZENN motors does not make me think they can produce an award winning product any more than other companies out there could. Part of me thinks there are signs that prove this (explained below) but the other part of me is secretly hoping this is one of those situations where I say something will never happen and then it immediately does. This could be called “self-reverse-psychology” or “deluding myself” or even just “being wrong”, but who cares? I just don’t see it in the cards for EEStor and I’m not the only one.

Oh sorry. I forget sometimes that the only people who fall into reading my blog are my lovely friends and hopefully a few casual browsers. EEStor is a company that claims they have and are continuing to develop an “ultra-capacitor” capable of producing capacitors with extremely high capacitance, thanks to a new dielectric material, barium titanate. But real quick, let’s look at capacitors in general for anyone who might not have the whole picture. (Maybe skip down the page if you know how capacitors work).

The simplest capacitor possible is two flat plates of metal, connected to a DC electricity source:

When you turn on the source, charge flows to either side of the plate, but cannot pass through. In this case it cannot pass through because of the air in between the plates; here, the air is the dielectric.

Ok, so now there is charge stored on either side of the plates…but what good does that do? Well, there are myriad uses for the capacitor in the world of science and otherwise; but in the most basic definition, a capacitor exists to store energy. Furthermore, the higher the capacitance of a capacitor, the more energy it can store. So how do we get that capacitance to be higher? Let’s look at the equation (real quick, I promise and then no more equations).

C = frac{varepsilon{}A}{d}

Here C is capacitance, A is the area of the plates, d is the distance between the plates, and ε is something called the permittivity of the dielectric. So to make C bigger, we either need to make A or ε much bigger or d much smaller. At first I thought EEStor was trying to only find a better dielectric (with a higher value for “ε”), which would look like this:

This shows that the charges being closer together, but in reality, it’s that the material between the plates allows the electric field to permeate through to the other side better than air. This approach of having a better dielectric is actually closer to an electrolytic type capacitor.

However, EEStor is trying to make a better ultra-capacitor. So back to the formula (last time). Ultra-capacitors try to change everything in the formula. To maintain overall size of capacitors, the area of the plates (“A”) is changed by adding material with higher surface area (Wikipedia lists a possible material as activated charcoal). This gives the charges on each plate more places to rest. Next, the distance between the plates (“d”) is reduced to be as small as possible, down to the nanometer range. This is where most ultra-capacitor manufacturers stop. They use an ultra-thin dielectric layer with a standard permittivity (“ε”) and then surround the capacitor in electrolytic fluid. This limits the overall capacitance and the material properties of the current dielectric also limits the amount of voltage (potential energy), usually to around 3V (rather there is a trade off between voltage rating and capacitance).

EEStor is trying to change all of this by using a dielectric with a much higher value. They use barium titanate, which in a powder form has a very high dielectric constant and very high tolerance to voltage. They claim to compress the material to a pure form in a very thin layer (up to 99.9994% purity, they claim), which should maintain that high dielectric constant; however, this is up for contention. If they do manage to purify the material, they will be able to put a much higher voltage across the dielectric without fear of material breakdown, which they claim is main benefit of using barium titanate. Additionally, they use many different layers of the dielectric and other plates in order to create a higher capacitance. Why, you ask? Because the work (Energy * charge) a capacitor is capable of producing is equal to

That means if you are capable of increasing the voltage rating of a capacitor (how much it can handle before the dielectric breaks down or blows up), the work goes up in a square relation to that higher voltage (doubling the voltage yields 4 times the work). You can have a much higher energy density in the device, making the operation appear to be closer to that of a battery.

Alright, so we’re finally at the point where I explain why I think that EEStor won’t deliver on their promises. First, let’s look at what they have promised:

  1. A working prototype by the end of 2008. A fully implemented device in a ZENN vehicle by the end of 2009.
  2. A Capacibattery at half the cost per kilowatt-hour and one-tenth the weight of lead-acid batteries.
  3. A selling price to start at $3,200 and fall to $2,100 in high-volume production.
  4. Weighs 400 pounds and delivers 52 kilowatt-hours.
  5. The batteries fully charge in minutes as opposed to hours.

Yikes. Those are some pretty lofty goals. I’d say the most unbelievable of these is the first one (followed closely by the third). Since they haven’t shown the slightest sign of publicity, there really is not much to go off of. In fact, as a business model, EEStor has mystique as it’s main asset. They could go public with no product and have people bid up the stock price towards the sky with absolutely no product behind the curtain. In fact, the only people who have really stuck their head out to talk about this product is the CEO of ZENN motors, Ian Clifford. And why not? Even if the EEStor product (called the EESU) is a flop, ZENN motors can play the martyr and get the free publicity. But that’s all business. What about the technical stuff? Let’s look at some safety/efficiency/production concerns that could prevent them from making a product that can be mass produced at (relatively) low prices:

  1. ESR
    • ESR stands for “Equivalent Series Resistance”. It is caused by imperfections in both the dielectric and the material that connects the capacitor to the rest of the world. The ESR is how much the imperfections impede the current flow, as the current works to align internal bonds (in both the capacitor and the connecting material). Normally, ESR will not have any effect at DC because it is assumed that there is no charging time. However, charging a battery or capacitor is more like an AC signal (albeit only half of a cycle), and the faster someone tries to charge it (in EEStor’s case, quite fast) the higher resistance will be. This will translate to heat in the capacitor and wasted energy. With the high currents being pushed through the capacitor at high rates, this becomes a safety concern first and an efficiency concern second.
  2. High Voltage
    • This is really the key to the EEStor device. If they are ever planning to have a super fast charge, it will require higher voltages, likely on the order of kV. However, the high voltages have the obvious safety concerns (ZAP!) and the not-so-obvious concerns such as skin effects. Manufacturing a safe product that will pass automotive standards will be a difficult test. Consistently turning out a reasonably priced product that will safely deliver those same voltages will be even more difficult.
  3. Piezoelectric Effect
    • Piezoelectric effect occurs when the crystal structure of a substance is stressed and then releases charge. The best piezos release charge all in the same direction based on their crystal structure. What happens when this box gets compressed, via a car crash? Will all of the charge be released at once? Will a fender bender turn into a ZENN car sponsored fricassee? (on a related, but unimportant note: If we go to all electric cars, what will happen in car chases in the future and they want to blow up the other car? Even though it doesn’t actually work, what will they shoot if there’s no gas tank? 🙂 )
  4. Material/Production Costs
    • The product we have heard about so far, with extreme purity, will require a cleanroom-like setting, a foundry-like setting, or both (comparing it to what I know about fabs). In any of these scenarios, the cost of operation far exceeds what most venture capital firms are willing and capable of supplying in terms of cash. Unless they are quickly bought by a large scale producer of batteries or similar technologies, they would not have the working capital necessary to bring their production facility to a point where they are making enough units to create economies of scale (lowering the overall cost by averaging large fixed cost over all products produced).
  5. Manufacturing issues/Large scale manufacturing
    • Aside from the material cost and the operations cost, let’s look at the obvious: making one of these units seems to be hard.  I understand that they are developing processes to create these products, but the precision required for a consistent quality product could be so cost sensitive that they will drive the final part cost way past the projected $3200 price tag.
  6. Leakage
    • Leakage would likely not be a barrier to production, but it would probably hurt them in their ability to deliver a product with the longevity needed to power cars. If the voltage across a capacibattery is supposed to be 1kV or higher, even with the best available insulators, there will be some amount of leakage (everything allows it). If the car was required to be plugged in while in a parking lot it would not be as big of an issue, but I don’t believe this is the model they are going for; they seem to want to deliver a standalone piece of equipment.
    • Another way “leakage” can happen is across the dielectric. As capacitors age, the stress on the dielectric barrier eventually starts to break down and let electrons through. If EEstor does not properly monitor for DC leakage, there could eventually be catastrophic failure of the capacitor, as more and more current moves through the dielectric; this would heat up the device to unsafe temperatures and eventually cause a meltdown or explosion (exciting, but unsafe).
  7. Efficiencies
    • Let’s say you have a “fueling station” that is actually capable of charging a ZENN car in minutes (as opposed to hours); it would likely require voltages on the order of kV as opposed to 10s or 100s of volts and currents that are on the order of amps. Let’s say for our example that we are trying to transfer 10 kW (10A * 1000V) . Even at 95% efficiency of power transfer (a very optimistic estimation), that means we would be wasting at least 500W everytime that we go to charge our capacicars.
  8. Infrastructure
    • While my friend Nate would love to point out that the energy density of these devices still won’t approach that of gasoline or ethanol, they are proposing a product that comes closer than any others have yet. However, to achieve their miraculously fast charge times and high capacity capacitors, the product will require a charging station as mentioned above that is capable of deliving a high voltage payload to the battery (hopefully at a high efficiency). This means we’ll either need to convert gas stations into power stations or create huge step up transformers for the home. Remember, US line voltages coming into a house are 120V out of your wall socket. That will take some expensive equipment to safely regulate those voltages and convert to DC (another potential efficiency problem). The costs associated with implementing such a system (either commercially or in the home) could seriously hinder any chance of public acceptance.

So for the final piece of this ultra-capacitor manifesto, let’s look at the possible scenarios we might eventually encounter with EEStor. Aside from the skeptics, there are a good deal of people who are hopeful this company will succeed and fully expect it to; this outcome is possible, but the extent to which EEStor delivers will be up for anyone’s guess. As such, I’ve included a complementary predicition of the chance each will happen (in percentage):

  1. They deliver a “product” but it is only a fraction of the promised delivery-Perhaps they have an overzealous marketing person.
    • Chance of happening: 40%
  2. They deliver a product but price it so high, there is no way to employ it in any commercial application for the next 5 years-Lockheed still might buy it. Lockheed’s interest is what got everyone so excited again back in May…but it doesn’t mean this product will be delivered or that it’s even possible.
    • Chance of happening: 55%
  3. They deliver on all of their specifications and price targets
    • Chance of happening: 5%

So go ahead EEStor, prove me wrong. I don’t want to seem like those people that said man would never fly or that there would be no need for more than 5 computers, I just wanted to write an article pointing out the difficulties that EEStor is likely to encounter and hopefully have already overcome. So EEstor, if you’re sending out samples and need a tester, I would be happy to play with one of your toys. And if you (the reader) think I missed any crucial points about ultra-capacitors or EEstor, please let me know 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.

Analog Electronics Life Music

Breaking my Wurlitzer 200A

“Hmm, I should really get a sound sample for the before and after on my piano. I’m so confident I can get this thing to work that I want some evidence how broken it was prior to my genius fixing of this machine.”


“EEP,” thinks Chris.


So it seems that I may have broken the amplifier on my Wurlitzer 200A. This after I took my sweet ol’ time getting all the replacement parts in from Mouser. After they finally arrived, I scheduled a time to work on the piano on the weekend to try and fit into my relatively busy schedule.

First inspection of the board shows that this piano has definitely had work done on it before. There are multiple places where the solder joints have been over done with solder (too much globbed up in one place). The resistors and capacitors also do not appear to be the originals, though they still appear to be pretty old and could be the originals.

So what do I think happened? In my onomatopoeic description at the beginning of this article, you may have guessed that there was a short to ground (the “ZAP”). This happened because I was dumb enough to try turning on the piano when it was not bolted to the chassis. The circuit board likely shorted from one of the high potential points to the chassis, which is grounded. In the process, high amounts of current either caused a part to fail catastrophically through material failure (a PN junction having too many carriers “break through”) or thermally (an electrolytic capacitor exploding due to high temperature).

I have a very primitive multimeter intended for use on power lines and such, so it could only tell me the there is 2 volts DC at the speaker output. This is definitely not healthy for the speaker nor the system and leads me to believe the output coupling capacitor may have broken. I will update more once I borrow my friend’s advanced multimeter.