Engineering House Learning Life

On The Importance of Prototyping

Sometimes I dive head first into problems and it gets me in trouble. Other times, this is called “prototyping”, which is encouraged in many engineering circles, and sometimes even required! The best case scenario is when you can flesh out the details and downfalls of a project before you make costly design decisions. You can realize not to use a particular op amp or even decide if a project is feasible at all.

I’m not shy to say that Google SketchUp is one of my recent favorite prototyping tools. While it’s not the SPICE simulation or the rapid circuit prototyping that most people might think of for analog system designers, it is useful in myriad projects. Even just knowing what form factor a future analog board might need to take (by making a quick drawing of what you envision your product to be) can save lots of time, money and headaches.

My experiences with Google SketchUp  prototyping (drawing, really) has been to help me realize what kinds of components I’m looking for when making design decisions. And it could help you too, at least in a mechanical perspective. Perhaps you know that a certain connector shape and size will be better than another. Or that you’re space constrained and can’t use a particularly large inductor.

My most recent (home) project has been building myself a home theater PC (or HTPC). I use it to watch shows on and surf the internet in my living room; in the future I might also task it with home automation type functions as well (turning on lights, closing blinds, etc). Quite convenient and the first PC I have ever built. But I wanted to mount the HTPC in a nearby stairwell to keep it out of sight. I first did a mockup drawing in Google Sketchup:

As you can see, the models are 3D; they’re darn easy to make too. I can’t speak highly enough of the program itself.

Aside from the program though, the results allowed me to figure out what I would need for my build. The first requirements were easy. I wanted to make sure my HTPC didn’t fall down the stairwell. I know, I’m a stickler for protecting my investments. But figuring out the shelf and strap idea was a breakthrough in my design. It would be low cost and sturdy. Here’s how it ended up looking:

Notice I ended up buying cheap off the shelf wall mounting brackets instead of trying to create my own out of 2x4s cut at funky angles. This was an iteration on the original design idea I had in the SketchUp drawing.

And a picture of the component that the model pointed to as critical for the design:

So would I have been able to design all of this without the “prototype” I made? Yeah, probably. I would have figured something out or used duct tape or something to get it all together and working in some capacity. In the situation shown here though, I was able to determine troublesome components and think of a workaround before they became an issue (i.e. it only took me one trip to the hardware store, pretty good given my past record).

So next time you’re doing a home or work project, try prototyping, even if it isn’t necessarily electrical (hey, maybe that’s even more reason to try it, right?). It could save you time, money and frustration.
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.