Perils of “buy and try” engineering

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My 2006 research co-op with Greg Charvat was immensely useful and productive, with presentations and papers imminent. Early career and student engineers struggle to strike the right time in the design lifecycle to “buy and try” the first prototype. Experienced engineers work back-of-envelope calculations in their head, or a notepad, to avoid excess iteration. Beginning engineers can get trapped up in schedule and budget traps with the easy access of dev kits, which typically cost a few hundred dollars, even when the part itself is a few dollars. Or they may get overconfident that a particular key item will work without trying a bench prototype of that system component.

Wireless modules are a particular tripping point, even for experienced engineers. Wireless involves real-time interactions on multiple layers from RF channel to hardware to signaling to packetizing, conversion and so on.

An excellent way for early engineers to overcome these perils is to discuss with peers and mentors. True, they won’t have the answer, but they can at least provide helpful guidance from their own mistake bank. Ultimately, the engineer needs to have the judgment to know when they’ve built sufficient competence through flipping pages, such that the next best steps are through prototyping.

Use what’s around you

If your project involves GNSS, consider trying the GPS receiver built into your phone or a portable unit. Walk/drive around in your anticipated environment and watch/log GNSS signal strength. Don’t just use the seeming quality of the map fix–this is heavily filtered and may use non-satellite methods to compensate for weak signal. One ideal way to do this is have a GPS receiver that emits NMEA sentences. See if you have a mariner friend who can loan such a unit. Or see if your phone will emit NMEA text sentences (Nextel phones often can emit NMEA).

I had several years of practice-based engineering experience before college, but with mentors like Greg Charvat and Profs. Rothwell and Kempel, I will go much farther than I dreamed possible. See you soon in our Nation’s capital at NRL!

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