“Quantitative engineering” is itself studied as a topic. This article represents what practical quantitative engineering means for my business and educational approaches.
Engineer vs. hobbyist
Junior engineers can fall into the hobbyist approach, whether or not they are themselves hobbyists. Let’s take a typical engineering process and distinguish the hobbyist and engineering approaches.
- Problem ID: quantifying the scope of the client’s need, why don’t existing products work for them.
- Engineer: has multiple discussions with the client, iterating with research and specifications. Can existing products be modified, joined, etc. to meet requirements? Doesn’t fall into N.I.H. (Not Invented Here) traps vs. COTS that can greatly accelerate schedule.
- Hobbyist: Googles a bit to find a circuit or module that looks about right, and buys it
- Research: find out why someone else hasn’t already made a solution, and what is needed to meet functional requirements while meeting performance requirements.
- Engineer: Was the market too small, too crowded, technology wasn’t (still isn’t?) ready, opportunity for novelty/patenting exists? Find COTS mature enough within cost and schedule to build in, at least for early prototype as module vs. designing in-house.
- Hobbyist: what’s the cheapest one I can buy?
- Conceptual Design and Requirements Specification: Leads to SRR (System Requirements Review) associated milestone. Even in small projects, reaching this point takes several phone calls (not just emails/Slack) and several days.
- Engineer: Functional Analysis, Constraints Analysis, Objectives Analysis. Does the specified system meet the functional requirements (it can do the required things) and the performance requirements (SWaP-CS) Size, Weight, Power, Cost, Schedule). Function-means analysis. Are all performance requirement simultaneously acheivable under performance constraints? Every specification must be testable. To be testable, a quantity must be measurable.
- Hobbyist: It was cheap and it’ll be here next week.
- Functional Prototyping: Build prototype that doesn’t necessarily meet performance requirements, but that does mostly meet functional requirements. If a prototype can’t meet functional requirement, performance requirements don’t matter (necessary but not sufficient). This stage is buying down risk. In a startup, this is done by pre-seed, friends & family funding.
- Engineer: In the “fail fast” regime, a prototype is built as quickly as reasonable, using existing lab equipment and/or parts that may be big or too costly to mass manufacture. Takes experience and judgement to do effectively.
- Hobbyist: Parts are here, let’s hook things up!
- Preliminary Design: iterating with first prototypes, generate a robust preliminary prototype.
- Engineer: prototype quantitatively measured to meet virtually all functional requirements, or at least a scaled version of the functional requirements where only more money and a finite time is needed to meet full functional requirements. It should be demonstrable to angel investors, i.e. meeting sufficient performance specs to not be a wire nest on the bench.
- Hobbyist: Oops the smoke came out!
- Preliminary Design Review (PDR): This major review is the last escape valve to make signficant changes. Beyond this point, the silicon mask is being made and sent to the foundry, perhaps 12-24 month lead time and six-figure cost. Now you are getting angel investors on board, speaking with legal and IP experts to prepare for Series A VC funding discussions.
- Engineer: Often this leads to a somewhat different design than the client originally forecast, unless it’s a subcontract for an engineering firm that’s already done their homework. The prototype has survived a preliminary customer environment demo. Customer shouldn’t be surprised here, should have been discussing beforehand any issues arising through iteration.
- Hobbyist: Hmm, let me put in a one-watt resistor instead of that quarter-watt resistor that smoked.
- Pre-production design: includes iterative prototyping. Design is at full detail level, down to components, connectors, pins, PCBs. End prototyping goal is to meet all functional and virtually all performance specs. May not yet massively scale, if that requires VC funding. It’s very expensive to make changes after this.
- Engineer: Take client feedback from PDR, lessons learned, advisor input to really meet those performance specs as well as any functional specs that weren’t quite ready yet.
- Hobbyist: Well, I could get a bigger battery. Or a smaller processor. Let me try some more things…
- Critical Design Review (CDR): all cards on the table now, were there still some specs not met? Hopefully it was just a funding shortage causing that, and the client knew about it already.
- Engineer: prototype is tested at the client site under realistic conditions. Breakdowns might occur, but there should be a darn good reason they weren’t tested earlier. Prettify prototype for VC discussions.
- Hobbyist: Well sorry about that. You get what you pay for!
- Final Deliverable & Report: all successes and shortcomings described, along with all software and hardware documentation such that the next group can start from a clean slate without assumptions. E.g. include directions to install on a fresh OS. Include PCB design files, schematics, measurements.
- Engineer: Report is actionable by decision makers who will seek further funding and resource investment, or to shelve the project. Describes design process in sufficient detail, and how to fabricate the complete prototype with suggestions for improvement.
- Hobbyist: …
This has been a tounge-in-cheek comparison between what a engineer, or a junior/student engineer thinking like a hobbyist might be tempted to do. Now let’s briefly take a look at the contributions of hobbyists.
Hobbyists reach up to the semi-pro level, and some in the upper echelons of hobbyists can work at a junior engineering level. Hobbies and avocations can be transformed into ways to give back via the Maker movement and providing services to schools and care centers. They can be a gateway to a first or second career in engineering. Dave Jones of EEVblog fame expanded on the wide scope hobbyists cover, and how “professional” hobbyists can become:
Isle of Man’s Big Clive’s YouTube channel is growing past 100 million YouTube views. While I don’t beleive he’s a degreed engineer, Clive’s video outreach brings even those with the most casual interest in electronics to a deeper understanding. Clive promotes learning by doing (safely), which is a part of any engineering education.
Many hobbyists take a “buy and try” approach. Perhaps they see a video or article that shows an interesting or needed project, and they decide to replicate it. Sometimes their goal is to build upon or enhance the project after it’s built. The distinction an engineer makes from hobbyists is the planning, research and design.
Looking at Dave Jones’ job posting, I had many of those skills as a pre-teen, even in elementary school. I transitioned from a pre-teen electronics hobbyist to a teenaged engineering technologist via mentorship, work experience and self-teaching. In my late teens I crossed over into junior-level engineering work, taking a few electrical engineering courses at an ABET college, and being mentored by degreed electrical engineers.
By then I was doing work beyond what a new BSEE graduate typically does. I have also seen excellent engineers emerge from career-change programs such as Boston University LEAP, where in as little as two semesters (eight courses total, 9 calendar months) a student with a BA in Liberal Arts gets a Master’s in Engineering.
Leaving a lucrative career, starting full-time college a couple years later than my peers, I went from the top of one career into a 4.0 GPA Honor’s Electrical Engineering student. How can I say that before 20 years old I was at the top of my field? I would go out and fix Motorola’s System Technologist mistakes, and even some of their RF system engineering mistakes (for EF Johnson too). This was taking a quantitative RF/electrical systems engineering approach, from what the textbooks, mentors and my experience taught me. Starting my Ph.D. work as a federal civil servant for the US Naval Research Laboratory, I took my interest in the intersection of basic and applied research to the next level by earning a Ph.D. EE, blending machine learning with high speed data acquisition in some of the remotest manned science stations outside Antarctica. Now I stand at a place to be cold-called by Fortune 100 companies and national research institutions alike, is what I had in mind. I stopped my pre-college work when I could carry through, and now I can help build a better Nation and world.
These may be expanded into future articles as interest exists.
RF Systems Technologist job description
- optimization and support of complex communication systems
- advanced troubleshooting of software driven electronics
- provisioning of communication system infrastructure and performance optimization of RF and Broadband architecture
- legacy analog
- digital (DMR, APCO25)
- data infrastructure
- Program, configure, optimize, test and document complex communications systems.
- very strong knowledge of wired communications systems, such as local area networks (LAN) and wide area networks (WAN)
- installation of server hardware/OS & troubleshooting
- strong knowledge of R.F. systems, such as transmitters, receivers, and antenna networks
- strong knowledge in standard telephony, dedicated data circuits, packet switching techniques
- solve customer problems quickly during stressful situations
Who is an engineer?
Neglecting licensing, which is important but less common for electrical engineering, engineers in the non-public, non-licensed sense are generally understood to be someone with a graduate engineering degree (MS, Ph.D.) or a BS engineering degree with several years of progressive experience and mentorship. It is rare in general for those with less than a BS to get engineering licensure, and the trend is to make it increasingly difficult. The ASCE Raise the Bar movement is reaching beyond civil engineering, proposing requiring a Master’s degree in Engineering to become a licensed Engineer (P.E.), disregarding pre-degree experience.
- Ford and Coulston (2007). Design for Electrical and Computer Engineers. 978-0073380353
- Dym, Little and Orwin (2013). Engineering Design: A Project-Based Introduction
- Salt and Rothery (2001). Design for Electrical and Computer Engineers. 978-0471391463.