Power Electronics

Lab Technicians. A Dying Breed?

During the 1980s and 1990s scores of laboratory technicians and administrative assistants were sacrificed on the altar of corporate efficiency. This re-engineering on a huge scale has systematically neutered development teams worldwide. All too often, senior design engineers sit hunched over keyboards hunt-and-peck typing documents and ordering replacement components for the lab. It is time to review the value and desirable characteristics of an experienced laboratory technician before it is too late.

First, technician duty was a rite of passage for many design engineers, particularly for those who worked their way through college. Seasoned technicians mentor junior engineers much like nurses keep junior doctors out of trouble when they are interns. Engineers who “simulate and wait,” refusing to do technician work, are likely to overlook something and introduce a flawed product. Modeling conducted in a vacuum of real-world measurement and characterization gives misleading results at best, and at worst can condemn a product to failure. To put it succinctly “modeling is no replacement for knowing what you're doing.”

In my experience, the best technicians come from a background of electronics as a hobby, radio-controlled model construction or amateur radio for instance. Often they prefer to repair and maintain things themselves, rather than going to a repair shop. This hands-on approach, together with insatiable curiosity, combine to create a good technician. Unfortunately, since the introduction of the PC, the World of Warcraft fanatic with a skateboard has succeeded the archetypal nerd with duct-taped glasses and a pocket protector; the pool of technicians is drying up.

Proficient technicians often have a pack-rat mentality, saving parts and equipment that “might be useful in the future.” Technicians from the former Eastern Bloc countries are particularly good at improvising test equipment and devising work-arounds for characterization. Historically, replacement components were hard to come by, unless you worked for the military, so elaborate techniques for non-destructive testing were devised.

Contrast this way of thinking with that of the design engineer I once visited who had an elaborate (and very expensive) “MOSFET tree” constructed entirely of dead parts that had been detonated during incautious testing. A useful technician will always question something suspicious that he or she doesn't understand and report it to the engineer responsible. Technicians are a valuable source of ideas for new product definition, particularly if they have been conducting competitive analysis. Comments regarding a part's ease-of-use should be made after consulting those who fabricate and test the circuit, not generated as a marketing spin.

Many technicians were trained in the military or in vocational schools and keep a logbook. This is an invaluable source of information when building an intellectual property base. A technician best performs technical clerical work such as maintaining laboratory component stocks or setting up calibration schedules. If you want to get your component into a reference design, it is often useful to discuss it with the technician and the designer, as the technician will have valuable insight on the practical circuit implementation. The technician often detects conditional stability, noise susceptibility, latch up and anomalous behavior during the characterization phase, so it is important to seek their inputs prior to product release.

My major concern is that we are in danger of developing corporate Alzheimer's by eliminating technicians from the workplace. A person with practical knowledge of the fabrication, testing and evaluation of circuits and systems is an invaluable member of the development team. Notwithstanding the fact that many technicians lay out printed circuit boards and understand how to drive the latest test equipment, both skills are in short supply. Of course, having a good technician doesn't completely absolve the designer from spending time at the bench; no engineer worthy of the name would allow his or her part or system to be debugged by another.

Paul Greenland has more than 25 years experience in power management circuit design, applications and marketing. Prior to joining Enpirion, Greenland was director of strategic marketing at National Semiconductor, where he was responsible for product marketing for the Power Management Products Group. Greenland also directed strategic marketing and system engineering for the Analog Division of ON Semiconductor and ran the power management business unit at Allegro Microsystems.

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