Twenty-five years ago, I preferred to build and test prototypes for my designs. Although there were technicians available to do these tasks, it would have taken me a very long time to explain what I needed for both the prototype build and the test to obtain the desired results. At that time, I found it much more efficient to do these tasks myself.
Back then, technicians were generalists and would build a power-circuit prototype one day and a digital-circuit prototype the next. Doing the latter required little coaching from the design engineer since digital circuits were all prototyped using the wire-wrap method. That clearly meant they did not have the chance to specialize enough in power circuits and gain the necessary experience to do the prototyping on their own.
Fast-forward to the present, where clearly we have fewer technicians in our labs. Though small in number, these technicians are fully capable of prototyping a design. They can layout the pc board using modern software tools, do the assembly, perform electrical and thermal testing, and generate a lab report with their findings. This great leap in capabilities allows design engineers to concentrate on multiple project activities. Designers can analyze the technician-generated lab reports for performance improvements or delta designs, and ultimately, send the design for critical design review and manufacturing.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some organizations started to hire more junior engineers and have them do the technician’s work plus whatever design activities were assigned to them. The rationale was that these junior engineers could do both jobs. But I believe this is definitely not the case, especially if you want your design and lab teams to produce their best work.
The reason is very simple. A recent graduate will have to spend some appreciable time learning how to properly do the pc-board layout, assembly and tests, while working on his or her own design activities. By the time the new engineer can do all this well, he or she gets promoted and it’s time to hire another new grad to start the whole cycle over again. As a result, prototyping activities — in some cases at least — may linger in a permanent state of learning and mediocrity.
In this age of extreme specialization and fast time-to-market demands, we need both the dedicated design engineer and the dedicated technician to do the best job possible and move the development process much faster to fruition. For the power field, this means that the design engineer needs to understand very well the implications of the circuit layout and component selection on the final product. Meanwhile, the technician needs to fully understand well how to design his pc board, do component selection, and perform the tests to complement the design activity and produce a viable product.
In addition, the technician must be able to work with minimum coaching from the design engineer. In turn, that demands the technician have enough knowledge, experience and understanding of power circuits to fully do the job with very little guidance.
To achieve this ideal situation, it’s necessary to make some minor changes in the way we educate engineers and technicians. To give design engineers the needed awareness of pc-board layout and component selection concerns, they need greater exposure to more practical experience, which could be achieved by instituting more co-op programs in universities. On the other hand, technicians could benefit from more experiment-based theoretical courses in their education.
These changes should blur the line somewhat between the job of the design engineer and the technician, but create an excellent research and development team.