Power Electronics

Educational Options Have Grown, But Hurdles Remain

If September is generally thought of as back-to-school time, then perhaps some of the educational themes discussed in this issue are rather timely, even for those of us who've been out of the classroom for a while. Two of the special features this month touch on power electronics education and how far it has evolved over the years. These features also may give us pause to reflect on where it still needs to go.

First, we have the annual Lifetime Achievement Award article, which reveals this year's honoree. As explained on pages 44-48, Ed Bloom is being recognized for his many contributions to the power electronics field. Foremost among these contributions are his innovations in the area of integrated magnetics and his work in bringing power electronics education to the working engineer.

As an engineer, Bloom spent many years in the industry doing power-supply design and consulting. Though his formal education included both a bachelor's and a master's degree in electrical engineering, none of that university training provided Bloom with a practical grounding in power electronics.

That may come as no surprise given that he received his degrees in the 1960s and started his career then. Nevertheless, the lack of power electronics training certainly became relevant when, on his first job, Bloom was asked to convert a linear power supply into a switch-mode power supply (SMPS) design in 1965.

“When I graduated, there was zip. No knowledge published about power electronics or anything related to it except for what was happening in schools. And that was primarily ‘blue-sky’ and theoretical,” recalls Bloom. This forced Bloom to ask other engineers in his company about similar work they had done. From there Bloom was able to develop some SMPS circuit designs that he could experiment with and modify.

At some point, Bloom was able to benefit from some early SMPS applications information published by vendors such as National Semiconductor. But by and large, Bloom, like other engineers at the time, had to learn power-supply design while on the job through much trial-and-error experimentation.

That experience inspired Bloom to expand his consulting business in the early 1980s, so that it offered short courses on power-supply design. Around this time, there were similar efforts being made by others such as Professors David Middlebrook and Slobodan Ćuk from Caltech, who taught power electronics seminars. In the corporate world, Unitrode (now Texas Instruments) also launched its well-known power-supply design seminars, which served to educate the company's customers so they could better use their ICs. Over time, a handful of universities also expanded their efforts to teach power electronics.

Although some engineers will enter the power electronics field after studying in such programs, many will learn the art of power-supply design on the job. For these engineers, the types of seminars that Bloom and others began two decades ago still provide opportunities to learn power electronics theory and real-world design.

These seminars continue to be hosted at the various industry conferences such as the upcoming Power Electronics Technology Conference & Exhibition, which will take place in Dallas, Oct. 28-Nov. 1. As highlighted in a special feature on pages 50-53, this conference hosts two days of professional advancement courses (Oct. 28 and 29) to bring engineers up to speed on control methods, board layout, magnetics design, simulation and various other subjects.

Such courses have become staples of the major power electronics conferences here in the United States and abroad. Then too, more chip suppliers are conducting power design seminars. So it would seem that there are many more options today for engineers looking to study power-supply design. But are enough engineers interested? And are their employers supporting their educational efforts in this regard?

If they are, then why do power-supply design skills seem to be in such short supply at many OEMs? And why, as Bloom observes, do so many engineers continue to view magnetics design as a “black art” despite the availability of seminars, books and other learning materials? The answers to these questions may not be simple, or certain, but they undoubtedly will affect the abilities of many companies to compete in the global marketplace.

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