Thursday, August 5, 2010

National Engineering Week - Electronics

In yesterday's post I said that electrical engineering is all about electricity - power stations, transmission grids and HVAC were my examples. Trying to sum up electronics engineering in a single word is like trying to dig the Panama canal with a forked stick - it just ain't gonna happen. Suffice to say, electronics is all the other stuff that uses electricity.

So examples that affect your daily life include: the computer or phone that you're reading this blog on, all the background stuff that makes the internet work, your TV, radio, wristwatch (unless you wind its mechanism every day by hand, it's got electronics in it), digital cameras/video cameras, portable DVD players, speed cameras, red light cameras, smoke alarms, just to name a few.

Although computers are ubiquitous, to the point that even a cheap calculator has more computing power than the Apollo program, and you can buy programmable calculators with more power than could be dreamt of 20 years ago, I think wristwatches are one of the coolest applications of electronics. That's mainly because of an article I read on a flight to Adelaide a few years ago. It was an interview with one of the senior designers at Seiko, talking about all the things they did to make their top end (think 5 figure price tag) watches work. The accuracy of the components, the efficiency of the circuit - most consumer batteries work at milli-amp current levels. This guy could tell you where every micro-amp was used! (There are 1000 micro-amps in a milli-amp if you didn't know). Like a lot of higher end watches these days, it had a small solar cell and other cool tricks to harvest energy from its environment. I wish I could remember more about it, but when you finished the article, you could understand why the watch cost so much, it's an engineering masterpiece.

But electronics engineers still make enough mistakes... like the unintended acceleration problem with Toyota vehicles earlier this year, or Dell's exploding laptop, or the famous calculation problem with early model Pentium chips from Intel.

If you've ever had trouble understanding what I do for a living, come back tomorrow and read our final post in this series. It might help. A little. Maybe.

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