Analog Designers: Today vs. Yesterday

Can analog designers be as creative today as they were five, ten, twenty, or fifty years ago? Are they able to solve today's problems in a world filled with significantly more complex technological issues? Can analog designers continue to harness and enhance their creativity?

As I think of today's world of electronics and how it changes every day, I wonder if analog designers are able to use the same principles and techniques in design, problem solving, and troubleshooting as they did in the past. Maybe this is nothing new — maybe analog designers have been adapting to changes to technology for years and just adjusting the principles.

Is analog design an ever changing environment? I guess if we use the fundamentals of a design process, understand the technology, and understand the application our analog circuit will be in, then the ever changing world may not matter. I think that, compared to digital design, analog can be much more difficult, since there are many more unknowns and not enough equations to find the perfect answers to the problems.

Is analog getting harder to design? Maybe. Is it still important, still relevant? I personally believe it will never go away. It will become more critical in our industry. I just think you have to stay with the fundamentals and learn, learn, learn the ever changing and new technologies.

I hated story problems back in high school. I always seemed to know the answers, just never knew how to work them out. I think designing analog circuits and systems is similar: I find it is best done when working backwards from a solution.

I feel that analog design will always be needed and a critical part of our world, especially with clock speeds and sample rates increasing. Even some of the simpler designs — LCD back lights, some sensors, and battery-management circuits — rely heavily on analog. I am just pondering whether analog design is getting more difficult. I wonder if analog engineers are becoming a rarer entity. Are they still in high demand or do companies just want digital and software engineers?

Digital design probably takes over the majority of the market so there are probably many more digital designers out there. We have lost a lot of analog designers. But will we ever be able to do without?

Let me know your thoughts. Is analog becoming more difficult, yet more critical, and will we have enough analog designers to keep enhancing our technology? Have those analog designers changed their ways of thinking through a design?

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22 comments on “Analog Designers: Today vs. Yesterday

  1. Scott Elder
    August 12, 2013

    With any technology discipline every subsequent generation needs to move to the next higher level of abstraction in problem solving.  There will, for a long time afterwards, still be a need for a few of the next generation to stay behind to maintain the lower level innovations, but the majority need to move on.  And that's because the ability to differentiate products becomes tougher and tougher.  

    At some point, most lower level products become good enough.  Two or three options are all that is needed.  In the case of PC computing, apparently two are now good enough–Intel and ARM.  

    Here is a thought problem–how much of the analog industry would disappear if high energy density nuclear batteries were readily available at multiple voltage levels?  My guess is more than 70%.  My smartphone doesn't get too hot.  It just doesn't hold a battery charge very long.

  2. Netcrawl
    August 13, 2013

    Nice topic! interesting one, most of the predictions and expectations of an analog IC demise in the new era of digital age were overblown ( they simply missed here), the reality is digital era has been notable in reshaping of the analog industry- the massive growth in digital industry has just added some thing in the analog world, its lifted the interface and power management segments.

    Analog ICs are pretty much alive and doing well these days, currently it represent the largest revenue share category digital mobile devices, where most RF and baseband signals are handled by analog ICs. 

  3. fasmicro
    August 14, 2013

    >> Here is a thought problem–how much of the analog industry would disappear if high energy density nuclear batteries


    @Scott, I am very curious. How can I get this expertise on HD energy nuclear batteries. It could be really impactful based on your comment. Any material on its design and development?

  4. goafrit2
    August 14, 2013

    >>They might sound dangerous, but nuclear batteries have been safely powering devices such as pace-makers, satellites and underwater systems for years.

    That sounds really fascinating that this has been there and used inside people. Not sure I am getting good education and awareness in this Facebook era. Never head of this type of battery until this thread. Yet, even with the density, it is not a threat to the analog business world It can even grow the sector by giving efficient power to systems.

  5. RedDerek
    August 14, 2013

    Nuclear batteries work by one of two methods. The article talks about direct conversion to electrons. The other method is what is used in satellites and space probes – heat generation. Then they use a TEG to generate the electricity.

  6. RedDerek
    August 14, 2013

    Nuclear batteries – problem is that they are not rechargeable by plugging into the wall. 😉

    I see analog designers always using the same basic tools. It is the application of the higher tool development that changes as time progresses. But the key to all the designers is essentially breaking the problem down to manageable parts.

  7. Scott Elder
    August 14, 2013

    If I have a nuclear battery that doesn't need recharging for 10 years, I think I get to drop lots of analog electronics from modern products.  For example, I don't need a charger IC.  And then I don't need the entire external charger.  And then the USB ports which are designed to power chargers up to +1A don't need to provide anything but signals so the USB regulators go away.  And I don't need a coulomb counter to monitor state of charge.  And I don't need a current sense resistor to drop power measuring the charging/discharging current or sensing wakeup.

    The list of things that aren't required is pretty big.  And then a lot of innovation over the past 5-10 years has been focused on energy conservation. This all becomes moot.  Who would then care if 70% efficiency goes to 95% at 10mA light load currents for a bluetooth radio?

    Over 50% of the analog semiconductor industry is power management ICs.

    Think about appliances.  If a nuclear battery can power the entire control electronics of an oven or refrigerator, the entire low voltage power path from the AC wall socket disappears.

  8. SunitaT
    August 20, 2013

    I think today we also have several intelligent analog design engineers like before. These Engineers and researchers could take the analog industry further and could create new invention. These analog designers will keep enhancing our technology.

  9. Guru of Grounding
    August 22, 2013

    I've been an analog circuit designer for 40 years, specializing in, but not limited to, professional audio. In the earliest days, analog ICs were rare (and frankly pretty awful), so most of my designs involved discrete bipolar transistors. An analog engineer actually had to really understand how semiconductors and vacuum tubes (they weren't dead yet) work … and what all those parameters on data sheets meant. And to solve a problem, you had to think conceptually and build breadboards and test them. There were few, if any, analog circuit functions beyond an op-amp available as an IC and even more rare were ready-to-go “reference designs” by manufacturers. If you wanted to turn out anything decent, you had to know what you were doing. Today, I see most (fortunately, not all) engineers that call themselves “analog designers” as little more than folks who can sort-of understand a manufacturers app note or manage to stitch together several “reference designs”. I've interviewed job candidates that couldn't draw a schematic of a single-transistor amplifier stage and bias it up. One of the problems is schools who apparently believe analog is dead. Another is that engineers whose training is in digital design trivialize analog, especially audio interestingly, and think that they can do that part of the design, too. As a result, there's some pretty abysmal audio stuff out there … especially with regard to understanding things that sound so simple … like board and system-level grounding or signal interfaces. But, if you're good, there's plenty of work … and it pays well, too. Ultimately, even digital circuits are analog … consider things like “ground bounce” or signal delays and phase shifts that close “eye patterns”, etc. Of course, the proliferation of “power management” ICs, batteries, etc. is fueled by the trendy fascination with portable and wireless everything by the public. iMHO, reality will finally set in … information theory will eventually stop everyone from using the internet for streaming video of dubious quality and batteries will be recognized as a very serious pollution problem. OK, enough rant. The article asks some excellent questions – and I sure don't have all the answers. – Bill Whitlock, president & chief engineer, Jensen Transformers, Inc., AES Life Fellow, IEEE Life Senior

  10. Hughston
    August 22, 2013

    One of my coworkers went to an popular engineering school near you and their instructor said you don't really need to understand transistors any more because they are rarely used. This was 15 years ago. I know how to bias a transistor but I have to admit, I rarely need them now. You remember when transistors were needed to improve on existing op amps. Most of the time they're just used as a switch, but I'll bet people don't understand the transistor parameters in that application either. One thing I have noticed is that LTSPICE uses generic models for many transistors and they are not even close to the part's parameters. So, a lot of engineers that trust their simulation results better check again.

    A lot of people still use an LM324 for audio thinking it is a good part when there are other much better parts on the market for almost the same price. Bob Pease called the LM324 the worst op amp on the market. It can be used for basic voice audio if you just don't use it as a preamp.

  11. Josh Forgione
    August 24, 2013

    I see a few factors at play.  One is the change in technology and education that others have heavily cited.  Another is an age and experience gap. 

    We have a wave of engineers with great analog experience retiring, and frankly only about 25% of those are capable of (or interested in) communicating to anybody else.  I see many that are more interested in wanking about how younger engineers don't know anything.  This is counterproductive.  I ask that more of the older generation step up and start mentoring.  The mentors I had early on made a huge impact; it really matters. 

    The work dynamic is also changing.  Heavy analog design ability takes focused hands-on experience to develop, and there isn't a ton of straight-analog work out there.  Any project with great analog I've worked on also has plenty of software, digital, meetings, and heavy coordination to deal with.  The actual analog work (which is my preference) is about 10% of the job.  So the younger batch of engineers will simply take a long time to develop into strong analog designers.  

  12. Brad_Albing
    August 26, 2013

    @Scott – hadn't ever thought about analog design needs purely from the power perspective. Not surprisingly, hadn't ever thought about nuclear batteries either. I'll have to research them and write a blog. Unlees you want to.

  13. Brad_Albing
    August 26, 2013

    @Guru – got to get you blogging on Planet Analog.

  14. Brad_Albing
    August 26, 2013

    @RedDerek – I need the version that converts directly to electrons. And I need them in a D-cell size package.

  15. goafrit2
    September 18, 2013

    >> Nuclear batteries work by one of two methods.

    Like the guys that thought that MRI having anything to do with nuclear will scare people in hospitals, the word “nuclear” before a battery may make many people uncomfortable. Think they need a different name if they hope to scale and diffuse into many industries.

  16. goafrit2
    September 18, 2013

    >> But the key to all the designers is essentially breaking the problem down to manageable parts.

    Actually, it is not for only designers. The best talent in this age is figuring how to break and solve complex issues. From app engineer to nuclear researcher, that is the key element. Anything is complex unless you can find ways to simplify things. Electronics design is not a small fry and that is why you get fewer startups in that domain than in software.

  17. goafrit2
    September 18, 2013

    >>   If a nuclear battery can power the entire control electronics of an oven or refrigerator

    But before you celebrate the engineering solution, you need to convince a skeptical user that he can have a “nuclear” battery powered system in his house. That could be a tougher challenge than having those wall sockets.

  18. goafrit2
    September 18, 2013

    >> So the younger batch of engineers will simply take a long time to develop into strong analog designers.  

    @Josh, that is a great insight. I think the problem is also the way the older engineers work. I have one that does not like PCs or any of the sims. He is not interested in the updated versions that Cadence pops out yearly. But the younger ones see design as app development where if that sims does not work, change the size of that cap. The older ones spend time to calculate and think. Unless more money is paid to the analog designers in the future, they will struggle with talents.

  19. Brad_Albing
    September 25, 2013

    @goafrit2 – perhaps EverFissile or DuraFissile.

  20. Gustavo Fernandes
    December 6, 2013

    “…if that sims does not work, change the size of that cap..”

    I had an experience in analog design at a big company in Brazil. They work exactly like that.

    “…The older ones spend time to calculate and think..”

    I am in my late forties and I have a good habit to think and calculate before simulating thanks to a good education in analog theory. However, people in that company think this is a waste of time. They include a lot of patch circuits to meet the specs and look for the right capacitor and transistor sizes using a trial-and-error process. This is very time consuming and results in unnecessary complex circuits. A proper circuit analysy would reveal “the secrets of the circuit”, i.e. what are the parameters that affect the output. 

    I like a sentence that says: “don't let computers think for you”



  21. goafrit2
    December 6, 2013

    >> I am in my late forties and I have a good habit to think and calculate before simulating thanks to a good education in analog theory

    The problem with that construct is that you need to know what you are doing. If you use the hack-sim method, take an old design, you can modify it without an idea what goes in that makes the desired specs to come out. It turns out that you may not have to really understand how OTA works VERY well to modify an old one to give you a desired gain.

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