Analog Engineers Write Code! Or Maybe Not

At my previous job as an FAE, I assisted our sales team in the attempt to sell digital power supply controller ICs. These were controller ICs in the sense that you added your own power FETs to a device that contained all the control loop circuitry. I mention this detail since sometimes the term is used for ICs that are monitoring or sequencing multiple power supplies. More on that in a minute.

The control loop for these ICs was digitally based and as such, had far more features than a conventional controller. You could easily change the output voltage (within a predefined range). You could monitor input voltage, output voltage, and current temperature, and a couple other pertinent parameters. You could even modify the control loop parameters (the analog loop P, I, and D parameters) as needed. And you could report the info to the microcontroller in the system for data logging purposes (or to off-site data logging).

Monitoring all this had a number of advantages. One advantage that is especially significant is the ability to predict the need for maintenance. If you see the loop parameters slowly changing over time, you could assume that components (mostly the capacitors) are changing value.

The graphical user interface (GUI) for the parts was fairly easy to master. By tinkering with an evaluation board, an engineer could see the performance advantage. But most of the analog engineers with whom I spoke never seemed to warm up to the concepts embodied in these devices. Is this digital stuff just too scary?

I see that Linear Technology is looking at some new devices that are not the controllers as described above, but are control ICs. In this case, that means an IC that can sequence multiple supplies. It can also monitor input voltage, output voltage, and output current. And there are provisions to adjust output voltage of the existing power supply ICs.

Linear Technology will offer software to give this control IC the needed intelligence. So I'm wondering how this will be received by the analog engineering community. Will you shy away from anything where you might need to write a small amount of code? What if it's just a simple GUI? Still too scary?

One of my fellow bloggers, Jacob Beningo, wrote a very nice blog that should help those engineers that find that they must learn more of that which those other guys do. Have a look at 10 software tips for hardware engineers. Let me know your thoughts on this issue because it's not going away.

9 comments on “Analog Engineers Write Code! Or Maybe Not

  1. goafrit2
    January 31, 2013

    I have a friend here who is afraid of being asked to find a coding solution to his job. There is that fear that once management thinks it is about coding, the job moves to Asia. Sure, we do write codes, but if you are in America and writing a lot of codes as a designer and working for a mid-size firm, update your resume. Coding burns people in this industry because the jobs always move.

  2. Michael Dunn
    February 1, 2013

    Ha, any schlub can write code (“software engineer” tee hee), but it takes actual talent to do analog. Nothing to fear.

  3. eafpres
    February 3, 2013

    Depending on where you are in the value chain, firmware/software is accounting for a rapidly increasing share of total value (revenues).  I'd be cautious to dismiss those “coders” too fast.  I also see that a lot of companies are disappointed with remote/outsourced software efforts so those jobs may move back closer to the hardware in the future.  Might be a good idea even for an analog engineer to learn a new (programming) language!

  4. Brian Dotson
    February 6, 2013

    I can think of one area where an analog engineer is better qualified to write code than a guy with a pure programming background. That would be DSP code for audio processing. It is impossible to do such coding correctly without knowledge of purely analog signals concepts such as gain, DC offset, zero – crossing, clipping, etc. Show me a CS graduate who can navigate those software waters!

    I have extensive analog hardware design background, and a little bit of audio DSP under my belt. One of my professional goals is to become much more proficient in DSP signal process coding in C (or assembler if tight timing constraints drive me to it). it seems like a natural complement to my skills as an audio hardware design engineer.

  5. eafpres
    February 6, 2013

    Hi Brian–yes, application specific knowledge is essential.  Sounds like an excellent reason for collaboration. Early in my career I did a lot of code because I understood the problems and could “figure out” the programming languages.  But today there are code experts who are way more efficient and when you get into specific processors or chipsets they have to be very tight with code.

  6. Earl54
    February 7, 2013

    Or is it that the added value of the digital controllers is in many cases not really valuable?  The added cost in many cases is not worth it.  The voltage is easily changed on an analog controller, just change a resistor value.  It can't be done on the fly, but our processor people don't want the overhead to tell the controller to change its voltage anyway, so I couldn't use that feature.  Similarly, if I don't have a place to report the ageing of the output, it doesn't matter that I can sense it.  So don't tell me I'm afraid of the code.  There is no compelling reason to move from the dirt cheap analog controllers at this time, for our designs.  When the processor folks start wanting the extra capabilities, I'll get more serious about the controllers.

  7. Brad Albing
    February 12, 2013

    Certainly this sort of detailed data logging and reporting is not for everyone. Same thing with being able to tweak the output voltage slightly – not for everyone. Some designs and products are just not that sophisticated. If you're building products that are sort of dumb, no need to change. If you need the level of sophistication to which we are referring here (such as with tel-com, server, or medical diagnostic equipment) then you will likely unerstand the need for these sorts of digital based controllers. And design accordingly.

  8. Brad Albing
    March 28, 2013

    I agree – I can write code if I must, but I'd rather be designing analog (we should get bumper stickers printed).

    Rather like what my buddies and I used to say about the mechanical engineers (when they failed to design and fabricate what we thought the product specifications called for and we had to fabricate parts in the model shop): Electronic design engineers can do mechanical design; the reverse is not true.

  9. Michael Dunn
    March 28, 2013

    We can also do civil design, chemical design, hydraulic, architectural, aerospace, etc design. To varying degrees of course 😉

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