Are Today’s Design Tools Taking Away Our Critical Thinking Ability?

From bread boards to simulation tools, from the soldering iron to pick and place machines, from manually soldered wires to CNC prototypes, from the lab to the laptop, much of our design process has changed over the years. Any technology that is made to save us time, make our jobs easier, and make us more efficient can also make us lose our ability to think critically.

Don’t get me wrong, having Altium Designer, a bench-top CNC prototype machine, and a simulation tool that allows you to plug in your components while it spits out all your voltages and recommended layout, values, and schematics while you sit back drinking a Mountain Dew (or possibly RC Cola) and eating a Hot Pocket is great, but do you still need that opportunity to evaluate the circuit yourself?

I took several drafting classes in school — a mix of manual board drawing and 3D modeling on the computer. Everyone thought that actually using pencils and paper to draw was crazy and something you did back in the 70s. Why can’t we just use the computer and punch in a few commands to make the shapes we need instead of taking hours to draw the same design? The short answer is that drawing by hand forced us to think through every drawn line and eraser mark. It gave us the ability to understand measurements and true lengths of lines and details.

What are the benefits of the nice tools if they do most of the work for us and take away our ability to think through the most critical part of the development? Do you find yourself spending less time in the lab and more in front of the computer? Do you rely mostly on simulation tools, or do you just use them as an initial means to check your design idea before building the circuit and testing it manually on the bench?

I can remember the days of doing the initial evaluation on a bread board and then after completing the bread board test, manually making solder traces to each component, and throwing in the occasional 30AWG wire to jump traces. I used a piece of copper clad PCB prototype material that I would cut on a band saw to get the correct size and shape I needed. I did a lot of component soldering with my handy tweezers, magnifying glass, and solder sucker. I don’t know — maybe my company just didn’t have the budget to get up to date on the latest and greatest design tools, but I sure learned a lot and gained a great appreciation for the work I had done. Yes, Altium designer could throw down about a hundred traces and the exact spacings needed with the component holes having the exact shape and clearance, but it couldn’t give me the same way of thinking to open up my mind as it would by manually creating the same traces with a soldering iron on a rough edged piece of PCB material.

There was nothing better than writing down calculations on my bench and checking resistor values by the color codes or calculating in my head how much current my system was going to pull from the power supply. Yes, I could have taken 10 minutes and plugged in all the components in the simulation tool and have it tell me the exact amount of current my circuit would draw out to 137 decimal places. But that wouldn’t allow my brain to fire from every direction and put me in the deep thinking mode that writing down the formulas and running through calculations with a pencil does.

Maybe I am old-school or maybe I just like to think. Let me know what you do and what the advantages and disadvantages are to what I call manual design versus computer simulation and design.

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4 comments on “Are Today’s Design Tools Taking Away Our Critical Thinking Ability?

  1. Netcrawl
    April 11, 2013

    @Scott computer-aided designed are quite effective and awesome., it revolutionize the entire processing ( from scratch to final stage), I think its far more  faster and better to get the works on computers than the old way. Its give us  “a lift” in designing, especially in prototyping efforts.    

  2. Brad Albing
    April 11, 2013

    >>In the hands of someone who doesn't know how to use it, it can be dangerous.

    So, e.g., don't give a chain-saw to a 9-year old.

    I tend to agree that the tools are getting to be pretty good so that you don't need to build the IC as discrete components first – not that you'd want to with the complexity of the devicese today. We aren't talking about modeling an op-amp, but something far more complex.

  3. Jason Bowden
    April 12, 2013

    I agree with what everyone is saying, my point is, do engineers open up and use their minds as they use to before all the tools that speeded everything up and made things easier?


    I think my story was sparked, when I seen a guy the other day use a calculator to add the following 3 numbers at a local store: $75 + $15 +3


  4. -gt-
    April 17, 2013

    I am rather skeptical to simulation tools but from time to time I try to use it.  Today there are small tools to predict a battery life. Used several times for Freescale HCS08 I was quite happy to get the first information fast. Last year I moved to SiliconLabs Battery Estimator, even easier with several profiles but one moment I got idea to compare AA alkaline to lithium. The Self Discharge Current was same. The problem was in simple ini files for batteries and I got a correct one from support. Even the very good tool depends on the correct data . Today there is a new  Battery LifeEstimator on website – now without the ini files. Funny – the self discharge current in your simulation is the same for alkaline and lithium again.

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