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Analog Angle Blog

Contrary to Rumor, Analog Circuit Design Is Alive & Exciting

You hear the laments in so many places: “Analog design is dead”, or “They're not teaching analog circuit design anymore”, or “Students all want to write apps, not do analog circuit design.”

Perhaps there is some truth to these claims, but there's also a lot that's mistaken about them. How do I know this? Because for the fifth year, I had the privilege and honor of being a judge for the Texas Instruments Analog Design Contest, which culminates with the awarding of the Engibous prize, named after former TI chairman and CEO Thomas Engibous. (The contest press release is here.) [Disclosure—judges receive an honorarium, as well as the honor of judging.]

The top three prizewinners received well-deserved cash awards, while the ten finalist team members attended a three-day event in Dallas to present their projects and meet TI experts. (Due to a schedule conflict, I could not attend, unfortunately).

The rules are fairly modest. Each design requires full documentation, of course, and must use a few TI parts (but not exclusively). Since the specific parts to be used are not called out, the teams have a pretty large field from which to choose. This requirement is really not limiting or burdensome. The teams have to build the project, or at least try to. Not every finalist project makes it to completion within the time limit. Welcome to reality, I say.

As you'd expect from an analog-centric design environment, the projects were not merely software applications to help you find the nearest ethnic restaurant, or GUIs with lots of flash and color. Each project interfaced with real-world signals and equipment, including motors, ECG signals, test signals, and much more. Just looking at the titles of the finalist projects gives you a clear sense of the diversity and creativity involved in these projects:

  • an ECG Demonstration board
  • an AMSAT maximum power-point tracker
  • an improved Tesla coil
  • a tablet-assisted mortar aiming/firing unit
  • a disposable, low power blood glucose meter
  • a wireless-instrumentation network for test aircraft
  • a food-safety assessment device
  • an automated pill dispenser
  • a low-power bird-call recorder
  • an automatic guitar-tuning system with motorized tuning heads

All the finalist projects were genuinely impressive, in many ways. Each entry was judged on originality of design, creativity of design, level of engineering analysis (typically 50-100 pages, plus code listings), and quality of written description of how each TI analog IC or processor benefited the overall design. Students designed and built circuit boards, monitored signals, debugged circuitry and code, and did all the things any project team would do (except get the design ready for volume manufacturing).

The winner was a somewhat outside-the-box entry (good!): Adam Munich, a freshman from Rochester Institute of Technology, whose project focused on an improved Tesla coil. His design featured a 10 kVA IGBT H-bridge, which switches at the primary current zero crossing point. No doubt about it, there's nothing casual about managing this level of voltage and power. It is not for the meek or foolish.

The contest will be running again next year, and teams are already getting their projects planned and started, I am sure. As in the past years, I look forward to their creativity, and to discussions of the issues, problems, challenges, and solutions. I look forward, perhaps most of all, to the sheer enthusiasm and energy which come through via their reports.

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5 comments on “Contrary to Rumor, Analog Circuit Design Is Alive & Exciting

  1. RedDerek
    August 29, 2013

    I like the guitar tuning concept. It could be applied to all types of string instruments where by the system can detect where the finger is placed, it would monitor for that frequency and adjust the tension automatically to meet that note.

    If playing, the system could almost tune dynamically and keep the instrument in tune throughout the performance.

    Flip-side… if some bug works in, it could make the music really off key. 🙂

  2. samicksha
    August 30, 2013

    Analog is little complicated if compared to digital apart from fact that computers do things faster analog still keeps its resemblance safe, DSPs are trying to get faster while only analog circuits can do serious signal processing at high frequencies.

  3. Brad_Albing
    September 3, 2013

    @RedDerek – like auto-tune for singers. Of course, it does tend to take away from the need for skill in the artform. In other words, I like the idea of a guitar tuner when used initially (before you start playing), but not after.

  4. TheMeasurementBlues
    September 4, 2013

    I have a guitar tuner that senses vibration in the neck. The nice thing about that is because it senses vibration and doens;t liste for sound, you can use the tuner in noisy places. Mine is not in the link above because apparently it's been replaced. The tuner built into a capo looks cool and useful.

  5. DennisS
    March 26, 2019

    Gibson makes/sells an auto-tuning guitar. They don't seem to be highly rated on the guitar sites that I checked. I have a number of head-stock mounted tuners (one per instrument). They all work reliably, differening only in display, size, and battery life. As for dynamically tuning during a played note, that's a non-starter. It is common to bend the string to intentionally alter the pitch and I don't want some computer deciding what I wanted for a particular note.

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