How to Increase Your Engineering Value in Just 20 Minutes a Day

In my latest quest to improve your abilities as an engineer, I have been profiling the ability to create prototype circuits at home. This blog (See Reference 5) is from a series entitled “Developing Prototype Circuits from Home.” As I was developing my own prototype, I went through my storage unit to pull out some of my parts and reference boards. This encounter produced some gems from my past that inspired me to write a blog about increasing your overall value as an engineer.

My goal is to increase your value in only twenty minutes a day. That is the amount of time that commercials take in a one hour television program. So instead of advancing forward with the DVR or going to the fridge because that food commercial triggered your hunger to go get a snack, here’s the second best thing you can do besides an abdominal workout or throwing dumb bells around.

Bettering your engineering skills involves both the physical circuit evaluation and solving equations. As it turns out, you can probably do both for an investment of under $100. Really? Is this guy nuts? In this world of surface mount, highly integrated silicon, expensive software, and sophisticated test equipment, how can that be? Well, relax folks. I’m a power engineer. I’m expected to 100% efficiency at no cost. Of course you’ll settle for high efficiency at some cost. However, I’m a cheap skate when it comes to investing in my business. I look for deals that allow you to build a lab at minimal expense.

Solving equations is a great way to improve your value. The time spent designing in most engineering jobs is 5-10%. Or at least that was my experience at larger corporations. That number increased at startups but not much considering I developed web pages, marketing plans, business plans….etc. With such a little amount of time invested, you can quickly lose your skills. This happened to me when I decided to go back to graduate school after three and a half years in industry.

In order to refresh my knowledge, I went down to the college bookstore and bought a book titled “Schaum's Outline of Electric Circuits.” Nowadays you just look it up on Amazon (Reference 2, 3). They are up to the sixth edition versus the 2nd edition I used 25 years ago when dinosaurs ruled the earth and cars consumed fuel at a rate faster than Seattleites consume coffee.

Although it took me a summer to get through all of the equations spending about a half hour each night, it really sharpened up my knowledge. Moreover, I was able to think in polar coordinates as well as imaginary numbers again on a regular basis. Investing a summer in order to review four years of college was time well spent. I’d highly recommend you have your aspiring college level offspring invoke on this journey. This outline was written like college level courses whereas one chapter expanded on learnings of the previous chapters.

As for the physical part of improving your value, life is so unfair. Components have shrunk to the point where us fifty somethings can’t even see the darn things. Further frustrating you is the inability to get a scope probe on the lead let alone hook it with the probe. As a final blow, who wants to spend tens of thousands of dollars outfitting a lab? Fear not my friends. El Cheapo to the rescue.

The best way to solve the dilemma of the physical circuit is to invest in the old style plugin breadboard with leaded components. I know what you’re thinking, good luck finding one and then purchasing the components individually let along finding leaded ones. Well folks, I write for this awesome establishment in order to enlighten you. I have a solution. That’s what engineers do. They provide solutions. It even has jumper wires so you don’t end up stripping that old Ethernet cable that’s long since been replaced by wireless in your home. That will keep you from scrounging around in the attic like an uninvited chipmunk for the second time. Those of you who suffered the fate in the 90’s are probably grimacing in agony at that memory.

My solution for a physical lab platform is in the form of the Radio Shack Electronics Learning Lab (Reference 1). Prior to financial strangulation by divorce and cheaper labor, I intended to get one of these for each of my sons. I would wait for Christmas so that the price would drop from $59 to $49. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that these are currently (as of this writing August 2015) going for only $31 smackers. Two for one should give you confidence in my ability to be cheap. These make for excellent hobby kits that will have your kids focusing less on thumb pressing their gizmo and more on the physical world…..and the holidays are just around the corner. No, Radio Shack doesn’t pay me although I could use a break on last minute components for my prototype. I will say that Mouser, Coilcraft, and Fairchild have been more than responsive for providing fast turnarounds.

Perhaps you are thinking, “Big deal getting me a thirty dollar circuit that I have to analyze with a kbucks silly scope.”

As it turns out, there are several smartphone applications such as Oscilloscope Pro (See Reference 6) which turn your phone into an oscilloscope. Perform a google search and you will find both Android and iPhone applications to suit your needs. Just remember, there are voltage limitations to adhere to unless you wish to fry your phone. Don’t be plugging these into the wall until you understand the allowed input ranges.

Like oscilloscopes, digital multimeters (DMMs) have really come down in price. Walmart has DMMs (See Reference 8) for under $10. My suggestion is to get one that has the ability to read current as well as voltage. However you might still have to insert a low value resistor in order to read current with an oscilloscope as current probes are not easily adapted to phone based scope applications. I typically parallel ten 1 ohm resistors to ensure accuracy for measuring current.

One final hint for you. Although the Radio Shack Learning Lab is battery powered, you just might need to make yourself a DC power source. Instead of hiring me, buying a demo board, or stretching a long lead from the cigarette lighter in your car; grab yourself a bunch of these jacks (490-PJ-002AH , See Reference 7) that fit the plug on most computer power supplies. Although they are surface mount products, you can solder wires to them or order through-hole versions.

In addition to smartphone-based oscilloscope applications, you can find some neat little signal generators too. Some versions have PWM capability. Just remember to turn the sound down as the whole office will glare at you like they did me. The one I used would activate the phone’s speaker if I didn’t have a load plugged into the audio jack. Don’t tell your offspring that these signal generator apps are available as they need to experience the frustration of wiring a 555 timer for themselves. It probably won’t work anyway as they have most likely already downloaded the sig gen app between times when they were getting game cheat codes and overusing the world “like”. By the way, I developed an app that counts that overuse for ya!


  1. Radio Shack Electronics Learning Lab
  2. Schaum’s Outline of Electric Circuits, 6th edition by Mahmood Nahvi (Author), Joseph Edminister
  3. Schaum’s Outline of Basic Electrical Engineering 2nd Edition by J. Cathey (Author), Syed A. Nasar (Author)
  4. Developing Prototype Circuits from Home: Part 1, Introduction
  5. Oscilloscope Pro, Android application
  6. CUI PJ-002AH-SMT-TR
  7. Digital Multimeter – 10709

5 comments on “How to Increase Your Engineering Value in Just 20 Minutes a Day

  1. Andrew.Green
    August 31, 2015

    Hello, fellow cheap lab outfitter. I enjoyed your article. Your discussion on using a laptop power supply reminded me of a recent purchase that I have been quite pleased with: it's a breakout module for an ATX desktop computer power supply. Combined with your spare/old ATX power supply this gives you a benchtop power supply delivering -12V, 12V, 5V, and 3.3V.

    Thought this would be right up your alley. I doubt links are allowed so if you are interested an eBay search of “ATX breakout” ought to do the trick. The on/off switch on the breakout board even controls the power supply (in case your PS doesn't have a switch).


  2. StevenHunter
    August 31, 2015

    There are a number of inexpensive oscilloscopes available these days. Just do a search on “pocket oscilloscope” and you will find a bunch from $50 to $250. I paid extra for one that also has a signal generator built in. The user interface sucks, but it gets the job done!

  3. Effective-Technical-Writing dot com
    September 1, 2015

    Thank you for your submittal.  I have tried making a scope out of my phone from old ear plugs.  It's not straight forward as far as the audio jack and the connectors.  The wires are very thin and insulated.  Once you get the insulation off, it's hard to know which of the four sections on the audio jack go to which wire.  The continuity check is confusing as it seems the resistance is low between certain wires.  Best bet is to start with a clean, unwired audio jack connector or of course to investigate these suggestions that you have provided.  Thank you for improving the efficiency of the readers.


  4. Effective-Technical-Writing dot com
    September 1, 2015

    I was aware of using an ATX supply as they are cheap.  You have enlightened me about the “breakout: part of it.  Those interface boards would save a lot of time wiring.  Thanks for improving life for our readers!  I appreciated it!


  5. Mongo647
    September 2, 2015

    I have found the most useful power connectors available lately make it easy to use old wallwarts, specifically the DC Power connection usually found on a wall wart.  As far as sizes and using them today, adapters make this simple.  The most prevelant seems to be the one that is 5.5 mm on the outside and 2.1mm on the inside, usually called a 2.1mm Jack or Plug.  Available from many vendors (look for them in ebay with free shipping) the best are wire-to jack (and plug) adapters that allow easy use of wallwarts as fixed power supplies, by you providing two stripped wires, tightening screws to capture the bare wires.  Also available are 9 volt snap-on battery fittings adapters with a (2.1mm) plug if you want to isolate yourself from AC and a 9 volt battery is adequate.  These have been proven to be quickly useful, and (I consider them) cheap on ebay in lots of five or ten.  RCA plugs and sockets too, BNC plugs and sockets too, all adaptered to clamp-down type screw terminals.  They seem to have become well-used in CCTV camera installations.

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