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The Plight of the Working Electronics Lab

Let’s talk about something near and dear to my old, shriveled heart: the electronics lab. Recently I’ve wondered if lab work is becoming obsolete. To me, the key to a robust design is testing and wringing things out. If I’m choosing a part or architecture, I hope there is someone, somewhere in the world who tested the thing thoroughly and tried to break it, so we know the positives and negatives, the benefits and the drawbacks. To me, the key to innovation is trying things, even crazy things, to see what happens. Perhaps my experience is wrong in today's socially networked, online, vendor-leveraged, outsourced, quick-turnaround engineering world.

Are there more and more lab facilities being built each year, or is there a net loss as facilities close? Are young people as excited by the soldering iron and the oscilloscope as they are by CAD and simulation tools? We’re all familiar with the glorious chaos of Jim Williams’s famous lab (now reconstructed and maintained as a form of Dali-esque technological art). I’m a slob with all of my treasures spread out, but nowhere near Jim’s class. See Jim’s desk below in Figure 1 and my desk in Figure 2.

Figure 1

Jim Williams's desk (Source: Linear Technology)

Jim Williams’s desk
(Source: Linear Technology)

Figure 2

Ken Coffman's desk

Ken Coffman's desk

If Bell Labs started today, what would it be called? Bell Studio? BellBook? Go-Bell? BellSoft? Bell Incubator?

What does a working, effective lab look like these days? Is it a pristine, modern, and compact showcase, or is it filled with 40-year-old equipment that has not worked for the last 10 years, like mine? As a trade and a profession, where is electrical engineering headed? Will we ever see a Harvard or Stanford MBA BS501 class called “If the Engineer Is Productive, Leave Him or Her Alone”?

Do you have a lab? If so, what does it look like? (Send pictures!) What key equipment do you have? Is your lab at home or in a corporate facility? Put on your pointy wizard’s hat and tell me what your lab will look like in five years.

If you send a picture, there will be two fabulous iPod Shuffle prizes — one in Jim Williams’s name and one for the picture that amuses me the most.

— Ken Coffman is a Field Applications Engineer and Member of the Technical Staff at Fairchild Semiconductor. (His postings are his own and don’t necessarily represent the opinions or positions of Fairchild Semiconductor).

32 comments on “The Plight of the Working Electronics Lab

  1. Davidled
    October 11, 2014

    Lap should be clean on desk with tool including floor. All electronic passive components should be stored in each plastic storage box inside cabinet. Wire is supposed to be hanging up against wall. Prototype board might be located in the separate desk. Also, company needs to provide the environment to engineers for Innovative and creative idea.

  2. kencoffman
    October 12, 2014

    I have a suspicion, Dae, that over the years of Jim Williams' long career, many of his managers agreed with you. Given he was one of the most productive and inspired analog designers, ever, what do you do? Tolerate him working exactly the way he wished or force him to conform? Fire him and purge his untidiness from the professional workplace? Who should determine how an engineer should work? The boss or the person doing the work? Thank you for checking in and offering your opinion.

  3. bjcoppa
    October 12, 2014

    Self exploration at an early age including science fairs and competitions wets the appetite of the next generation of engineers while they are students. The US needs to encourage more to pursue these fields as most companies prefer hiring fresh college grads where most of the job growth happens as opposed to experienced hires.

  4. ue2014
    October 13, 2014

    I am in a middlee point of view in thi regards. When you say a “Working Lab”, it definitely could not be a very clean and tidy place (Like a girls room as we say) and it also should not be a mess like a young bachelor's room too. Testing could be done in a location and items should be kept separated in different locations for safety and easy identifications. It will definitely help the user also to have a productive testing.

  5. Scott Elder
    October 13, 2014

    I design ICs for a living.  Have done so for decades.  If you find an IC design engineer in a lab, that usually means there's a problem–not a good thing.  The best IC designers never spend much time in a lab except when answering questions for the Applications Engineers who intentionally beat a part up and succeed 🙂  The IC design tools are that good if you (a) know their limitations and (b) have had enough lab experience early in your career to know how components and PCBs “really” work.

    So, at least from my admittedly narrow perspective, Ken you're right.  My lab collects lots of dust.

     

  6. kencoffman
    October 13, 2014

    Often, I see problems boil down to a peak-to-average problem. That might seem obscure, but it's far better to have something and not need it, than the converse. In other words, you might need something once a year (or once a decade), but if the need is extreme, then it's worth keeping around and available. The reason I have so much “stuff” is I don't know what's coming and I prefer to be ready. Or, I'm a hopeless packrat and I love my treasures far too much.

    There is no one answer to this question: how should we work? I expect enlightened management (is that an oxymoron?) to cater to your preferred style. Not wholly, but mostly. And considering creativity and innovation? Is that even possible in a disciplined way or are certain amounts of whimsy, irreverence, chaos and clutter integral components?

  7. Scott Elder
    October 13, 2014

    Ken,

    I learned long ago after many endless nights staring into the headache-inducing reflected light of a microscope for hours upon hours, in the dead of winter, in a city far far from family and home, that doing things right the first time has personal value beyond that of business management preferences.

    Similarly, I suspect Field AEs are not fond of long distance airline travel to obscure foreign cities fixing application problems that were best caught at home.

    My grandfather, no doubt like others, would tell me that it is always best to measure twice, cut once, when working with wood.  I try to practice that approach with IC circuit design.  Modernized: simulate twice, make masks once.  And then standback in awe as the FAEs sit smiling upon their PCB with all the flashing lights while telling their son on the phone they'll see them at the game at 4pm. 🙂

    I'd add one new phrase to the wood-cutting advice.  “… and question everything.”

     

  8. katgod
    October 15, 2014

    “Company Policy for Lab” You have to wonder where the Company policy came from and whether it makes the people more or less productive in that Company. I am willing to bet the policy did not come from the people that work in the Lab but that is to be expected.

     

     

  9. robtmblood
    October 15, 2014

    Ken – have you ever worked in the Puget Sound region? I mean how many Ken Coffmans could there be who think like you and I?  I'm 70 years old – Honeywell tolerates me (grudgingly) 'cause my cluttered mind (and even MORE cluttered desk and lab benches) bears continual fruit… Especially when some rigid adherer to order lets the magic smoke out and can't figure out why simulation didn't predict it…

  10. kencoffman
    October 15, 2014

    Yes, Mike, that's me, Ken from Seattle. Thanks for checking in, I'm glad I'm not alone. Is it only we older guys that appreciate the creative chaos of a productive lab?

  11. robtmblood
    October 15, 2014

    Well I'll be!

    And it was Sundstrand/Allied-sig/Honeywell…

    They are always trying to get me to clean up my act – just too busy. It's funny though, HSE came through testing all of the benches for toxic residue – out of some 180 benches mine was the only one with negligable residue – and I'm always working there. Clutter is not toxic – micromanaging is toxic.

     

    Thanks for responding.

    mike b.

  12. chirshadblog
    October 15, 2014

    @kencoffmen: Well I think it does not have any age limit as such. Its in practice that happens.

  13. Davidled
    October 16, 2014

    There are messy series: Messy Desk, Messy Lap, Messy Mind, Messy house.  Let us clean up everything. Sometimes, messy environment might create unique idea as debris could be a part of circuit element.     

  14. antedeluvian
    October 16, 2014

    Ken

    If Bell Labs started today, what would it be called? Bell Studio? BellBook? Go-Bell? BellSoft? Bell Incubator?


    How about Bellfry?

  15. antedeluvian
    October 16, 2014

    Lap should be clean on desk with tool including floor. All electronic passive components should be stored in each plastic storage box inside cabinet. Wire is supposed to be hanging up against wall. Prototype board might be located in the separate desk. Also, company needs to provide the environment to engineers for Innovative and creative idea.


    Some people are untidy and some aren't. Trying to enforce tidiness on someone who is untidy will only result in work dissatisfaction and quite possibly loss of a valuable resource. Company policies that do not take into consideration the needs of different people will ensure that only certain types of people work for them and so may lose the benefits of altenative viewpoints.

    I myself am untidy with a desk/bench that often approximates Jim Williams' desk, to say nothing about what I have stacked on the floor. Although I am nowhere near as smart and productive as Jim, my boss considers that I am vital to the organization and never criticizes my work area. In fact he has gone even further- when we moved locations I got a much bigger workspace to fill with more equipment. When I asked for, I got a window that opens! Probably the only office with that feature the the whole of Ontario. Am I likely to move to another employer? There's far more to a job than just money.

  16. kencoffman
    October 16, 2014

    Ah, Antedeluvian, I salute you. Thanks for checking in. I'd buy a circuit design from you anytime, no problem. Insert a picture. All of you, please, let's see your workspace. Someone will win the valuable prizes–it will look bad if I keep them for myself. Here, at risk of ever working in this industry again, I'll capture a snapshot of my desk for your horror or amusement.

     

     

  17. kencoffman
    October 16, 2014
    Video Comment
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  18. antedeluvian
    October 16, 2014

    Ken

     Insert a picture. All of you, please, let's see your workspace. Someone will win the valuable prizes–it will look bad if I keep them for myself.

    As a blogger, I am not sure if I am eligible for the prize, but you asked for it. There are 3 shots. I can't get a wide enough angle to give you the full view with some boxes on the floor, but you should get some idea.

    Picture 1 and 2 are nominally the same showing a calibration jig I built and am testing. You can see my scope on the VDU arm (to give me more space). There is also an assortment of 4 Android tablets nestled around the desktop PC to test different units with the app I wrote. You can see a PC on rollaway wheels on the floor. This is my last PC, kept for legacy issues (there are another 2 elsewhere in the building).

    Missing is my Fluke documenting Process Calibrator, model 743B which is out for calibration. You can also see  a load consisting of 6 light bulbs (I have blog planned on the subject of loads) on the floor. The device below the scope is also an adjustable load made up of fixed resistors and a variable load. At the bottom of Picture 2 you can see a foot operated power switch. The variable load has fans in it and I hate the whine while I am thinking or making unrelated measurments so I simply step on the switch when I need to activate the load and then remove my foot to turn it off.

    You can see an assortment of screwdrivers on the right of the bench (below the scope), and some smaller ones in the top left of Picture1.

    By the way, sometimes I have 3 or 4 projects on the go and it is even messier!

    Pasting the pictures results in very large images- so here are the links

    Picture1

    Picture2

    Picture3

  19. jimfordbroadcom
    October 16, 2014

    First of all, the photos of the late, great Jim William's and Ken Coffman's desks appear to be their lab benches.  I'll show both my desk and lab bench from work, and as a bonus, my lab bench at home and my officemate's desk for comparison.  Assuming I can get the files off my smartphone and attached here.  No luck so far.

    Unfortunately I wasn't able to see antedeluvian's pictures as I got an error.  I think our firewall is blocking them.  Unusual, because I haven't had this problem before.  I guess other images have been embedded.

  20. antedeluvian
    October 16, 2014

    Jim

    Unfortunately I wasn't able to see antedeluvian's pictures as I got an error.  I think our firewall is blocking them.  Unusual, because I haven't had this problem before.  I guess other images have been embedded.

    Picture1 has a bitly counter on it and I can see that there have been 5 accesses. All 3 are hosted on dropbox as public files. Has anybody else experienced access problems?

  21. kencoffman
    October 16, 2014

    I was able to see (and admire) the Antediluvian test benches. There's even protective mesh to keep managers fingers out of some of the high voltage areas. The only thing missing is the helpful warning sign we had in a lab years ago:

     

    Danger

    1,000,000 Ohms

  22. PCR
    October 21, 2014

    DaeJ It's good to have a policy and follow the policy, But at the end of the day output is matters more than anything. 

  23. PCR
    October 21, 2014

    Great argument katgod, yes indeed policy should motivate designers and increase the productivity for sure rather than being a hassle for the work. 

  24. kencoffman
    October 22, 2014

    Someone is going to win the fabulous prizes…let's see more pictures.

  25. ue2014
    October 23, 2014

    Generally a policy is being implemented to have control over something. I also doubt the point that “Company Policy for Labs”. It might makes the working person to feel very limited ans restricted sometimes where the best things is to keep themselves free of mind to carry out their jobs independently. In the mean time, as Engineers, we also should have a self discipline to keep the labs or the working environment bit organized.

  26. ue2014
    October 23, 2014

    Good one katgod. This is a very common issue these days in many organizations. People`s ideas who actually involved in the process are not being taken into consideration when developing such policies. As the end result, companies may implement a policy which is not practical and disappoint the end users who affected by the policies.

  27. kencoffman
    October 28, 2014

    Richard says a single photo does not do his lab justice and I believe it. What a glorious mess. Simply beautiful, Richard, beautiful.

     

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/acz22usxe0ungkg/Bench%20%239%20%2028Oct14.jpg?dl=0

     

  28. antedeluvian
    October 28, 2014

    Richard says a single photo does not do his lab justice and I believe it. What a glorious mess. Simply beautiful, Richard, beautiful.

    Magnificent! The power bars alone must be works of art. I bow to the master!

  29. kencoffman
    October 28, 2014

    Here's a contribution from the legendary Silicon Valley engineer, Ron Vinsant. I think we can all agree, he's far too neat and tidy and makes the rest of us slobs look bad. A pox on his lab.

     

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/wbohtaci9crkg4l/IMG_20141028_110754.jpg?dl=0

  30. kencoffman
    November 7, 2014

    Here's a contribution from Joe R in the midwest. I think we can all agree, he's far too neat and tidy and should be whipped with a banana cable.

     

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/stn201a9x0lo8yp/JoeRoyLab1.JPG?dl=0

  31. nasimson
    November 9, 2014

    > Generally a policy is being implemented to have control over something.
    > I also doubt the point that “Company Policy for Labs”. It might makes the
    > working person to feel very limited ans restricted sometimes.

    Company Policy for Labs – that a Dilbert moment. Hilarious. Even thinking of it, gets me laughing.

    As for the Bell born in 2014, it would be “Bell Apps”.

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