I’m no longer embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t exactly a model student in college. When I was pursuing my engineering degree, Warcraft and FIFA occupied more of my time than pouring over “boring” electronics notes. I came close to failing some classes but paid attention to important topics involving electronics design and microcontrollers. Nevertheless, nothing prepared me for the real world of PCB design, like my first job as an electronics engineer.
My first on-the-job task involved revising an addressable fire alarm controller. Staring blankly at the PCB, I had absolutely no idea where to start. This was the first time I’d ever encountered a Zilog microcontroller and I had no clue what to do with it. Designing an entirely new PCB was beyond my skill level and I felt completely unprepared.
What I Wish I’d Learned in College
As I was employed at a small company, it took a whole year of self-learning before I could create a prototype that I was confident enough to deploy in the field. That’s when I wished that I’d picked up more useful skills in college. Below are some of the things I wish I had learned more about. Hopefully through them, you might be able to get an idea of your own weak points as a fledgling engineer.
1. Designing With SMD Components
During my university days, microcontrollers were commonly available in gigantic Dual Inline Package (DIP) and even in electronics assignments, we had no Surface Mounted Device (SMD) components to work with.
Imagine my confusion as I first tried to distinguish between SMD capacitors and resistors in the early days of my design career. I was equally confused while attempting to manually solder a Quad Flat Package (QFP) microcontroller.
I was once puzzled what these little things are.
2. Electrical Noise in Digital Designs
In college, you may have learned that noise can occur in electronics systems. However, lecture notes don’t always teach you about perfect digital logic signals. As a fresh college graduate, nothing prepared me for the fact that electrical noise can cause havoc to digital inputs. I knew even less about ways to prevent them in my design.
My first encounter with electrical interference occurred when I was working on a vehicle loop detector. I was troubleshooting a system where the barrier gate kept hitting precious car roofs as they passed through. In this case, it turned out that digital filtering was not implemented, which allowed for the electrical noise to create a false trigger.
3. Electrical, Digital, and Analog Ground
When I started my first job, my only knowledge about different types of ground was that they have different electrical symbols. Theoretically, it’s easy to understand that they are grounds for specific parts of the circuit.
But without practically working on a layout, it’s hard to imagine how different grounds should be connected to a PCB itself. After making some mistakes that led to unstable analog readings, I eventually learned how to place the various grounds correctly on the PCB.
4. Anything About Using PCB Design Software
Back then, PCB design software options were few and far in between and our college’s electronics lab certainly didn’t have access to one. At that time, our prototypes were basically made from breadboard and the closest thing we did to PCB fabrication involved sticking photoresists strips on a bare PCB.
When I was feeling lucky, I avoided breaking off the fragile jumper wires soldered to the breadboard. Looking back, even the most basic introduction to a PCB design software would have saved me countless painful hours of learning it on my own after graduation.
Even the slightest experience with PCB software would’ve made an enormous difference.
5. Designing for Manufacturability
In college, our poorly patched prototypes passed with flying colors if they showed the slightest signs of functionality. Of course, those projects were a far cry from the professionally designed PCBs I’ve manufactured over the past decade.
While my college courses didn’t sufficiently cover design for manufacturability (DFM), learning more about PCB assembly would have been extremely helpful in preventing me from creating PCBs that were barely ready for assembly.
At the end of the day, different universities offer different levels of engineering education. With today’s educational standards, college students likely receive a higher quality education that provides better career preparation.
Nevertheless, it never hurts to engage in research projects, apply for a practical internship, or find other ways to learn valuable job skills before officially entering the industry as a PCB designer. As for me, I’m grateful to have decided to try the earlier versions of Altium Designer, then named Protel, during the last years of my studies.
Wonder what else it takes to shine as a hardware engineer? Talk to an expert from Altium.
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