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Why does delivering digital designs rely on the right analogue attitudes?

Digital devices have truly changed forever how we communicate, work, travel, and enjoy our leisure time. We can quickly and accurately collect images, voice, and audio data from the environment around us, and then manage and manipulate it in the digital domain. It’s given us sophisticated communications and higher performance computing, and yielded more reliable and affordable consumer, industrial, automotive, and medical electronics.

However, the advantages of digital technology are only as powerful as the analogue technologies that reproduce the digital 1s and 0s into “real-world” signals that can be heard, seen, felt, or perceived by human beings. Such technologies also must capture these signals and convert them into digital bits.

We should never forget that all of these technologies are only as good as the people behind them. And for analogue electronics, it all comes back to the design engineers who work on the new technologies and products.

I believe it is vital that we, as an electronics industry, continue to nurture and develop analogue design engineers. We need to ensure that the supply of new graduates continues to be available to the industry from educational establishments, and we need to provide the right training, support, and incentives to retain our engineers.

ANALOGUE’S PLACE IN A DIGITAL WORLD

The profusion of digital products in thousands of end markets and applications has triggered a similar, and often proportionately larger, need for high-quality analogue technology. In fact, market research firm DataBeans estimates that for every dollar of digital content added to an electronic end-product design, as much as $1.40 in analogue technology is required as well.

Digital products are often differentiated more by analogue innovation than digital circuitry. Let’s look at some application trends and how analogue technology defines digital products.

Advanced TV: The development of advanced TV is being driven as much by new analogue technology as by digital. Even in the era of digital broadcasting, TVs require dual interfaces—digital and analogue—to support legacy VCRs, DVD players and camcorders. Moreover, there’s market demand for high-performance analogue audio circuits. The approximately $20 of analogue content used in today’s average digital TV and audio/video system is expected to reach the $40-60 range during the next few years.

Digital still cameras: The quality of digital-camera images depends on the ability of highperformance data converters in the camera’s analogue front end (AFE) to lower noise and increase dynamic range. The AFE can also address other conventional performance issues, such as lowering power to extend battery life and raising conversion sample rates to increase camera shutter speed.

The analogue semiconductor content in a typical digital still camera has risen from less than $2 a few years ago to more than $5 today. And, forecasts show that it will push into the $10 to $15 range in next-generation cameras.

Audio processing: Whether processing Dolby 5.1-channel Surround Sound in a home-theatre application or 12-channel audio in a high-end automotive system, today’s audio signal chain is increasingly digital. In reality, however, the signal chain is “all-digital” in name only. The profusion of multi-channel audio places new performance demands on analogue technology, such as for multiple high-performance analogue power amplifiers and audio codecs.

Mobile phone handsets: More intelligent, function-rich phones, replete with features like MP3 music and broadcast TV, drive the need for new analogue capability. High-performance analogue image processing for cameras, backlight power devices for colour LCD displays, and power management all elevate the average analogue content of a wireless handset.

Medical imaging: High-speed digital computation allows doctors to review higher-resolution CT scans and ultrasound images, requiring increased channel density and improved performance in signal acquisition. Such innovations lead to faster, less intrusive medical diagnostic procedures for patients, as well as increase the speed and throughput of medical diagnostic processing for physicians and lab technicians. Analysts estimate medical imaging will constitute a $1.5 billion market for analogue components in the near future.

FINDING ENGINEERS

Analogue design is a specialist discipline that requires specific skills. For Analog Devices, it’s important that we work hard to ensure the long-term supply of talented engineers. It’s not enough for us to sit back and wait for engineers to apply for jobs; we must actively help create the right environment for them to flourish.

Links with academia are vital for a company like ADI to find the right talent. The company’s recruitment programme at universities brings in approximately half of our new engineering talent each year. At universities across North America, Europe, and Asia, we recruit graduates from engineering, mathematics, physics, and computer science to join our team and learn the craft of analogue design.

By working with universities, we can help ensure that students follow the right courses to equip them with the right skills. And we can help keep them motivated and focused on the opportunities that will exist upon completion of their undergraduate or postgraduate education.

Europe is important to ADI’s continued developments in analogue electronics. One of our major centres for analogue development is in Limerick, Ireland. We’ve enjoyed an excellent relationship with Limerick University, under which ADI provides engineering instruction assistance, and a wafer manufacturing facility established 25 years ago.

ADI is also seeing an excellent source of talent in China and India, where hiring locally has helped with the recruitment of many talented engineers. The company consistently recruits around 40% of engineers with first or Bachelor’s degrees, 50% with Master’s, and 10% PhDs.

The new graduates work alongside experienced designers at ADI, including ADI fellows, who are our most distinguished and experienced engineers. On-thejob training, primarily through mentoring with experienced staff, builds on our recruits’ basic skills and teaches them how to apply their knowledge toward designing in the data-converter, amplifier, and high-performance signalprocessing realms.

SHORTAGE?

Is there a shortage of analogue design engineers? While some industry reports suggest a shortage, ADI doesn’t view that as a negative. In fact, it’s considered a competitive advantage to be able to attract, nurture, and challenge the world’s top technical graduates. Though perhaps not as prevalent as software programmers, and not as easily automated as some aspects of digital IC design, graduates interested in exploring technologies that link the real world of analogue signals to the digital world of electronics, are out there.

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