French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838) once said, “There is one body that knows more than anybody, and that is everybody.” And he was absolutely right.
I’m a bright guy, and I’ve come up with many clever solutions in my time. But some of the best ideas have come while noodling out a problem when a colleague comes by, scribbles something on a piece of paper, and says, “Try this.”
I often find these suggestions to be clever ideas and wonder why I hadn’t come up with something so elegantly simple. I then realize that the solution likely was a trick that the colleague learned from someone else. I love it when the roles are reversed and I’m the one who passes on a clever tidbit. It makes my day when a colleague says, “I never looked at it that way before.”
Since I travel a lot, I asked the engineers at my company’s different facilities about the cleverest little design trick someone else had shown them. I found that each facility had a different set of tricks. Also, the more exposure the engineers had to different companies, or to engineers from different companies, the larger their bag of tricks. Often, everyone in each particular group knew most of those tricks. I guess they all were exposed to each other’s ideas.
These ideas are a lot like a communicable disease. The larger the variety of people you’re around, and the larger the variety of people that they have been exposed to, the more bugs—or infectious ideas—you’re exposed to. This is starting to sound like a public health commercial, except you don’t want to be inoculated against good ideas.
I went to lecture at a university engineering class, so I took the opportunity to ask the students some questions, though their exposure was very limited this early in their careers. Some had summer intern experience, but most had very little contact with vast numbers of working engineers.
A low number of contacts limits the number of these interactions. Fortunately, I have worked in maybe half a dozen industries, each with its own unique set of tricks. Each time I move on, my collection to share is bigger, and I have a whole new group of colleagues to learn from. Thanks to my column in Electronic Design, people now send me their clever little tricks. I’m one big bag of infectious tricks!
More than 20 years ago, a colleague taught me how to make a polarity modulator with an op amp, three resistors, and an analog switch. I’m pretty sure someone else showed him this idea. Since then, I’ve passed this trick on to dozens of engineers at the different companies where I have worked.
When interviewing for my first job out of school, a very talented engineer introduced me to the concept of a dual-slope integrator. This idea that something so simple could provide so much resolution at such a small cost just floored me. It has led to my fascination with mixed-signal design in general and delta-sigma modulation in particular.
Another coworker and friend introduced me to the idea of using signal slew instead of phase to implement filters. Again, it was a very elegant idea that made me wonder why I had never seen this done before. I have made changes and improvements and have passed this idea on to others, and every time I do, it never ceases to amaze.
When designing underwater acoustic test equipment, a transducer designer showed me that by plotting impedance on an X-Y axis, it was possible to model its performance as a linear circuit. It became quite easy to determine the resonances’ frequencies and whether they were parallel or series resonances. Determining power bandwidth became a simple matter of reading the plot. With this approach, tuning ceramic resonators became a simple process to perform.
One of my favorite suggestions was when someone showed me how to make a current source with an instrumentation amplifier. I later used a variation of this idea to make a current source with a switched-capacitor unity gain amplifier.
So the more exposure you have to clever engineers, the better off you are. And I have been blessed with exposure to many excellent engineers and a job market that has allowed me to work at a variety of different companies.
New Tricks For You
Electronic Design’s Ideas for Design department is just a formal version of this practice. Engineers who have conceived some clever solution document it and submit it to the magazine. The editors review them and publish the best. So now, instead of just having access to the engineers you work with, or have worked with, you can cull great ideas from a large set of engineers across many different industries.
Read these short pieces and glean the essence of their central ideas. Lock them away in your brain, and you have another tool to solve a future problem. The ideas are archived online, so you can always go back for details later. You can find them at http://electronicdesign.com/departments/ideas-for-design.aspx. So make the Ideas for Design department part of your normal technical reading. You will be surprised how helpful it can be.