Electronic Design

Stretching Your Horizon As An Engineer

Applying the calculus concept of limits, the specialist gets to know more and more about less and less until, in the limit, he retires, knowing everything about nothing. The generalist learns less and less about more and more until, in the limit, he retires, knowing nothing about everything. Neither is quite the ideal life.

As engineers our horizons may include politics, sports, entertainment, hobbies, our families, and our specialties. But how broad is our engineering horizon, even our electrical horizon, and how would we benefit if it were broader? For example, reaching into chemical engineering, electronics is used to measure and control chemical processes and, with computers, do theoretical research into the nature of those processes. The more we understand chemical processes, the more we can create new and profitable products to sell to the chemical industries.

It can be astounding to realize the degree that mechanical and electronic engineering have always been combined in actual industry. Yet, only in recent years has our vocabulary and academic curricula used the phrase "electro-mechanical engineering" and the more recently coined synonymous word "mechatronics."

For instance, essential parts of your desktop computer include electro-mechanical disk drives, tape drives, printers, scanners, switches, mouses, cooling fans, connectors, keyboards, and packaging. Elsewhere in our lives are motors and their loads from toothbrushes to railroad trains, heaters like soldering irons, toasters, and electric furnaces, and electromagnets and their loads, including contactors and circuit breakers switching microamperes to mega-amperes at microvolts to megavolts. Try counting the motors and electromagnets in your car! (I won't mention airplanes.) The keyword to all is "moving parts."

The entire field of electro-pneumatics is almost an unmentionable art. Yet compressed air has been used as a measurement and computing medium in process industries since before electronics was an infant; data is now transferred back and forth between air and electricity; and digital pneumatics really exists. (Air pressure in tubing is inherently explosion and combustion safe; compressed air is a versatile actuating medium; pneumatic "relays" are operational amplifiers; and controlling air flow is a transducing means that hasn't been beaten for certain measurements.)

In civil engineering, electronic laser and distance measuring instruments have revolutionized both construction and surveying measurements. The list of electronic measuring, computing, and actuating devices is just too long to cover here. In the manufacture of electronic devices themselves, particularly semiconductors, there continues to be previously undreamed of technological advances in mechanical, electro-mechanical, and chemical engineering. (To say nothing of financial operations!)

Electro-chemistry extends from electro-plating to metal extraction and refining. In an earlier column, I wrote of using electrolysis of water to generate free hydrogen as a means to store energy. Fuel cells fed by that hydrogen recover that energy as electric power. In the world of scientific instrumentation, Van De Graff generators create megavolts with electric motor driven belts and the genome project operates with electrical phenomena. The medical world uses electro-cardiographs and encephelographs, pacemakers, X-rays, MRIs, automatic blood pressure gages, heart/lung machines, ultrasonic scanners, and an entire world of bio-medical engineering.

I wish my own horizon extended over it all! Think of the possibilities.

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