Electronic Design

Bob's Mailbox: Readers Respond To "What's All This Little Guy Stuff, Anyhow?"

Hi Bob, 

Nice article about the “little guy” (August 13, 2009, p. 56; http://electronicdesign.com/Articles/ArticleID/21514/21514.html). As one of those little guys you once talked to (about the obsolescence of a National Semiconductor liquid-level detector IC), I can relate that the time spent was well received. “Wow, Bob Pease took the time to call little old me, an ex-aero engineer doing mechanical design work” was the response I gave to my colleagues at the time. That I ended up not using the IC or even a derivative of it for my design task is beside the point. That you treated me as a potential customer was a lesson well learned. (Some other day, you might be inclined to by a National Semiconductor part. That’s fair. /rap)

I know a few other engineers that I pointed your way when they would lament about noise reduction with their op amps. And more than a few suffered my scorn when they spent way too much time trying to amplify, linearize, and calibrate a non-linear thermistor for a one-off temperature measurement circuit. (“Why not just buy a cheapo LM34CZ? Spend $0.50 more but save hours of fussing with all that other circuitry and effort.”) So maybe your time paid back in intangible ways. I hope so.

(We all like to hit a reasonable balance between parts & labor cost per unit and engineering cost divided by N, all in view of time wasted per unit. Sometimes I like to put in a little extra effort for a frugal solution, even if it’s not justifiable by the quantity. Just as a game. I remember one guy who was trying to set up a resistive bridge with 13 op amps and 16 good resistors to buffer all the Kelvin contacts to two R’s. He would up using one good op amp and two good resistors. /rap)

I remember an article you wrote about programing your internal “reaction/response” neural network. The idea was to think through the logic table for a given situation and what you would want, optimally, your response to be, i.e., put your foot in the way of a dropped object if and only if the object is lightweight and expensive (a camera) but pull it back if it’s heavy (cast iron pot), sharp (carving knife), and cheap. I know I have managed to never stab my toe with dropped knives, but did rescue the wife’s video camera with a well-placed foot when I bumped it off the counter.

I related this to the technicians in the shop where I’m now working. (They spend a lot of time working on heavy cast-iron valve assemblies on workbenches, and the subject of safety shoes came up.) They didn’t laugh out loud (to my face), so maybe the lesson got passed on.

Ben Trueblood

Hello, Ben,

Yeah, you have to think this out ahead of time and teach yourself what the right thing to do is instantly with almost zero thinking or wasted time. Thanks!



  Your article on the “little guy” reminded me of when I was in school working on my engineering degree (1962). I had a projectthat needed to be designed and built as part of the graduation requirements. It required the use of a number of discrete semiconductors. (ICs were few and far apart.) I finished the design and then went to the local semiconductor distributor to see if I could talk him out of some samples. (I usually scrounged for samples first, and then I designed around what I could get! /rap)

I was successful with some and had to buy others, which he sold me at a great discount. Later when working as an engineer, I always used the same brand because of the very positive feeling I received from this rep. Now after many years of engineering work and being semi-retired (I am a consultant), I find that when I contact a company for samples of information and am treated with “you are too small for us to be concerned with,” I look elsewhere. True, some of my designs are not used in production. But some are, resulting in production runs of thousands. One never knows when the “little guy” turns out to be the one who builds something in his garage that ends up to be a major company worth billions.

Lee R. Watkins, PE

Hi, Lee,

Well, you and I agree!


Mr. Pease, 

I too have invested time in people that do not “qualify” as good customers (under contract). You never know when one of them will contact your next big customer and tell them what a great experience or interaction they had. Last year, one of the “little guys” came back with a purchase order for over 500k. It is rare, but it does happen. If you treat everyone like they are important and listen, it is amazing what you can learn. We are all “little guys” at some point.

James Crowley

Hello, James,

We once had a request from a good customer who wanted to buy 500,000 of a 6-V version of an existing circuit. That was less than our usual order, but he had a fair question. After much debate, we decided to throw in a metal mask and make it for him. After he got the first samples, he called to apologize for a change. He said, “We need 5 million.” We had no problem shipping those parts.


For more of Bob's columns, go to http://electronicdesign.com/Departments/DepartmentID/6/6.html

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