Design Through The Decades

Jan. 7, 2002
FIFTY YEARS AGO, Electronic Design MAGAZINE was born. Since then, we have witnessed the growth of the electronics industry and provided our readers with the necessary information to make informed design decisions. As we celebrate our golden...

Fifty years ago, Electronic Design Magazine was born. Since then, we have witnessed the growth of the electronics industry and provided our readers with the necessary information to make informed design decisions.

As we celebrate our golden anniversary, we reflect on the tremendous amount of change that these last 50 years have wrought on the discipline of electronics engineering. Back in 1952, electronics was an infant technology, dominated by vacuum tubes and discrete components. Frequently, electronics engineers were called electrical engineers. There were no integrated circuits or electronic calculators. Computers were enormous room-size systems, paper punch cards were the preferred form of I/O, and hardly anyone knew what software was. Design engineering was very basic compared to today's complex demands. It involved slide rules, Smith Charts, and complicated design equations that had to be written out and solved on paper by long painful calculations that could take days to solve.

Electronic Design has followed these changes in lock-step fashion, always giving you the latest information about new products, applications, and technology developments. The magazine has served as a window for observing these changes, providing an instant view of each technological change and the benefits it spawned. We were there to record the birth of the first discrete semiconductor device, the first integrated circuit, the first microprocessor, the first minicomputer, the first personal computer, and the dawn of the software and electronic design automation ages. We're certain that we'll be there in the new ages of virtual engineering, nanotechnology, and the next yet-to-come-to-the-fore technology that pushes and reshapes the boundaries once again.

Not surprisingly, the basic techniques of electronics engineering haven't changed much during the last 50 years and still form the underpinning of solid design practices. Engineers must still conceptualize a design, capture it, prototype it, verify that it works as intended, and finally make sure that the design is reproducible and testable in a production environment. However, the landscape of electronics engineering has changed dramatically. So has the way designers perform their tasks. Today's EEs must take an approach that totally differs from what their predecessors did during the '50s and '60s. Sure, an ohm is still an ohm, a Farad is still a Farad, a Henry is still a Henry, and op amps are still basic building blocks, but today's and yesterday's tools and methodologies are as different as day and night.

All of these changes have made the EE's job that much more difficult and challenging. How so? Let's quickly look at the what, where, and how of these changes:

Markets. Fifty years ago, most of the electronics industry's services and products were aimed at the military and aerospace markets. The government was the largest and often the only customer. While electronics still serves these sectors, they're now only a very small portion of the overall business, which in-cludes large consumer, industrial, biomedical, automotive, and commercial markets.

End Customers. The government and aerospace customers of yesterday were very forgiving and tolerant. Plus, they had extremely deep pockets. In contrast, today's customer base of small and large businesses, financial institutions, and medical personnel and facilities are a vastly different breed of users with demanding and unforgiving requirements. A $1000 accelerometer slated for a missile on a $1 million military fighter aircraft may be no problem for the government customer. But that same sensor going into an automobile could inflate the car's price to the consumer by $2000. Moreover, the failure rate for that car sensor, where it activates an airbag in the event of a crash, must be 10 times better than its military counterpart.

Cost. Hardly ever was cost a factor when government contracts with "cost plus" provisions were the norm during the '50s and '60s. Back then, the thinking was, "If you throw enough money and engineers at the problem, you will probably come up with a solution." So what if the solution wasn't optimal in terms of cost, size, and/or complexity? And when you had just one customer—who was willing to "shell out" endless taxpayer dollars—to satisfy, there wasn't much end-user pressure to produce the best products and services at the lowest cost. In contrast, today's designs, especially those meant for consumer and automotive markets, can be influenced by cost savings of merely a fraction of a cent.

Design Cycles. The changing face of the electronics end user and the rapid pace of technological developments have dramatically shortened the time-to-market, from design concept to final product ready for shipment. Time-to-market is a design factor that didn't even exist in the early days. Design cycles today can be as short as a few weeks, while in the past, they required months or even years. Today's short time-to-market windows and highly competitive global pressures mean that the design must be optimized in record time, and at a rock-bottom price.

Design Environment. Design engineering is now a multidisciplinary profession requiring a team of individuals, each with a different area of expertise. In the days of yore, engineers would design a product in isolation, without much thought about how or where it would be used or its cost. But today's EEs must take a totally different approach. After accurately defining the application and the use for the product, the EE must join a design team. Besides having hardware and software designers, the team may include mechanical, chemical, industrial, biomedical, and environmental engineers, as well as geneticists, medical doctors, and other non-EE professionals. Furthermore, the design environment can be truly global, with team members geographically located on different continents, in constant communication with each other via wide-area networks and the Internet.

Just as design has changed, so has the information presented in the pages of Electronic Design. We have always been a true reflection of the times and will continue to keep our readers not only up to date, but also ahead of the times.

In the beginning, our focus was on new product announcements and some how-to design information. Design was simpler then, so we were simpler.

Through the years, we have added news, special reports, interviews, and a variety of design application articles. Our editors always add value and perspective to their coverage to enhance your reading and learning experience. Over the last five decades, Electronic Design has faithfully done its part to stay on top so you can stay on top.

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