By Vinti Singh
During playtime, while Benjamin Orr’s classmates were playing superheroes, cops and robbers or house, Orr was playing engineer. He would use crayon drawn “schematics” to “rewire” the playground. His curious classmates asked what he was doing, and soon after he was leading a crew of young technicians through the jungle gym. About two decades later, Orr has moved from the playground to the lab, where he continues to lead.
Orr is part of the next generation of electrical and electronic engineering students who are tackling some of the most common, yet persistent problems in the field, and show that with them leading the way the future promises exciting innovations for the industry.
Leading In-Depth Studies of Common Industry Problems
Orr, 24, is a second year Ph.D. student at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. For his Ph.D., Orr is studying end user induced soft failures in devices. He is comparing a public domain device similar to a smartphone or tablet to an internal reference device. The internal reference device allows him to understand exactly what is happening inside, a rare luxury usually unavailable to electromagnetic compatibility testers because of intellectual property concerns.
Orr’s work will eventually have the potential to be used by industry councils to set a soft failure model standard, allowing engineers to design products with a more complete understanding of those failure levels.
“It reduces the time to market,” Orr said. “We’re trying to expand models given to original equipment manufacturers so they can produce products in a shorter design cycle.”
Lisa Linna, a 28-year old graduate student at the University of Michigan –Dearborn, is creating new labs to test EMC theories. One lab, for example, is focused on methods for mitigating crosstalk – studying the effects that neighboring circuits have on one another.
“In electrical engineering we’re taught how to design based on the characteristics of various components” Linna said. “What you have to realize is there’s more to the circuit, the supply and return paths can play a key role in how the circuit functions.”
“Some people try to save money by sharing paths or reducing the area on a ground plan, but this can cause unwanted effects” Linna said. “You have to realize a path is not just a path – it’s essentially another component.”
Another one of Linna’s labs is focused around shielding, and how the sizes and shapes of apertures reduce the effectiveness of the shield. Her goal is to demonstrate how linear dimension is a major factor in determining how a wave passes through a shield, but the lab is not yet complete.
Linna currently works for Robert Bosch, although not in an EMC specific position. Her career goal is to become a key person in an electrical hardware group in which she can influence new designs.
Still A Niche
A gap between industry demands for graduates with EMC experience and the shortage of those graduates actually being supplied by the universities has existed since the mid-1980s, said Mark Steffka, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Although the gap has gotten narrower, it is still nowhere close to disappearing, he added.
Linna agreed, saying she was surprised how many upperclassmen in engineering classes have no exposure to basic EMC principles.
Employer Joe DiBiase described how in a previous role he held at Motorola, even though he received resumes from students around the country, it was still a challenge to find those with an adequate background in EMC.
“They don’t really teach EMC in schools,” DiBiase said. “Some have courses, but they are very theoretical.”
EMC courses have slowly become more common in the last decade, Steffka said, with fewer than 10 universities around the United States offering a range of EMC elective classes.
The Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla, Missouri, is considered to have the pre-eminent EMC program in the country, said Mike Viollete, president of Washington Laboratories, a compliance solutions company based in Gaithersburg, MD.
An EMC basics course used to be a requirement for all computer and electrical engineering majors at Georgia Institute of Technology, but was recently removed from the computer engineering curriculum.
“The students seemed to be happy about that because they tend not to like it because it’s more rigorous as far as the math and physics behind it,” Pranav Ramesh, 21, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, said. “But I think there could be more emphasis on it.”
In his undergraduate studies at Georgia Tech, Ramesh worked on a chip-to-package interconnect component made of copper instead of the traditional solder, as it does a much better job at preserving signal integrity reducing distortion, he added.
For his master’s thesis, Ramesh is trying to find a working solution to a long existing problem – to harvest excess electromagnetic radiation, specifically radio frequency energy that does not reach the end user and is left floating around in the atmosphere. He and his team are designing basic antennae that will pick up the radiation, which they plan to convert to voltage stored in a battery. That project is in its early stages, but Ramesh said he senses alternative energy solutions is where the industry is heading.
While Steffka teaches elective EMC courses at University of Michigan-Dearborn, he works full time for General Motors.
“I bring in a number of ‘real world’ engineering examples and examples from professional publications… and say these are the types of systems being designed today,” Steffka said. “This is real. I have people who are lined up to take my class because I discuss relevant theories and relevant mathematics. Ramesh’s comment is typical for those instructors who are not in the industry,” and so their classes tend to be more theory based.”
When Todd Hubing began teaching a grounding and shielding class at the University of Missouri University of Science and Technology in 1989, he was lucky if 10 students signed up to take it.
“Then people started realizing it was a practical class, and that students were getting job offers because of this one course they had taken,” Hubing said.
Word got around, and by the time he left in 2006 to teach at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., the class regularly drew about 50 students per year. At Clemson, where he is now the Michelin Chair and professor of electrical and computer engineering, he witnessed a similar trend.
Hubing’s students work with companies to analyze EMC problems. Since 1995, he has led students in an ever evolving project where decisions are based on EMC requirements rather than by following design guidelines.
“One of the biggest challenges future EMC grads face is the development of better modeling and test procedures,” Hubing said.
“Too many companies today think they can buy expensive modeling tools that will solve all of their problems, and it’s just not the case,” Hubing said. “The next generation of students will hopefully understand that and take the time to learn to do EMC modeling more intelligently.”
One of Hubing’s Ph.D. candidates, Li Niu, 26, is working on his design project. His goal is to determine the maximum possible radiation from a printed circuit board with an attached cable, so that by design, it can be guaranteed that the component pass the standardized Radiated Emission Test.
“We are actually pretty confident of this matter because we worked with automotive suppliers and helped them meet the OEM standards when they took our advice,” Niu said. “But there continues to be a challenge because meeting the standard is relatively easy, but to make sure the product is EMC trouble free in a real vehicle is completely another story.”
DiBiase, who is now an applications engineer for Amplifier Research, a radio frequency solutions provider based out of Souderton, Penn., said it would also be beneficial if students were exposed to EMC standards requirements in their classes.
“As the electronics industry becomes more global, a solid understanding of internationally accepted protocols and standards is crucial,” said Violette, who is also director of the American Certification Body.
“If you look at world trade, standards are a bridge for trade,” he said. “As far as curriculum, a push for standards integration will not only lead to harmonized trading platforms, but better products.”
Violette said Washington Laboratories looks for candidates with a strong grounding in the fundamentals and application of electromagnetics, but that is rare unless those hires are coming from other labs or are already established within the industry.
To work toward a solution, DiBiase said he is working on creating a student internship at his company to offer hands-on research experience to the next generation. But most importantly, what he looks for in new hires is “great engineering talent and willingness to be a team player,” he said.
Jhonnatan Ascate, 22, said he received more than one job offer after graduating from University of California – Davis with a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering. He accepted a position at National Instruments because he liked the corporate culture he observed when he visited its offices.
“The boss’ cube was right next to the new hires’ cubes,” Ascate said. “I could sense by the way they interacted, the teams there were organized and well managed.”
Electrical/Electronics and Communications Engineering majors graduating with bachelor’s degrees earned an average starting salary of $63,400 in 2013, a 6.2 percent increase from the previous year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. At the bachelor’s degree level, an electrical engineering degree ranked 7 in the top 10 degrees in demand, according to the 2013 NACE Job Outlook Survey.
An electrical engineering degree was the fourth most sought after type at the master’s level, and second most sought after at the doctorate level, according to the survey.
Ascate and his peer Huangquing Ziao, of Zhejiang University in China, won first place in the 2012 IEEE Microwave Theory and Technique Society 2012 video competition for an entry titled “Visualizing Electromagnetic Waves.”
Ascate and Ziao used an oscillator to generate the waves, which they then passed through an amplifier to achieve levels congruent with everyday devices that cause this magnitude of interference. The effects of the simulated interferences were then displayed by LED lights.Their display surpassed the binary intensities of existing visualizations. Ascate worked on the project for hours every day in the months leading up to the deadline. The tedium of the constant debugging process required patience and a tolerance for continuous trial and error, something Ascate suggested all those interested in making a career in EMC be sure to have.
Niu is currently interning at a major automotive supplier in Michigan and said based on his experience there and conversations he has had with others in the industry, he thinks there is currently too much reliance on simulation software.
“They spend thousands of dollars and think, given as much details as possible, the software will crank out results for you,” Niu said. “But that’s rarely the case, you always have to understand the physics behind each problem first, aware of the strength and limitation of simulation code, then start with simple structure. Many times after this process, you end up building a EMC model yourself for specific problem which make more sense than general commercial simulation codes.”
“Given the demand for engineering and computer related degrees among international graduates, it comes as no surprise that engineering services and information employers…have plans to hire international students,” the NACE Job Outlook Survey reported. Almost 72 percent of respondents in engineering services said they plan to hire international students, according to the results.
Niu said he has not officially decided, but he is tempted to return to China, his native country, after finishing his program. Engineering systems are developing quickly there, and EMC specialists are in demand.
Dazhao Liu, a Ph.D. candidate at Missouri University of Science & Technology, is from China as well. While almost every other student who was interviewed said they chose to go into engineering to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, Liu said Chinese education officials funneled him into the major because of his results on a standardized test in high school.
Liu hopes to stay in the US after graduating because he believes the political atmosphere in his home country is not favorable to the engineering profession. He is seeking a career in signal integrity because he said it offers the most job security in the EMC field.
Orr said when he is ready to enter the job market, he will look for a job that encourages creativity.
“I had an internship at a company and I came away from that experience bored to tears because they were satisfied to just copy and continue the existing product design,” Orr said.
Orr wants more than that; as many other young engineers do.