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8th July 2022

Interview with a hardware design engineer

Robot wars, edge cases and design for test. 

Our hardware design engineer interview with Joshua Green.

Joshua Green Hardware Design Engineer

We sat down with hardware design engineer Joshua Green from our Ignys consultancy team to discuss what it’s like in the world of hardware design right now. The challenges, the wins and everything in between. Plus how to get the most out of hardware design as a product developer. 

Hardware Design Careers

What made you get into hardware design in the first place? 

It was my obsession with Robot Wars that got me into engineering believe it or not. When I was younger my grandad subscribed me to the Real Robots magazine where you could build your own robot called Cybot 

I latched onto it and spent many hours building the ladybird like machine that used ultrasonic and IR sensors to avoid collisions and follow lines.  

Thankfully for 7-year-old me the controller boards were pre-programmed with software so the whole kit was plug and play. Inevitably the robot eventually broke (the main caster wheel snapped after a trip down the stairs), and I moved onto my next project.  

Later I got into music and learning instruments. Guitar pedals make great starter electronics projects with simple designs that favour the use of though-hole components and old parts. My favourite bands right now are Eagles and Little Dragon, but this changes a lot. 

What are the best parts of being a hardware design engineer? 

I love the variety that comes with hardware design along with the tangible result at the end.  

With hardware design there is a lot of work involved; circuit design, reading data sheets, and simulations to name a few areas. Then follows the layout of the PCB. In the end you’ve got this result and you have such a sense of pride. Getting the first prototype back is such a great feeling. 

At Ignys we aim to prototype quickly and as often as required. Each project has different prototyping requirements however more than likely at least two revisions will be necessary before moving to production. Of course, with prototypes comes debugging and problem solving.  

I’m quite a practical person so I like being able to see issues physically when resolving them. I admire software engineers and the code they look at but for me hardware design will always be the place I feel at home. 

Hardware Design Challenges

What are some of the challenges around hardware design for people developing a product? 

We can’t not mention the elephant in the room which is component shortages. This makes it a real challenge, there is hope on the horizon but this will continue to cause anyone working on an electronic project problems into the near future. We regularly help clients with Design For Availability to help tackle the chip shortages. 

Design for Availability Banner

Hardware Design Graduate Tips

If you were going into hardware design now what would you tell yourself as a new graduate? 

Don’t be afraid to not know something, after all we should all be continuously learning. Ask lots of questions as someone else may have faced a similar issue and be able to offer guidance. It’s how we acquire knowledge, not everything can be self-taught. 

That’s one of the things I love the most about working with a highly talented team like Ignys, we share our knowledge and work through engineering problems together. Engineering so often involves problem-solving and conquering these is very rewarding.  

We recently banded together as a whole team to create this blog for new graduates going into engineering which is hosted on the University of Nottingham’s website. 

Tips for new graduates 

In my first job I learnt from a great hardware design engineer. They taught me never to leave circuit behaviour that we don’t understand on a board. This will come back to bite you later. It’s far better as an engineer to address it sooner, or, if you are a product developer, to work with a knowledgeable design consultancy. Testing hardware thoroughly and debugging is really important. 

About Edge Cases

Edge cases normally come up with regards to testing product inputs & outputs in extreme configurations, however within an electronics design there are many circuit blocks that have their own ‘hidden’ inputs, outputs, and operating parameters. 

It can be tempting to leave a product as it is, if it performs well in the typical user scenario. However, if there is some behaviour on a board that isn’t well understood, this could create something catastrophic later down the line when an edge case occurs.  

It’s nearly always worth that extra bit of time and cost to resolve issues as they arise versus ignoring them or addressing them later. A risk to the time to market is better than a production issue impacting user experience and brand reputation. 

My colleague John Crouchley who specialises in firmware wrote this article on edge and corner cases. 

Edge cases vs corner cases 

The art of debugging 

Debugging is all about determining why a circuit (or section of code) is deviating from the intended behaviour, and with that knowledge resolving the issue.  

In an ideal situation, the results from simulation tools would match the real-world circuit behaviour, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. This is due to parts exhibiting different responses in real-life versus in a computer model. These component non-idealities are what makes hardware design less predictable, but also fun! 

No size fits all when it comes to testing, you may need to use different tools or use them in a different way. 

Design For Test (DFT)

I’ve always liked the fact that Ignys factors in production test from the early prototype stages of development. Adding in test points and tooling holes to an already completed PCB is more costly than including it from the start. To effectively do this however, hardware designers need to have a strong understanding of test fixtures, routines, and production processes.  

The testing solutions we offer include bespoke test Jigs and also environmental chamber testing which give extra ways for clients to create reliable products. 

Hardware Design Company

Using a hardware design partner to resolve issues early 

Design consultancies work on hardware design day in day out, so a problem that stumps you may be routine or at least familiar to a knowledgeable team. 

For example, at Ignys we tackle issues around meeting low power design requirements often, providing valuable data on how to increase battery lifetime and maximise efficiency.  

Due to our strong team communication, any project will benefit from the collective knowledge and engineering resource with the team. The chances of your product being reliable in real-world settings is significantly increased as a result. 

We also collaborate closely with customers through instant channels such as Slack and Teams, with regular updates to discuss progress. 

This means our clients come back to us time and time again.