Article Technical Rating: 6 out of 10
Developing a new electronic product absolutely requires that you hire the right electrical engineer(s). As with medicine, electrical engineering is a broad field of study with countless specializations.
Not all engineers are created equal. If you hire the wrong designer your project may take twice as long, cost twice as much, and not even work.
Regardless of the engineer you hire, one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself and lower your risk is to also hire a second independent engineer to review the work of the primary designer.
This strategy can also save you money by allowing you to hire a lower cost engineer with less experience. Normally hiring a low cost engineer is a recipe for disaster, but it can be a wise move as long as you have a more experienced engineer reviewing their work.
Most electrical engineers leave school with very little experience designing circuits. While at a university, engineering students spend most of their time analyzing existing circuits, but not designing new circuits.
Don’t get me wrong and circuit analysis is important and provides a fundamental understanding of electronic circuits.
However, becoming a good designer takes years of real design experience, and isn’t something that can generally be taught from a textbook. Of course, engineers require a lot of “book smarts” but it takes actual experience to get good at designing.
When I was hired as a microchip designer by Texas Instruments after completing my Master’s degree, my new boss told me that it takes about 4-5 years for a new engineer to actually become productive at designing microchips!
Granted, designing integrated circuits (i.e. microchips) has an exceptionally steep learning curve, but his comment holds true to some extent for all fields of electrical engineering.
The Types of Electrical Engineers
Electrical engineering can be broken down into numerous specializations. It’s important that you select an engineer that has experience in the areas needed for your project.
You wouldn’t ask your family doctor to do brain surgery, so don’t expect all electrical engineers to have the skills necessary to design your product.
Analog / Digital
The type of electrical engineer you hire depends on whether you need to design an analog or digital circuit.
An analog signal is one that can take on an infinite number of values, whereas a digital signal consists of only 1’s and 0’s. We live in an analog world. Only computers (and their associated circuits) operate in the digital domain.
Designing an analog circuit requires completely different skills than designing a digital circuit.
Generally, designing analog circuits is considered more complex than designing digital circuits. This is why there are so many more electrical engineers that do digital design but not analog circuit design.
In fact, these days many digital circuits are produced automatically by design automation software.
Whereas, analog circuit design is too complex for automation and must be custom designed. If your product is analog (almost all engineering projects have some analog) then make sure to hire an analog circuit designer.
Low Power / High Power
Designing a high power electrical transmission system for a power company requires completely different skills than designing a small mobile device. Most electrical engineers can only be an expert in one of these two areas.
For example, I have done some higher power design work early in my career, but overall my specialty is lower power systems, and by no means do I consider myself an expert on high power transmission systems.
High-level / Low-level
There are many different levels of circuit design.
This hierarchy is similar to software where the lowest level is 1’s and 0’s, and the highest level is a graphical programming environment.
Low-level circuit design usually requires a greater understanding of physics, while higher level design is more about the system.
Below are some of the levels of electronics design (from highest to lowest level):
Development Kits – The highest level of electronics design is the use of development kits such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi. Development kits are only for very early prototyping and proof of concept.
Electronic Modules – The next highest level of design is the use of electronic modules. Electronic modules are fully tested and certified solutions that can be integrated into other products.
Modules allow hybrid designs that use custom circuits along with modules for some of the more complex functions. For example, many products start off using modules for wireless functions.
Chip-level – Designs using existing microchips is the highest level of abstraction. All of the more fundamental issues have already been taken care of by someone else who designed the chips.
For nearly all products chip-level design is the level your product will require to be manufactured in high volume.
Device-level Design – A small percentage of products may require some discrete-level design. This level of design uses more fundamental components like transistors instead of integrated circuits (microchips).
This level of design isn’t as common today except for special cases such as really high-power circuits.
Integrated Circuits – This is probably one of the lowest levels of circuit design. When designing an integrated circuit (i.e. a microchip) the designer is using very fundamental devices like transistors and resistors while also being concerned with semiconductor physics.
Your product should not need any integrated circuit design. If it does, find a new product! IC design is incredibly expensive and not for the low funded.
Wireless (RF) Communication
If your product design has a wireless component to it, then make sure you hire an electrical engineer with experience designing RF (Radio Frequency) circuits.
In a non-RF circuit, electrical signals mostly follow wires (or PCB traces), allowing certain simplifying assumptions to be made.
But RF systems propagate outside of wires thus making the design much more complex. A large majority of electrical engineers have very little experience with or knowledge of radio frequency design.
Embedded Systems (Microcontrollers)
Many, if not most, modern electronic products require some “brains”. For example, a microwave has a microcontroller chip in it that detects what buttons you press and performs a certain function based on those button presses.
An embedded system is any product that has a computer chip in it (called a microcontroller unit or MCU).
These are a few of the more common specializations in electrical engineering, but there are many more. Some of these include power electronics (regulators, battery chargers, etc.), control systems (which generally also require embedded system design), sensor design, GPS system design, PCB design, etc.
The large majority of the projects I work on include a micro-controller along with analog circuits. Most projects require an electrical engineer with experience in embedded systems as well as analog circuit design.
In a large company, they usually have teams of engineers each with their own specialization, but independent contract designers usually must be more a “jack of all trades” and having a broad understanding of several areas is essential.
If you are looking for more details on designing a new electronic product be sure to check out my Ultimate Guide on How to Develop a New Electronic Product.