3 Top Tools with Nick McGill, Electrical Engineer

(Our “3 Top Tools with” series looks at the everyday work of Bresslergroup’s strategists, researchers, designers, and engineers through the lens of their top tools for product design. It was inspired by our collective glee over our recently expanded workshop and lab, and by Core77’s Tech Specs series.)

Here’s how I might explain electrical engineering (EE) to someone who doesn’t immediately get it: Electrical engineering is like plumbing, except instead of water, you’re moving electrons.

With the right electrical plumbing, we can make lights blink, motors spin, and cell phones communicate. This is important for developing testing platforms for our clients, whose product design needs fall across a very wide range.

Like plumbers, we EEs have a specialized set of tools. And ours are pretty incredible. I consider myself lucky to be able to work with them every day.

Tools actually rank pretty high in my decision to pursue engineering. Getting my very own soldering iron in high school was a turning point for me – once I got it, I had a hard time putting it down.

I spend a lot of time at Bresslergroup bringing concepts for complex products and systems to life with prototypes. After our project team decides how to engineer the best product solution, I get to work programming microcontrollers and developing, designing, and debugging PCBs (printed circuit boards). Virtually every electronic product is constructed with one or more PCBs.

It was hard to choose favorites, but here are my picks for my top three tools – including, of course, a soldering iron – for getting it done:

debugger_31. MCU Debugger

This is the Swiss Army knife of programming and debugging. It allows us to check in on our code with an embedded device. Right now I’m debugging a microcontroller that’s driving a high resolution micro display – which means a lot can go wrong. You can debug while you’re developing, saving a lot of time.

When you’re writing firmware for an embedded device, it can be hard to figure out what’s going on in which part of the code. You might have an error where the screen’s not displaying something correctly. Instead of making educated guesses based on your code, re-flashing the software onto the board and trying it again, you can set breakpoints to stop at critical junctions and track how variables change throughout the program.

It’s incredible what engineers were able to do before modern debuggers – they were flying blind. This debugger helps me see what’s going on in that black box.

soldering_22. Soldering Iron

The soldering iron is invaluable because we do a lot of initial prototyping and rework on circuit boards. It’s difficult to get everything right the first time on a complex PCB, which may have hundreds of components making up the circuitry. You also sometimes tune parameters in hardware – a resistor may determine LED brightness or battery charge current. These tools allow us to make changes and fixes to get a working prototype.

The iron can reach well over 700 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on your application) to warm the components and melt the wire-like solder. The solder then gets wicked into position; a shiny finish is the sign of a true artisan. Once the iron is hot, you’re good to go – you can fix things. You can change things.

With components shrinking to the size of sugar granules, we often work with the soldering iron beneath the microscope. This gives you clarity on the small scale as you perform your cyber surgery – just make sure you didn’t drink too much espresso before attempting.

oscilloscope_13. Oscilloscope

The debugger tells us what the microcontroller thinks it’s doing, and the oscilloscope bares the truth of what’s actually happening in the hardware. An oscilloscope displays electron movement as onscreen signals, these voltage fluctuations. When something’s going wrong, it could be either be in the firmware or the hardware. The oscilloscope lets us see if the hardware is malfunctioning or happily humming along.

This particular oscilloscope is really nice because it’ll decode a communication protocol – in short, we can easily verify that the components are speaking the same language. It also lets us inspect wireless waves. If you’re working with a Bluetooth module, you can say, “Am I actually broadcasting anything? Am I getting the right range, or is there interference?” This function makes wireless PCB design a bit less of a dark art.

(Researchers and engineers and designers, oh my! Check out the other entries in our 3 Top Tools with series to read about top tools for product design across Bresslergroup’s other disciplines.)