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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Why I am an Electrical Engineer..... I think....

“I flicked a switch and the bulb started glowing.”

I think that, in one sentence summarizes why I am so fascinated and enamored by Electrical Engineering. On a number of levels, multiple levels of complexities, that is all I have wanted to do. One bulb, a million LED’s or 2 Giga Pixels. The idea is still the same.

I realized early on that I was going to be an engineer. Because my dad had an enormous influence on me. He is an amazing electrical engineer, a master of analogue electronics. But, as I was growing up, the word digital was gradually growing taller. Things were rapidly switching over, computers were becoming common place and the Internet meant nothing was isolated any more as far as data is concerned.

So engineer it was, but aeronautics was the first passion, not electrical. To this day, I wish I were an aeronautical engineer and work on planes, maybe even design my own. But as I soon discovered, I had little to no aptitude for Engineering Drawing and Newtonian Dynamics/Mechanics - vital, if you want to build planes. So, I settled on the second best, electrical and electronics. The rest is almost history.

Broadly speaking, there are the following fields in Electrical Engineering :

1. Power Engineering - As the name suggests, anything to do with high amperes and volts. The electricity grid, huge electric motors and the like fall under this. As does all the electronics that handles that amount of current and voltage.

2. Analogue Systems - Everything to do with analogue signals. Amplifiers, multipliers, RF circuits and the like. As long as basic signals are analogue, which they will always be, this field will exist. The amount of analogue systems over the years has shrunk and become highly diversified, but this field will never go away.

3. Embedded Systems - As the name suggests, any subsystem which can control a larger system in a stand alone mode. The most common interpretation of this is a small portable micro-operating system running on a low power consuming microcontroller. These have been rapidly increasing in complexity since the days of the 4004 micro-controller and todays microcontrollers are powerful enough to manage the systems on board a luxury car.

4. Digital Signal Processing (D.S.P.) - I will mention this field separately, because, although it is a part of digital electronics, it has carved out its own ground. A highly specialised field, the most common application of this is found in the UPS Inverters that you use. Because digital circuits can be smaller than their analogue counterparts, the complexity of processing can be increased. Lo and behold, almost all signals are brought over to the digital side and fooled around with and then converted back to analogue to interact with other analogue systems.

5. Very Large Scale Integration (V.L.S.I.) - Although, pedantically speaking, the acronym is obsolete, it still spells out the essence of the field. It has to do with designing a digital system with obscene numbers of transistors and eventually using it to do a myriad of complicated tasks.Computer microprocessors rapidly come to mind. Intel and A.M.D. immediately jump out in front.

6. Robotics and Automation - Think “Transformers”. Then think each part of Optimus Prime doing a specific task. The arm by itself carrying a hot block of metal. Or a huge metal press stamping out car doors at an automotive facility.

7. Sensors, MEMS and Nano-engineering - This is what I fell in love with, to be very honest and higly specific. For the Final Year Project, us folks were using something called accelerometers to accomplish some rather unusual tasks. A small mechanical device, constructed at the micron (micro-meter) level that changes electrical characteristics of a circuit to produce a signal change. I was hooked then and have been ever since. But sensors in general, whether it be an Optocoupler or Peltier Element - have always been very interesting for me. Very fascinating. Micro-Electro-Mechanical-Systems (MEMS) have been gaining a foothold rapidly of late and will grow in the foreseeable future. And Nano system engineering or Nanotech as it is popularly known is a great field of research where scientists will tweak and create materials at a nano level, study their properties and come up with amazing stuff.

Again, these are just broad categories of Electrical Engineering. You also have Control Systems Engineering, Instrumentation and measurements etc. Some fields are more glamorous than the other. But every bit as essential too. I work on an intersection of a lot of fields - electrical engineering, material science and a bit of quantum physics - to do what I do. Creating those microprocessors from bare and raw materials and making sure they work and are better than what came before.

And that is what todays Electrical Engineering has morphed into. A lot of the same basics, but now interacting with a number of other disciplines to get stuff done. So DSP will have specialised processors running a Java or a Matlab code to do Speech/Image recognition. Sensor technology will interact with Chemistry and Material Science to find better sensors. Or Curiosity - that Mars rover  - where a lot of the above mentioned stuff comes together to tell us more about the red planet. Electrical Engineering - a highly diverse field that will always reward broad minded ideas.

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