Engineering matters

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD



People don’t think about engineers much, and in general engineers are looked upon in a positive light. Unless something goes wrong with something. In the marketplace, engineering is usually the first direction people point fingers when problems occur in a product.

Unsafe and/or malfunctioning products are problematic for several reasons. A device that does not perform as we wish it to is frustrating at the very minimum; a device that can injure its user is dangerous. Not only is there injury from the failure of the product to perform safely and properly, there is also the feeling of betrayal and insecurity that comes from a lack of faith created by a bad experience.

In a complex technical device, people are quick to assume that bad engineering is behind any problem, and that if the designers were “doing their jobs” the product would have hit the marketplace like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, fully formed and ready to take on the world. The “bad” engineering is blamed for any flaws in the perfect product the company was supposed to make. In the case of smart phones, tobacco vaporizers, and other battery-driven portable devices, the consumer almost always faults the electronic designer for any flaws in the product.

The reality is that the engineering team is almost never to blame for product failures. It is possible for engineers to overlook unforeseen operating parameters, but no engineer deliberately under-designs a system unless directed to do so. Electronic design engineering is a precise applied science, based on math and supported by test and observation. When an engineer creates a circuit (unless they actually are incompetent), that circuit will perform in the fashion desired under the conditions established by the customer.

The problems start to crop up when pressure is put on the designers to either speed up the development process or cut corners in materials or components. A circuit or system will function as desired under a given situation, but if all potential operating environments are not explored, there is a significant risk that the device may fail when challenged by unforeseen thermal or electrical events. That is why time is needed to properly test (and adjust) any product to ensure it will function at all times in all places a consumer may reasonably take it.

There have been serious thermal runaway situations involving many types of portable battery-driven products, even though current attention is on smart phones. Every personal electronic product, especially wearables and other devices intended to be worn on or close to the body, must be built to higher standards to minimize the chance of failure and personal bodily harm.

However, the impetus to develop and build better products does not lay with the engineering team; it lays with management. Only those controlling the requirements and allocating the dollars can properly address product safety and functionality issues.