VINTAGE CAR SPECIALIST
 

Guide to doing an Electronics Degree in UK.

 

..To an extent also applies to HND

 

2017
 

Enjoyment:

Many reject Electronics as a subject, because they fear its hard. Yes, there are aspects of  certain areas of electronics that are certainly challenging, but there are also many areas of Design Electronics that, really, are not that difficult at all if you can just put in some decent 'groundwork'. Also, Electronics can be a very rewarding, satisfying and  enjoyable area to work in.

Supposing you designed say,  just a simple LED flashlight as follows....

https://www.eccoesg.co.uk/gb/en/products/DirectionalLEDs/3812series

 I defy you to not feel a flash of excitement every time you see a lorry go past with one of  your LED flashers attached to it.

Graduate destinations:

Few  electronics grads get into electronics jobs because of poor advice  during  the degree, and the dramatic downsizing of the UK engineering industry over the years.....          https://massey276.wixsite.com/ukdecline

Men/Women:

A  Female once told me she didn’t want to work in Electronics because she would find herself surrounded by only  men in an Engineering department. I told her that in a great  many  UK companies she would indeed be the only Female Engineer there….but that would most likely be because she would be the single only  Engineer there, not the only female. Electronics Engineering has unfortunately been widely rejected by both Males and Females in UK.

 

Research

Many UK universities are primarily involved in their lucrative, prestigious and often pioneering  Research activities. This can however, sometimes be a problem because these uni’s may not be quite so interested in training General Electronics Engineers for industry.  Some graduate People still manage to become general Electronics Engineers in spite of this , but there is high student wasteage.

If you want to become a  General Electronics Engineer in industry, try to pick a uni which is more based in that, if possible. Probably not one of the ones with in-depth,  pioneering  research programmes. (unless you  are sworn on doing a PhD).

The “Research_first”  uni’s  may see the whole cohort of undergrads as a 'pool' from which they will be interested in only those very few who are going to be able to contribute to their pioneering research areas…ie PhD’s.

Its worth being mindful of the fact that Universities always were, traditionally, meant for the very highest level of pioneering research activity.

Many general Electronics Design Engineer jobs in industry need you to apply yourself (eg the design of say a 60W Offline Flyback Power Supply). –However, such design  work is certainly not “pioneering research”.

 

What is the most significant entrance qualification for electronics?..

The most significant subject for succeeding in  a Degree in Electronics is A Level maths.

The following site shows the  general maths needed to  design a  general Switch Mode Power Supply...

https://massey276.wixsite.com/maths

 

What is electronics?

Electronics is not just one subject. There are  about Ten different fields of electronics.  In an undergraduate degree you get introduced to all of these fields.  You have to pass exams in all of these fields. Any electronics engineer who works in any one of these fields, is unlikely to be able to do much significant work in any of the  other fields.

 

If you  can pick your field early in the degree, then you can focus on it and greatly improve your prospects of getting a job in electronics after the course.

The Ten fields of electronics are…

 

1….High level software (eg Java)

…..usually most electronics degrees do some of this, and there are usually facilities for people who decide they like it to transfer to a computer science degree at the end of year two.

2…Embedded software (eg C for microcontrollers).

This is writing low level software to interface to circuitry. Embedded software engineers  often (but not always)  have some level of general analog circuit ability, as they have to interface their microprocessors to stuff via analog circuitry. Also, many  microcontrollers and microprocessors now often have analog circuits within them (eg comperators, opamps etc etc).

           Having worked as a Hardware Engineer in the field of Switch Mode Power Supplies, I often find that I need to write simple microcontroller programs (eg in C language) for circuitry involved in Test jigs for testing power supplies with. This is just simple software and there is no need to specialise in embedded software for the writing of such simple programs. As discussed, simple microcontroller programs are easy, and in fact, Maplins used to sell Microcontroller programming kits aimed at 13 year old children.

However, longer, more involved programs for microcontrollers are at a much higher level of difficulty. Do not think that  just because you can  do simple microcontroller programs that you can  therefore automatically learn it up well enough to become  a full-blown embedded software engineer. **

3….Radio Frequency & Microwave  Engineering

4….Control

5….Electric Motors & Drives

6….Electrical power transmission & distribution. (eg transformers, transmission lines etc).

7….Power Supplies (eg Switch Mode Power Supplies, Battery chargers,  LED drivers, Inverters, etc etc).

…..Note that due to the high amount of general Analog Electronics used in this field,  the skill of this field has widespread use throughout all of  electronics because most electronics products use General Analog circuitry to interface to stuff and do “housekeeping” duties, (eg monitoring, protection, detection, measuring, etc etc)

PCB Layout is an essential skill for most  power supply engineers. Many PCB layout software packages are “private software”, and are somewhat difficult to use. However, the “Eagle”  PCB layout software is very easy to use.

 

A  lot of students declare that because  Power Suply engineering is Analog electronics, then it must be difficult. This is not the case. Analog electronics  at degree level, dare I say it, is not particularly reflective of what general analog electronics is really like in many general electronics design jobs. –Its just not that hard, at least not always. Generally,  a great many Analog electronics designers manage to get by without ever reading  academic tomes like “The Art of Electronics”. One of my first Analog Electronics design jobs was an emergency light power supply with all the monitoring/sensing  electronics that goes with it.  It was far easier to do than you would  think having been on a degree course.

Any 'hobby' electronics experience is useful in general analog electronics, (including switch mode power supplies) and you can supplement this with use of EG the LTspice simulator.

 

Also, my free  Switch Mode  Power Supply course is available if you want it…email andymassey22@gmail.com and I’ll send you the download link. This teaches SMPS by many ways incuding annotated simulations in the free download LTspice simulator  (from linear.com)

In fact, here is the download link for this course....

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B7aRNbu3Fes4TU92Mkw3YlA3ams

 

 

8…….Integrated Circuit Engineering (AKA “Analog IC”)....

This involves using  specialist software to make up integrated circuits. Integrated circuits are electronic circuits which are infused into a wafer of silicon.

In-depth Semiconductor theory and in depth Analog electronics, as well as digital electronics, play a big part in this field.

9….Audio. (eg audio amplifiers etc). There have been changes in this field over the years as follows. There are now “amplifiers on a chip”. Also, some switching amplifiers are more like Switch Mode Power supplies in their modus operandi.

10……Digital Electronics....

This is the name generally given  to people who  work with High speed software languages like VHDL etc. These make FPGA’s.  FPGA’s are  a little like microcontrollers but are highly specialised and often very fast…often used in eg missile electronics etc.

VHDL = Very high speed Hardware Description Language

The clue to VHDL is in the name: Hardware Description Language. It is an abstract description of the functions that you want a piece of hardware to perform. It is a description in the sense that it is not executable code. It is rather, a specification for something to be made.

The tools that process VHDL read the description, go through various internal processing steps, and output a raw hardware description for the chosen platform.

 

VHDL can be  for making logic function devices by burning it into a  FPGA, which saves  you the money of having a chip fabbed.

The FPGA manufacturers give their design tools away free, typically only for low end devices.

HDL design tools are free from Altera, Lattice and Xilinx.

 

Software tells a predefined chip what to DO, a HDL tells a chip what to BE!

If you want to try and get some experience in VHDL, you could try this product (or something like it)

https://hobbycomponents.com/search?orderby=position&controller=search&orderway=desc&search_query=fpga

 (toolchain is free)
..Just add jumper wires, LEDs and switches, and you have all you need to do practical VHDL excercises.

.... and why not buy one of these at the same time:
https://hobbycomponents.com/featured/274-lc-maxii-altera-epm240-cpld-development-board
Far less educational value, but fun and even more stupidly cheap - same programmer works for both boards

Seller forum gives excellent step-by-step guide to getting started with your first simple project, and clear documentation on the board

11…..PCB layout....

This is not really a genuine field of electronics….but if you gain full mastery of a top-of-the-range PCB layout software such as Altium, then you can get £50/hr wages. However, Altium, and others like it, are to an extent,  "private software" packages, ..'closed shops', and you only get able to learn them fully  if either you are very good, or you know the right people, or you can afford to buy it (~£5000+ plus yearly maintenance fee) and put in the time to learn it at home. The Eagle PCB layout software is far  far easier to use…..and anybody can use it as long as they know the basic structure of  a PCB and can handle windows. However, the big wages don’t often go to people using Eagle.

 

Final Year Project

You must choose  one of the above  fields  for your Final Year Project.

The Final  Year Project is by far the most important part of your degree.

If you do a final year project in a certain field, its generally unlikely that you will be able to start a  job in a different field. (unless you have a sponsor who gave you great experience during your  “sandwich course” placements etc)

You need to try and develop  an at least amicable relationship with your  final year project supervisor.  You don’t have to like them, but be amicable. They are the one that is likely to be writing  your reference for employers.

 

In your final year project, you must try and actually build something in hardware. (that’s if you  have chosen to do a hardware based subject)…obviously  if you have chosen a  high level  software project then your  “output” will be a computer program which gives the right outputs, whatever.

But yes, you must get hardware experience. You must build something. Then you can talk about it during job interviews. If you have chosen a hardware based final year project, but don’t actually  get your hands on some hardware, then you are unlikely to get a job. That is, if you only did a pure academic analysis in the final year project,  then that won’t hold much stead in an application  for a hardware  electronics  job. That's not a totally hard-and-fast rule, but you do compromise your

chances of getting a job in Electronics if you don't get some hands-on hardware experience during your final year project.

 

This has significant ramifications as follows…..

 

For example, if you choose a final year project in Radio Frequency & Microwave  Engineering, then getting your hands on some hardware might  be very very  difficult. Microwave hardware and test and  measurement equipment is  extremely expensive. The uni is not likely to be able to be able to afford to let all undergrads get access to the hardware. So you really must have a superb relationship with your supervisor (before you start the project) if you go into Radio Frequency & Microwave  Engineering. The microwave hardware and  test kit (eg VNA’s, spectrum analysers)  is likely to be reserved for PhD students only.

 

The reverse of this is Power Supply Engineering. The hardware and test equipment  needed to build many Power supplies is extremely cheap. You could, if you wanted, do it at home on your kitchen table. So, If you choose a Power Supply project, then you have a high chance of being able to get your hands on some hardware  and test  equipment, and therefore a high chance of getting a job after the degree/HND.

 

 

Choosing one of the fields for your final year project

You must choose one field to do your project in.

Choose the field that you think you can work in.

Be very wary of choosing a field purely because you think it pays  more money…..if you don’t get on and get your “feet under the table” in it, then it won’t end up being more money.

Choose a field where you know you can get your hands on some hardware in the project. (if you want a hardware job). Even if you want a job where you spend most of your time doing eg  Simulink control software, the  software ultimately controls hardware, so the employer is likely to want to see some  real hardware experience.

 

Here is a summary of the fields and the chance of getting  job-useful experience in that field during your final year project:

 

1….High level software....

This   isnt as easy as its made out.

Only do a high level software  project if you find that you can easily do it. **

In High level software it can help to be in with a good crowd who can share knowledge with you. Having said that, some people just take to software like a 'duck to water'...you may be one of these people(?)

2…..Embedded software....

This   isnt as easy as its made out to be. **

Writing   reasonably short  programs is very very easy, but more involved software is nowhere near as straightforward.

Having said that, some people just take to software like a 'duck to water'...you may be one of these people(?)

3…….Radio Frequency & Microwave Engineering....

The hardware, components and test equipment  for this are severely expensive. Do not choose this unless you have a  superb relationship with the supervisor before the project and they have promised you hands on hardware experience.

This field has simulation software called “microwave office”…but it is severely expensive, and  ‘private software’…..you will  struggle to  be able to learn it unless you are brilliant or get  in with  the right people **. You won’t be able to afford to buy it yourself to learn it.^^

4…Control....

Control has many applications…..eg, controlling an electric motor in a lift shaft to rise to a certain floor and not overshoot and go too high and then slam back down to stop. Or controlling an electric motor to keep spinning at a fixed speed in spite of its loading varying continuously.

If you want to understand quickly what Control is about, then read the first 50 pages of “Understand Electronic control systems” by Owen Bishop. This will take you about half an hour.

Control is an area steeped in mathematics. Huge differential equations and integrals.

Generally,  a control engineer will use control software such as “SIMULINK”, etc.

Simulink is  a pretty well  ‘private software’……its very expensive. You might struggle to  be able to learn it unless you are very good or are in with  the right people who will share knowledge with you.**

 

Note that “Power supply engineering” involves control….but generally the control needed to regulate a power supply is layed bare and  much simpler.

Electric motors  often involve significant control theory, though to be honest, you don’t always have to be a control expert to work in some   areas of electric motors and drives.

 

5…Electric Motors and drives….

Electric motors  can be a bit of  a ‘closed shop’. In depth motor theory is kind of an area of industrial secrecy. No industry is going to share its deepest electric motor secrets & research findings. Few staff will be allowed to work on the in-depth projects.

Doing a simple stepper motor driver is very easy, but in depth motor theory is generally kept as an industrial secret.

The hardware for motors and drives is expensive, so it can be difficult to pick up the valuable hardware experience in this field, -so you must have a superb relationship with your project supervisor if  you are going to pick this as a project.

These days, a lot of electric motors are BLDC’s, and they are driven by software. The software to drive them is not  easy to learn and can be quite a ‘closed shop’ to get into…unless you are just very good **. Though the software to control a simple stepper motor  application  can often be  very easy.

Servo motors etc involve significant control theory, so you would need to be able to dabble in that. There is specific software/simulators to design electric motors/drives…but it is  expensive, and generally a bit of a  closed shop…hard to learn  unless you know the right people.**

6...Electrical power transmission & distribution. (eg transformers, transmission lines etc)......

I am afraid i don't know much about the job of an Engineer who may design for example, sections of the National Grid power network. Suffice to say that only very specialised  people will end up being allowed to do such important work.

7…Power supplies.....

Virtually every electrical/electronics  device (apart from eg toasters) use a power supply of some sort, so there is a lot of work in this field. However, the Far East has taken a  large  chunk of the work.

However,  the field of power supplies is the  area where you are most likely to be able to do a final year project where you can actually  get your hands on some hardware, so therefore it can be a good choice.

Also, the software you may use to design a power supply can be eg  excel and a simulator like  LTspice. Excel is not too pricey, and LTspice is free. LTspice is very very simple to use. Its about the only electronics simulation software on earth that is dead easy to use and all-customer friendly.

For control calculations, it can help to have Mathcad, but it isn’t entirely necessary, and you can calculate gain and phase margins with eg excel.

 

The field of Power Supplies is one of the  few areas of electronics that is not generally a closed shop. The theory you need to know is  stuff like Lenz’s Law, Kirchoff’s law, Faradays Law, etc etc….you can find good stuff on this all over the internet, which means its easy to learn about power supplies as long as you are interested enough.

 

Its useful to know embedded software (eg C  language) to a simple level when you work in the area of power supplies. This is because many power supplies contain a microcontroller…and the software engineers very very often blame “power supply noise” for the reason that their software is going wrong. You have to counter this by writing some  simple software for it yourself, and proving that your simple software works, you can then say that the power supply noise is not preventing the  microcontroller  from working.

 

Undergrads often think that  a Power Supply Engineer would have a technician to do all the soldering and manual work for them . This might be the case. But generally not.  A Power Supply engineer must have the complete range of practical skills such as soldering, stripboard circuit building, PCB working,  Wire stripping,  etc etc…luckily all this is easy to learn. However, if an engineer never wants to solder or do manual work involving  tools, then they cannot really be a power supply  design engineer.

 

Even though these days  many western companies buy in power supplies from the Far East, they still need to be able to spec what they buy. And often they need to be able to  test that its fit for purpose. Therefore, even though much power supply work has gone to the Far East, the sheer quantity of power supplies in industry means that power supply knowledge is widely useful.

 

The fact that virtually every electrical product needs a power supply means that there is a reasonable chance of landing some sort of job in this field if you specialise in it.

Here is an example of a very simple Switch Mode Power Supply using a ZXLD1366 control chip.....

https://www.diodes.com/assets/Datasheets/ZXLD1366.pdf

....you could build that on your kitchen table, and it wouldnt cost too much.

....as you can see, this is very simple. This would be easy for you to do . If you also have A Level Maths and Physics, or HNC/D Electronics etc, then its not that far on from this to actually design a "proper" SMPS with  a more complicated  feedback control loop. This shows how SMPS  can generally be one of the easier subjects, and easier areas in which to work. ** However, also, at its maximal form, SMPS design can easily be a PhD topic, and  every bit as hard as any other field of electronics.

 

8…Integrated circuit engineering....

This can be  a  bit of a ‘closed shop’. ^^ The software to do it is very expensive. It’s called "Cadence Virtuoso" or similar. You can't work in integrated circuit engineering unless you can handle the relevant software simulators etc **.

I can't see how your university would be able to afford to allow you to actually make an integrated circuit. So I cannot see how you would get  hardware experience unless you get regular industrial placements with an integrated circuit maker.

You need a great relationship with the supervisor.

Or perhaps a sponsor company who will ensure you get all the necessary experience during “sandwich” placements.

I suspect that people with good general Analog & Digital electronics skills might be able to go into this field and get trained up as an integrated circuit “architect”. However, you’d have to make enquiries. It seems a  bit of a secretive area of work.

Back in 2000-ish, Cadence Virtuoso,  was about £100k per seat per year. There is no personal license. If you want to use it, you have to hit the university computer labs usually. On top of that if you want to spin a prototype, that's about £25k for a single run if you have an in house small scale fab (we did being defence sector). £60k+ outside fab if you have a decent contract.

This is why FPGAs are so popular. You can short circuit most of that cost and turnaround at the cost of speed, size and power consumption. Look at Intel / Altera / Xilinx for VHDL stuff.

 

9…Audio....

This is now sometimes getting taken over with “amplifiers on a chip” etc. Though there are still some old fashioned transistor amplifiers about.  Its generally true that general amplifier design is more difficult  than  general switch mode power    supply design.

There don’t seem to be many amplifier engineers about these days. Nor amplifier  design companies in the west.

 

10…Digital Electronics....

EG   FPGA’s, VHDL etc.

VHDL = Very high speed Hardware Description Language

The clue to VHDL is in the name: Hardware Description Language. It is an abstract description of the functions that you want a piece of hardware to perform. It is a description in the sense that it is not executable code. It is rather, a specification for something to be made.

The tools that process VHDL read the description, go through various internal processing steps, and output a raw hardware description for the chosen platform.

A HDL tells a chip what to BE! (Whereas software (eg C language) tells a predefined chip (EG  a microcontroller) what to DO,

You thus see the difference between software and a HDL.

 

VHDL can be  for making logic function devices by burning it into a  FPGA, which saves  you the money of having a chip fabbed.

The FPGA manufacturers give their design tools away free, typically only for low end devices.

HDL design tools are free from Altera, Lattice and Xilinx.

 

If you want to try and get some experience in VHDL, you could try this product (or something like it)

https://hobbycomponents.com/search?orderby=position&controller=search&orderway=desc&search_query=fpga

 (toolchain is free)
..Just add jumper wires, LEDs and switches, and you have all you need to do practical VHDL excercises.

.... and why not buy one of these at the same time:
https://hobbycomponents.com/featured/274-lc-maxii-altera-epm240-cpld-development-board
Far less educational value, but fun and even more stupidly cheap - same programmer works for both boards

Seller forum gives excellent step-by-step guide to getting started with your first simple project, and clear documentation on the board

Year out in Industry, or summer placement in industry

This can massively increase your chances of getting a job in Electronics after the degree. Even if you did little more than making tea during the placement! Many companies don’t like taking on a “virgin” graduate, who has never set foot in industry before.

All the better if you can get decent work experience in an area of electronics that you eventually wish to work in.

***************************************************************************************************************************

^^ Please note that some of  the above fields were described as being a bit of a “closed shop”. However, if you can get yourself sponsored with a company who  intend to give you relevant experience  (placements, internships etc) in that field, then you will be inside the “closed shop”, so should be able to get on well in the particular field anyway.

** Obviously as an Engineer, you  would be able to spend time and work out how to succeed in any of the above fields, and be able to master any of the relevant simulators and software programs etc. However, in UK,  there are electronics companies that do not provide any  “learning time”  to engineers whatsoever. They only give engineering tasks to engineers who have already successfully done the task umpteen times before, and can crack on and get the task done straight away in a pre-defined maximum number of hours.

I have been to some electronics companies that even complain when you say you  need some time to read, EG, a PWM controller datasheet......they somehow expect you to already know them all off by heart.

&&   Note that some of the above subject areas require use of software and simulators which can be extremely expensive. If you can't get good enough access to the software and simulators needed for your specialist area, then your progression in the field will be more awkward.

 

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