the (unofficial) guide to engineering at UQ
When I stared engineering in 2009, I was a giddy young student ready excited to dive into the world of engineering. Today, I’m just as giddy, a little bit less young and still a student (phd student now though). Before university, I was fortunate enough to have been involved for many years in what I like to call ghetto electronics, or what you may call being an electronics hobbyist. I didn’t really think that this would help me because engineering is all about difficult maths, right?
Turns out, it didn’t help me. Until I did my first team project.
FYI: I’m an electrical/biomedical engineer. My phd is in biomedical engineering and optics. If you are studying a different kind of engineering, I still hope that some of this applies to you.
FYI2: All of this is written in an unoffical capacity and represents my personal opinion only. I have a great respect for the staff and fellow students at the University of Queensland, without them I would not be where I am today (aka having major fun in the lab). Any people I refer to will be referred to by initials.
I have no idea what I am doing
One thing that really drove me toward engineering is that I seem to have a deep craving to understand how things work. Inevitably though, once you work out how something works you will start to think about how it can be improved. There are two options here, you can either:
- Pat yourself on the back for being smarter than the engineer that designed it (yess!), or
- You can try to improve it and realise that actually you have no idea what you are doing
That feeling of what on earth am I doing? is extremely important, do not mistake it as anxiety or fear. When you have that feeling, you are about to learn something very important so you should pay extra special attention.
Super fun story: a few years ago, a supervisor (and friend) SW helped me to modify and repair an audio amplifier that we wanted to use in MRI coil experiments. I sat down and looked inside this complicated amplifier and realised that I had no idea what I was doing. But after watching SW for a little bit I realised that he was not chanting magic, nor was he sticking pins in a voodoo doll of the amplifier; he was staying calm, not letting his brain tell him that he was out of his depth (I’m pretty sure he did know what he was doing!), picking tiny problems and solving them bit by bit. It’s not rocket science, it’s really just regular science.
The point I’m trying to make is that it’s totally cool to have no idea what you are doing. I constantly have no idea what I am doing.
Engineers have no practical skills
I often hear the remark from tradesmen that engineers have no practical skills. While this is of course an overgeneralisation, I’d have to agree with the statement. The problem exists because there is only so much you can teach in a four year engineering degree, and there is a lot of theory that needs to be crammed in your head before you can start to understand what you need to design. On top of this, it seems that you can get by as an engineer as long as you are connected with some people who have more “hands on” skills.
There is a classic problem that appears in first and second year team projects that is a difficult one to prevent; with their bright-eyed enthusiasm, new engineering students go out and try to tackle the biggest, hardest problem they can find in the most badass way possible. They research the best kind of material to build their device and decide on diamond-infused titanium with sweet twirly red patterns on it and the thickness of it is exactly 3.2487mm and they need exactly 24.53x342.412mm of it. Then these young women and men write this all up in their report, put a cool border on, slap on some WordArt and call it a day.
And then you ask them to build it.
But Jeremy, where do I get diamond-infused titanium? No idea matey.
Jer, I called up a supplier and they don’t have 3.2487mm sheets! What do I do? Don’t use ‘em.
Jeremy, how do I cut this diamond-infused titanium into a really strange, three dimensional abstract shape? Oh yeah, I only have butter knife and my car keys. Um
It may sound like I am trying to be obnoxious, but I promise that isn’t it! The truth is your solution is unrealistic and I know from many personal experiences that this is what drives the next person in the manufacturing chain insane. The problem isn’t solved in the real world, it’s just solved in abstract mathematics land.
Mega fun story: I worked as an electrician’s trade assistant at CC for a little bit. One of the jobs we needed to do was change about 150 ceiling lights in some offices (it sucks, but someone’s gotta do it). Unfortunately, it seems that whoever designed the ceiling completely ignored the fact that lights could, you know, break. Changing a light at home takes me all of ten seconds. Trying to pull the diffuser and tube out of these lights would take a minimum of 10-15 minutes per bulb because there was not enough room in the roof to pull them out properly. Eventually, we worked out it was quicker if you push the entire light fitting into the roof, climb up a ladder into the crawlspace, change the bulb and then try to carefully fix the light fitting back to the supports. Oh, but they ran a lot of air conditioning ducting over the top of the fittings, so you couldn’t push half of them through. And after you got out of the roof your pockets were full of dust and dead moths.
Try doing this for a week and not becoming bitter towards the person who designed it. srsly.
One thing that really, really helped me deal with this problem was what my Googler friend JM calls “dogfooding”, which is (to paraphrase) if you can’t use [your design] yourself, it probably isn’t ok. Again, this is a generalisation because you shouldn’t expect to have the skills of a professional machinist. But if you don’t know how to make custom gears and don’t know anyone that can make them for you, don’t use them! It’s really just that simple! The same goes for designing with components; base your design on what components and materials you can definitely buy, rather than on what would be “perfect”.
It’s for this reason that I really like to build my own things where possible. I always learn little lessons that seem unimportant at the time, but they often end up transforming impossible tasks into possible ones. I’ll never design a ceiling that you can’t pull the lights out of.
Don’t think I am just trying to poke fun at you, I’ve done this too many times to count! No one gets it right first go.
Component selection anxiety
This is always a rough one to deal with when you first come across it. It seems like you have a million, almost identical components to choose from and they all have a 400 page specification. Generally, the way this is dealt with by more experienced individuals is by having a set of known good components and values that you are extremely familiar with and work well for your problems. Some examples:
- my default op-amp is a TL072
- my default BJTs are BC548 and BC558
- my default pullup resistor is 10k ohm (I literally have hundreds of these in my desk)
This is not to say that a TL072 is the best op amp ever (it ain’t), but simply if I am building an op-amp circuit I will experiment with the TL072 first. Unfortunately, you probably don’t have the benefit of this level of experience yet, so you need a different strategy.
When I was learning the ropes of electronics, I would take things apart and look at old schematic diagrams to see what parts the design engineer used as a sort of pseudo-known good. If I was trying to build an audio amplifier and needed to choose good transistor for the job, I wouldn’t just use the first one that I could find (take note, TP2 fourth years!), but rather look at amplifiers that are already out there and try and work out why they chose a specific transistor.
Be nice, you’ll need each other
Let me be blunt: engineering degrees are hard. Well, I thought my dual major in EE/biomed engg was hard, your mileage may vary. You are constantly bombarded with novel concepts to try and understand, and you are expected to slot four subjects worth of work together into your week as well as leaving time to, y’know, sleep. I don’t even know if I would have made it through without the help of my colleagues, supervisors and friends at university. Be nice, because you’ll need each other.
The most important tip of them all
If you are having trouble, ask someone for help. Seriously. For reals. And if someone can’t help you because they are busy, thank them for their time and go ask someone else.
I can’t help you if I don’t know you have a problem!
My “known good” list
Here is a list of places that you can source parts that I have experience with. Also some tools I like to use. By no means is this list exhaustive, and if you feel that there is something critical I am missing please send me an email (jeremy.006 at gmail) and I will add it. Use at your own risk, I guarantee nothing!
- Jaycar/Dick Smith - expensive, but local shops and open on weekends. Very limited range.
- Element14 - quite a large range, overnight shipping on some items, free shipping for orders over $45. A little bit expensive.
- RS Components - Similar to element14. Free shipping on all orders. A touch expensive.
- Sparkfun/Little Bird Electronics - Awesome shops, Little Bird is an Australian reseller of Sparkfun stuff. Not necessarily the cheapest, but you will find lots of beginner friendly stuff and things that you can’t buy elsewhere.
- Seeed - Electronics startup in China, similar to Sparkfun. These guys have some great products for fairly cheap.
- Futurlec - Be careful of this one. They have insanely cheap prices, I have absolutely no idea how they do it. Can be unresponsive to emails and purchasing, but I have ordered many things through them and when I eventually get them they are good quality.
- Digikey - This one is the big kid of electronics components. Flat rate 3 day shipping to Australia for $30. Cheapest prices around, best quality brands, huge range. Unfortunately they restrict the export of some parts that could have defense applications.
- Mouser - Similar to Digikey, less likely to play the “export restricted” card. I have found them to be a tiny bit more expensive than Digikey, but the two suppliers often compliment each others’ product range quite well.
- Prime Electronics - Last minute component failure? Need a surface mount ceramic to fix it right now? These guys aren’t cheap, but they are open on Saturdays.
- DealExtreme - Chinese supplier of cheap electronic parts. Crazy cheap, free shipping (but the shipping is super slow)
- Industrial Plastics - Not the cheapest place, but a great bunch of people and they will often cut your plastics to size if you ask nicely. Large range, located on the east side of Brisbane.
- Small Parts & Bearings - Decent range of quality products. A teeny bit expensive, but you pay for being able to walk into the shop and walk out with the stuff in your hands 5 minutes later.
- Amazon Supply - Huge range of all sorts of mechanical bits, metals and plastics. Just watch out for high shipping costs if you buy something that is heavy.
- Aliexpress - If there is something you can buy from China, you’ll be able to buy it from here. My go-to for roller bearings. Majorly cheap (too cheap? sometimes quality is poor)
- Blackwoods - Many stores around Australia, huge range of name brand products. If you need a special adhesive, this is where I would go. I am told that they do $10 next day shipping to anywhere in metropolitan Brisbane. Also great for buying for really good tools.
- SDP/SI - Haven’t used them personally, but many people swear by this place.
- McMaster Carr - These guys won’t ship to AUS, but the site is good for looking up specs.
- Hobby King - Crazy good prices on servos, motors, batteries and they have an Australian warehouse. I don’t buy servos from anywhere except here.
- eBay - You’d be surprised what you can find on here.
- Circuit Labs/PCB Zone - I seriously can’t recommend these guys enough. Reasonably priced, beautiful boards, 1 week turnaround max. RoHS is standard!
- ITEAD Studio - Crazy cheap. A little bit slow (expect 2 weeks even with DHL shipping). Quality not as good as Circuit Labs, but passable.
Laser Cutting and 3D Printing:
- Ponoko - Send them your 3D model, pick a material, send money, receive in mail. It’s that simple. They have a production center in NZ, so they can be pretty speedy.
Software I use very regularly:
- DipTrace - PCB Design software
- Autodesk Inventor - Mechanical and 3D design software. Free for students!
- Sublime Text - My favourite text editor
- Github - Free hosted revision control. Students can get a “micro” account for free at the link provided
- Google Drive - File sync and backup. Dropbox is good too, but Google Drive is cheaper.
- iPython - Great for messing around with programming ideas, or automating mundane processing tasks
Tools I use very regularly:
- Xcelite Semi-flush Cutters - My favourite side cutters
- Xcelite Serrated Needlenose Pliers - My favourite needlenose pliers
- Xcelite Precision Miniature Screwdrivers - Pretty cheap, extremely well made
- Weller WMRP Soldering Pencil - Best soldering iron I have ever used. I also have an 80W iron with a Weller WD1 which is fantastic. You get what you pay for.
- ChemWick Desolder Braid - A lifesaver when soldering tiny components
- Chip Quik Tip Tinner - A little tub of special solder that can be used to clean the tip of a soldering iron. This stuff changed my life.
- Rigol DS1052E Oscilloscope - You can modify the firmware to upgrade to 100MHz bandwidth. Google is your friend.
- Saleae Logic - A mad little logic analyser. Totally worth the money.
- Xacto Knife - Quite expensive, but you never regret paying for quality. You can buy them cheaper elsewhere, but I always seem to need the blades at the last minute.
I hope this helped! I might add some more things when I get time. Email me! jeremy.006 at gmail.