Quality crisis in electronics

June 12, 1998

Engineering graduates with the skills to design tomorrow's mobile phones and digital televisions can walk straight into well-paid jobs. But university electronic engineering departments are finding it hard to keep pace with industry's demands.

Students with the necessary mathematical skills are hard to attract, and fast-changing technology means that courses obsolesce almost as quickly as the products themselves.

"The thing that makes electronics interesting is, it is mathematically difficult so it's a tough subject, and the pace of change is tremendous," said Steve Sangwine, electronics lecturer at Reading University. Last month he organised a meeting at the Institution of Electrical Engineers where academics and industrialists discussed the challenge facing educators in digital electronics.

Courses are still filling up, but lecturers are concerned about the quality of students who apply. "Some of it is the general decline of educational standards. Some of it is that the better students are shifting away from electronics," Dr Sangwine said. "Students are weaker mathematically than they were in the past," complained Peter Noakes of the electronic systems engineering department at the University of Essex.

The Semiconductor Industry Association forecasts that billion-transistor chips will enter production between 2010 and 2015. Electronics lecturers are beginning to wonder how they can train engineers to design some of the most complex objects ever fashioned by humankind.

"One person cannot do it. You are talking about a team," said Barry Darby, business development director at defence contractor Racal Research. Courses like Chris Harrison's at Manchester University reflect this. He gives two rival teams the task of designing the electronics for a radio-controlled toy car.

"I think the students we are turning out are more useful to industry because of this kind of group working experience," he said.

Digital system design is perhaps the only occupation in the world where productivity increases by a factor of 100 each decade. Digital circuits are built out of simple units called gates which typically consist of four transistors each. A month's design work for an engineer in 1980 was 10 to 100 gates. It could be a million gates a month by the year 2000.

That kind of work rate is possible because engineers no longer need to think about individual gates. They use a "hardware description language" such as VHDL to specify what a circuit is meant to do, and then use powerful computer programs to test their ideas by simulation and finally to generate a design complete down to the last gate. VHDL has been introduced into syllabuses in the last three years, by lecturers who are new to it themselves.

Tomorrow's chip designers will also have to be educated about the electromagnetic effects that become important as clock rates head for 1000 megahertz and beyond. "You could understand digital circuits and most analog circuits 10 years ago in terms of circuit theory, which deals with voltages and currents, not electromagnetic fields," said Dr Sangwine.

Now, he says, designers have to consider such issues as electromagnetic radiation from laptop computers, which could interfere with aircraft electronics.

The next problem facing chip designers is the speed of light. According to David Kinniment of the University of Newcastle, there will soon be several kilometres of wiring on a thumbnail-sized chip. Though electrical signals travel close to the speed of light, delays are becoming troublesome and it will soon be hard to keep a whole chip synchronised to a single clock. In the approach known as asynchronous design, chips are likely to be created with as many as 10,000 independent "time zones". Professor Kinniment said that there are few tools available for asynchronous design, and very few designers with knowledge of asynchronous design methods. It is one more subject to be incorporated into digital engineering courses, and almost certainly not the last.

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