14 September 2009

Auto-transformers, moving country and the status quo

One of the privileges I have had working for a company with a global presence has been the opportunity to travel and live in another country. While this is generally a rewarding, mind-broadening experience, practical differences are often overlooked.

I grew up in Sydney Australia, but I lived with my wife and kids in California since late 2005. Setting up camp in the USA was relatively easy since we took nothing but the clothes in our bags, deciding to buy new furniture and appliances once we were there.

In May of this year (2009) my family and I made the journey back over the Pacific to my home city so I could undertake a new opportunity within the company. I thought that things would be easy since we know just how everything "works" here in Sydney, but this time the difference was that all our belongings came with us.

I thought to myself – even as an engineer – it will be fine to run our domestic appliances off step-down transformers to allow for the lower frequency in Australia. The problem with this approach is that most appliances, and even most autotransformers, have been designed to run at 60Hz, not the Aussie 50Hz supply – potentially leading to failure.

But when it turned out next to impossible to find a reasonably priced electronic drive, I decided I would have to design and build my own for running domestic appliances as if they were in their native environment. This was all well and good – a high voltage DC bus could be obtained through a power-factor correction application note easily enough. This in turn would be supplying a high voltage class-D amplifier that generates the 120V AC at the desired 60Hz from a sine wave source. But is it really worth it? With hindsight, it would have been much easier to simply sell all that stuff and buy new goods once we had arrived.

Then came an epiphany. All this fuss is basically what we engineers go through every time we move to a new company that uses different tools. It is also what happens when companies switch from one tool or vendor to another. You are like equipment that was built for a specific design environment. It is difficult for us to use a new piece of software in exactly the way the vendor intends, because we are looking at it through our knowledge of how things have been done before. For example, you may be looking for the button in the schematic editor that creates a net list for the PCB editor, when really you should be looking for the button that automatically runs an engineering change to bring the nets, components, design rules and even some mechanical information about the design into the PCB editor.

What this begs us to do when moving to new tools is to do it with an open mind to discovery, and a willingness to put aside what we have done before – as far as tools are concerned – so we are mentally prepared to learn not a set of new keystrokes for the same way of doing things, but rather a new way of thinking and a creative attitude.

Ben Jordan, master electronics designer success manager, Altium Ltd

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