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Brian Terhune
Successful Project ManagementHow do you keep a project out of the weeds?

Project Management—it’s a part of electronic product development most people would rather not think about, but effective project management can make the difference between a project that goes off the rails and one that smoothly navigates the challenges that come along with innovative design. The key is to practice adaptive project management.

Adaptive project management means recognizing issues as they arise, evaluating and communicating how they may affect the success of the project, and implementing changes as necessary.  This dynamic approach to project management ensures that unforeseen challenges don’t endanger the project schedule and that everyone involved—the design team and the customer—is kept informed of changing realities on the ground.

Successful Project Management is primarily based on 4 key aspects:

Efficient Communication

 

Why?  Deliverables that are well understood and executed assure project requirements are met on time.

How?  Communication style must vary to each member, not one of us thinks or communicates the same as another.

  • Conduit of information to all team members related to overall project status.
  • Act as a filter in providing the information needed by each team member (Individual basis – Who needs to know what?).
  • Method of communication (email, phone call, meeting, etc.) must suit the desired outcome.
  • Effective and engaging in group presentations and meetings.

 

Build and Manage the Team


Why?  Creating a collaborative problem solving environment with internal and external team members will leverage everyone’s input to deliver the best solution possible.

How?  All members (internal or external) are key to success, and they all have the same goal.

Each team member needs to be a subject matter expert. They take ownership and are responsible for the success of the project in their respective field.

  • Never dictate solutions, let the team brainstorm to create the best solution
  • Team members can disagree, but must agree to commit and support a solution.
  • Listen to all points of view, but stay focused and drive for a conclusion.
  • Debate is part of the problem solving process.

 

Identify Problem and Solution Requirements

Why?   Well defined requirements will keep the team focused during development and limit scope creep.  In addition, it eliminates the potential to deliver the wrong product.  The goal, is to deliver the right product the first time.

How?  What problem are you trying to solve?

  • Focus on defining the problem and solution requirements.
  • Requirements are quantitative, and not based on opinions.
  • Prioritize requirements into Musts/Wants.
  • Obtain requirement Validation / Agreement from the customer.

 

 

 Deliverables

Why?  Well defined deliverables capture what the project is and how you are going to execute it throughout the development cycle.   In addition, they can be used as a performance dashboard to understand if you are on track.

How?  A minimum list of deliverables should include:

  • Requirements
  • Conceptual Design Study
  • Development Schedule
  • Budget
  • Risk Assessment
  • Project Gates
  • Reports
  • Test Procedures
  • Customer Validation
  • User Guide / Technical Manuals

 

Down a Rathole?

Many people in the high tech industry have heard the expression down a rathole, but which rathole? Many groups use this phrase, but with very different meanings.

A Bachelor's Apartment

Rathole – like a bachelor’s apartment?

The literal description of a rathole is a place where rats dig a hole through ground, wood, plaster, or even concrete to get into their nests, which are often dirty, small, and cluttered. This leads to the use of the phrase to describe a person’s living quarters which are dirty, small, and cluttered: like a bachelor’s apartment.

 

In the oil drilling industry, a rathole is a vertical shaft drilled near the main well hole, or a hold in the floor of the drilling platform used for temporary storage of the Kelly (the hardware that connects the hoisting cables and the rotating drill turntable which rotates the drill shaft).

Rathole and mousehole in Oil Industry

A rathole and mousehole – oil industry

In this case, the rathole is often accompanied by a mousehole: another vertical storage shaft for holding the drill rods. Rathole is also used to describe an extension of the well hole drilled below the target elevation at the bottom of the well hole for storing machinery attachments and waste.

Down the rathole at Gaping Gill Cave System

Down the Rathole – Entrance at Gaping Gill Cave system. Photo by John Gardner

Surprisingly, but for good reason, Rathole is also the name of an entrance cave to Gaping Gill cave system in North Yorkshire, England. Finally, there are Rat’s Hole annual custom motorcycle shows in Daytona and Myrtle Beach, Fla.

In the high tech world, going down a rathole usually refers to a syndrome of a discussion which consumes a lot of time and goes into minute details of some aspect of the design that promises little return in terms of actual progress on the project. It can also refer to a detailed technical investigation or mathematical calculation that goes into a lot of detail when the outcome is non-critical, or not appropriate for the project’s goals. This mathematical over-analysis has been termed “mathematical diarrhea” by a prominent Cal Tech Engineering Professor. His advice is to use rounding and estimation to quickly get a ballpark answer before committing time and resources to find a mathematically perfect but practically useless answer. The mathematically perfect answer might describe a part that doesn’t exist, so it isn’t very useful information to an Engineer. If you find your initial guestimate is in the ballpark then you can do the detailed calculation, knowing it is time worth spending.

Avoiding this syndrome is a challenge for project managers, and outcome depends on their experience, a well defined set of requirements and goals, as well as the experience, skills, and judgment of the designers. This combination is what separates teams whose projects are completed successfully and those whose projects never seem to end, or see the light of day.

rathole or black hole?

A rathole or a black hole?

 

Sometimes people refer to a rathole as the place where government money and taxes go, but that may be more accurately described as a black hole.

T’was a week-night before Christmas

With posthumous apology to Clement C. Moore

Thanks to DM, DC, and DB

T’was a week-night before Christmas, on the scrubbed office floor,

 And no creature was stirring, apart from Mouse 4.

 

Victorious Mouse

The victorious mouse

There he was—the fourth in a series of mice that had been skittering along corridors, and flinging themselves victoriously into the open backs of cabinet drawers. We had some evidence of their presence, but it was our intrepid late-night engineer who actually discovered them…one night at a time.

At Stilwell Baker, we run a clean operation. Don’t get me wrong; while we don’t wear white gloves, or bunny suits, we don’t keep dogs under the desks either, and the cleaning service comes in every night. But everyone knows that rodents are a determined and dexterous bunch, and according to D. H. Gouge, and C. Olson (University of Arizona), and Jose M. Rodriguez (Arizona Department of Environmental Quality), authors of Mouse Management, “a house mouse can get through a hole [of] the same dimension as a pencil.”  No wonder they could find their way into the office.

We were not alone in our desire to remove the mice—people have been systematically attempting to rid themselves of these small vermin for a very long time. From the 1870 cage trap, and James Henry Atkinson’s first commercially successful “Little Nipper” trap in 1909, to traps that poison, starve, suffocate, anesthetize, or electrocute the poor beggars, the mouse hunt has captivated inventors for over a hundred years.  As a result, there are over 4700 US Patents on mousetraps.

See: PATENTS; Still Seeking that Better Mousetrap

The Little Nipper

Little Nipper

Mousetrap from 1870

Cage trap from 1870

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We didn’t need to invent another mousetrap, but desperately wanted to say a permanent goodbye to the mice.  We ended up with several different styles of traps (all speedily provided by our musophobic colleague, TJ).

As a group, we settled on snap traps (the ones that keep the remains from sight) because we couldn’t bear to subject any mouse to the likes of an electrocution mousetrap. After measuring the voltage on one of these traps, we learned that the electrodes ran about 24 volts of current through two metal plates, and DB commented, “Unless the mouse licks its paws before going into the trap, there might not be enough electricity to actually kill it.”

A few days later the problem was solved, probably by a building-wide approach, with baited traps set by an exterminator. There was no “trophy mouse” for the office, i.e. no definitive proof, but our late-night work is undisturbed and purely customer-focused.

He leapt from his nest, to his friends gave a squeak,
And away they all scurried as fast as a blink,

But I heard him exclaim, ere he loped out of sight,
“Happy night work to all, and to all a calm-night.”

Sleeping mouse

Brian Terhune
Shifting gears

Shifting gears

As some may have heard, I recently joined Stilwell Baker as Operations Director.  Most of us know that when one transitions to a new company, the challenges that await are to some extent…unknown. I usually refer to this time as “drinking from the fire-hose” or “baptism by fire.” The takeaway from my first week focuses on the following:

  •  Customer Satisfaction – Going above and beyond customer requirements. Stilwell Baker believes in making the customer successful, not only from a product standpoint, but from a solution standpoint. Time and time again, they have offered support to help address a system issue that was beyond the scope of their contractual agreement. This is what differentiates vendors from partners.
  • Teamwork – We recently completed a product for a customer and executed what is typically called a “Lessons Learned” meeting. Basically, the team discussed what went right with the process as well as the challenges we faced. Bottom line, what can we do to improve upon existing practices? The meeting also served as a forum to recognize those who went above and beyond the call to deliver a solid product to the customer.
  • Opportunities – There are many to say the least. As you can imagine, getting acclimated to a new environment, engaging with the team on current programs, and supporting new product opportunities in the first week can be very entertaining.  The good news is that it is exciting, challenging, and fun, but I already knew that…that’s why I joined the Stilwell Baker team.

Hey, buddy, wanna buy an H-bridge?

Have we got a deal for you!
Juscelino Kubitscheck bridge in Brazil

Juscelino Kubitscheck bridge in Brazil

Bridges have come a long way from the old tree fallen across the creek, with man-made bridges getting people safely over all kinds of obstacles.

Providence Bridge Pedal

Providence Bridge Pedal in Portland, OR

Bridges connect cities and states separated by rivers (like Portland-Vancouver), enable simple and safe commerce and family travel, provide habitat for trolls, and are just plain fun to ride across on your bike. Bridges can be expensive or cost effective, beautiful and elegant, or clunky/bulky and ugly, safe or wobbly. Everything depends on the designer and the builder.

Bridges are also an important circuit topology in electrical/electronic circuits.  The wide variety of bridge circuits include:

  • the Wheatstone bridge used in sensors and measurement tools
  • the diode bridge rectifier widely used in power supplies converting AC current to DC current
  • the H-bridge used for bi-directional DC motor control
  • and sometimes you get a solder bridge, but let’s try to avoid those

The H-bridge does not mean half a bridge (though you can have a “half-H” bridge), but is a reflection of the topology with 4 switches arranged with the load bridging between the two legs. Turning on a high-side switch in one leg and the low-side switch in the opposite leg drives current in one direction. Current is driven the opposite direction by changing the pair of switches that are activated.

Brought to you by the letter H !

Today’s article brought to you by the letter H !

H-bridges for motor control used to be big and expensive, using multiple discrete components and bulky heatsinks, particularly in high-current applications. But H-bridges today are typically designed using efficient FETs and are often integrated, with the controller logic and the power switches in one relatively small chip.

A perfect example of an integrated H-bridge chip, which Stilwell Baker is using to great advantage, is the Freescale MC33926.  This monolithic H-Bridge Power IC provides flexible control of an inductive load (like a DC motor) with up to 5 Amps of load current and a supply voltage of 8-28V. The IC is in a 32-pin QFN package and is packed with features, including:

          • low Rds(on) of 0.12 ohms
          • internal charge pump
          • short circuit protection
          • thermal overload protection
          • wide industrial temperature range

In fact, a cap for the charge pump is really the only external component you need to add. We, of course, also added bypass caps on the supply voltage and ESD protection on the outputs. Heat sinking was accomplished simply with large copper planes in the printed circuit board (application dependent). This design provided a low cost for 5 Amp support. The chip is used in automotive applications and was readily available in volume.

Freescale MC33926 H-bridge drivers in a Stilwell Baker-designed controller

An array of Freescale MC33926 H-bridge drivers in a Stilwell Baker-designed controller.

Stilwell Baker engineers used a number of these MC33926 in a recent project primarily due to the level of integration for fully-protected 5 Amp capability, the flexible MCU interface, the temperature range, and the low cost. This chip enabled us to design an elegant solution and meet all the customer’s requirements. Add a PIC18 micro-controller and we have a safe, cost-effective control system with a lot of power!

Contact us if you have questions about motor control or H-bridge circuits, or need a custom controller solution.

2H6A4WTEEY24 

Welcome to Electronic Nature

Thank you veterans

Veteran's Day 2011

I am not an Engineer…clearly.  I don’t know the difference between an H-Bridge and the Hawthorne Bridge. I generally have no understanding of electronic engineering methodology, but when I see designs and finished products, I’m captivated by the visual splendor and complexity of purpose in the work.  It took months for me to recognize that a BOM didn’t mean a “bomb.” Perhaps the engineers were designing a secret astonishing something for the DOD, although the customer didn’t seem to be involved in the defense industry. Who knew?

My job at Stilwell Baker entails interacting with many of these rare enigmatic human beings we call electronic engineers, and translating their good works into meaningful material for sales, marketing, and public relations.  Wading into this complicated, component rich, sub-assembly soup at Stilwell Baker, I have been savoring the idiosyncratic nature of electronic engineering and its adherents. Electronic engineers are more than the work they produce; among Stilwell Baker’s engineers are several veterans, a composer, a ski instructor, a missionary, wine connoisseurs, chocolate lovers, and inventors who all live and work in the Great Pacific Northwest.

In the coming months, you’ll be hearing from our engineers in Electronic Nature.  I hope you enjoy reading the blog, and look forward to your comments on the unique perspectives on engineering and everyday life you’ll find here. More often than not, I will be clueless when the engineers lapse into technical speak, but as usual, I’ll ask them to explain…one more time.