Thoughts on Starting a New Career

Jason Sachs July 22, 20127 comments

I recently completed a 16-year stint at an engineering company. I started there fresh out of college in June 1996. This June I just started a new career as an applications engineer in the area of motor drives at Microchip Technology in Chandler, Arizona. The experience I had in switching jobs was a very enlightening one for me, and has given me an opportunity to reflect on my career. I want to share some of that reflection with you.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this and other blogs...


10 Software Tools You Should Know

Jason Sachs May 20, 201215 comments

Unless you're designing small analog electronic circuits, it's pretty hard these days to get things done in embedded systems design without the help of computers. I thought I'd share a list of software tools that help me get my job done. Most of these are free or inexpensive. Most of them are also for working with software. If you never have to design, read, or edit any software, then you're one of a few people that won't benefit from reading this. 

Disclaimer: the "best" software...


Have You Ever Seen an Ideal Op-Amp?

Jason Sachs April 30, 2012

Somewhere, along with unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster, lies a small colony of ideal op-amps. Op-amp is short for operational amplifier, and we start our education on them by learning about these mythical beasts, which have the following properties:

  • Infinite gain
  • Infinite input impedance
  • Zero output impedance

And on top of it all, they will do whatever it takes to change their output in order to make their two inputs equal.

But they don't exist. Real op-amps have...


Hot Fun in the Silicon: Thermal Testing with Power Semiconductors

Jason Sachs April 20, 2012

Here's a trick that is useful the next time you do thermal testing with your MOSFETs or IGBTs.

Thermal testing?!

Yes, that's right. It's important to make sure your power transistors don't overheat. In the datasheet, you will find some information that you can use to estimate how hot the junction inside the IC will get.

Let's look at an example. Here's a page from the IRF7739 DirectFET datasheet. I like this datasheet because it has almost all the thermal stuff on one page,...


How to Build a Fixed-Point PI Controller That Just Works: Part II

Jason Sachs March 24, 20122 comments

In Part I we talked about some of the issues around discrete-time proportional-integral (PI) controllers:

  • various forms and whether to use the canonical form for z-transforms (don't do it!)
  • order of operation in the integral term: whether to scale and then integrate (my recommendation), or integrate and then scale.
  • saturation and anti-windup

In this part we'll talk about the issues surrounding fixed-point implementations of PI controllers. First let's recap the conceptual structure...


How to Build a Fixed-Point PI Controller That Just Works: Part I

Jason Sachs February 26, 20128 comments

This two-part article explains five tips to make a fixed-point PI controller work well. I am not going to talk about loop tuning -- there are hundreds of articles and books about that; any control-systems course will go over loop tuning enough to help you understand the fundamentals. There will always be some differences for each system you have to control, but the goals are the same: drive the average error to zero, keep the system stable, and maximize performance (keep overshoot and delay...


10 More (Obscure) Circuit Components You Should Know

Jason Sachs February 5, 20121 comment

The interest in my previous article on obscure but useful electronics parts, "10 Circuit Components You Should Know" was encouraging enough that I thought I would write a followup. So here are another 10:

1. "Ideal Diode" controllers

Load-sharing circuits use diodes tied together at their cathode terminal to take the most positive voltage among the sources and connect it to a load. Works great: you have a DC/DC power supply, a battery, and a solar cell, and it will use whichever output is...


Oscilloscope Dreams

Jason Sachs January 14, 20125 comments

My coworkers and I recently needed a new oscilloscope. I thought I would share some of the features I look for when purchasing one.

When I was in college in the early 1990's, our oscilloscopes looked like this:

Now the cathode ray tubes have almost all been replaced by digital storage scopes with color LCD screens, and they look like these:

Oscilloscopes are basically just fancy expensive boxes for graphing voltage vs. time. They span a wide range of features and prices:...


Stairway to Thévenin

Jason Sachs December 31, 2011

This article was inspired by a recent post on reddit asking for help on Thévenin and Norton equivalent circuits.

(With apologies to Mr. Thévenin, the rest of the e's that follow will remain unaccented.)

I still remember my introductory circuits class on the subject, roughly as follows:

(NOTE: Do not get scared of what you see in the rest of this section. We're going to point out the traditional approach for teaching linear equivalent circuits first. If you have...


Organizational Reliability

Jason Sachs December 22, 20111 comment

I was cleaning out my email inbox at work today and ran across something I had forwarded on to a friend a few years ago, which I thought I would share, for those of you who are working in the engineering world.

Below is a handout I got about 10 years ago from Doug Field, an executive now at Apple. Doug is a superb and inspiring leader, whom I had the opportunity to work with briefly.

The following is a bit of a diversion from the topics I usually post, but is some good food for thought for...


Scorchers, Part 1: Tools and Burn Rate

Jason Sachs April 12, 20167 comments

This is a short article about one aspect of purchasing, for engineers.

I had an engineering manager once — I’ll leave his real name out of it, but let’s call him Barney — who had a catchy response to the question “Can I buy XYZ?”, where XYZ was some piece of test equipment, like an oscilloscope or multimeter. Barney said, “Get what you need, need what you get.” We used purchase orders, which when I started in 1996 were these quaint forms on...


Linear Feedback Shift Registers for the Uninitiated, Part X: Counters and Encoders

Jason Sachs December 9, 2017

Last time we looked at LFSR output decimation and the computation of trace parity.

Today we are starting to look in detail at some applications of LFSRs, namely counters and encoders.

Counters

I mentioned counters briefly in the article on easy discrete logarithms. The idea here is that the propagation delay in an LFSR is smaller than in a counter, since the logic to compute the next LFSR state is simpler than in an ordinary counter. All you need to construct an LFSR is


How to Succeed in Motor Control: Olaus Magnus, Donald Rumsfeld, and YouTube

Jason Sachs December 11, 2016

Almost four years ago, I had this insight — we were doing it wrong! Most of the application notes on motor control were about the core algorithms: various six-step or field-oriented control methods, with Park and Clarke transforms, sensorless estimators, and whatnot. It was kind of like a driving school would be, if they taught you how the accelerator and brake pedal worked, and how the four-stroke Otto cycle works in internal combustion engines, and handed you a written...


Python Code from My Articles Now Online in IPython Notebooks

Jason Sachs May 1, 20152 comments

Ever since I started using IPython Notebooks to write these articles, I’ve been wanting to publish them in a form such that you can freely use my Python code. One of you (maredsous10) wanted this access as well.

Well, I finally bit the bullet and automated a script that will extract the Python code and create standalone notebooks, that are available publicly under the Apache license on my bitbucket account: https://bitbucket.org/jason_s/embedded-blog-public

This also means...


A Wish for Things That Work

Jason Sachs January 1, 20182 comments

As the end of the year approaches, I become introspective. This year I am frustrated by bad user interfaces in software.

Actually, every year, throughout the year, I am frustrated by bad user interfaces in software. And yet here it is, the end of 2017, and things aren’t getting much better! Argh!

I wrote about this sort of thing a bit back in 2011 (“Complexity in Consumer Electronics Considered Harmful”) but I think it’s time to revisit the topic. So I’m...


Linear Feedback Shift Registers for the Uninitiated, Part IV: Easy Discrete Logarithms and the Silver-Pohlig-Hellman Algorithm

Jason Sachs September 16, 20174 comments

Last time we talked about the multiplicative inverse in finite fields, which is rather boring and mundane, and has an easy solution with Blankinship’s algorithm.

Discrete logarithms, on the other hand, are much more interesting, and this article covers only the tip of the iceberg.

What is a Discrete Logarithm, Anyway?

Regular logarithms are something that you’re probably familiar with: let’s say you have some number \( y = b^x \) and you know \( y \) and \( b \) but...


April is Oscilloscope Month: In Which We Discover Agilent Offers Us a Happy Deal and a Sad Name

Jason Sachs April 19, 2014

Last month I wrote that March is Oscilloscope Month, because Agilent had a deal on the MSOX2000 and MSOX3000 series scopes offering higher bandwidth at lower prices. I got an MSOX3034 oscilloscope and saved my company $3500! (Or rather, I didn't save them anything, but I got a 350MHz scope at a 200MHz price.)

The scope included a free 30-day trial for each of the application software modules. I used my 30-day trial for the serial decode + triggering module, to help debug some UART...


Supply Chain Games: What Have We Learned From the Great Semiconductor Shortage of 2021? (Part 1)

Jason Sachs December 31, 20215 comments

So by now I’m sure you’ve heard about the semiconductor shortage of 2021. For a few complicated reasons, demand is greater than supply, and not everybody who wants to buy integrated circuits can do so. Today we’re going to try to answer some hard questions:

  • Why are we in the middle of a semiconductor shortage?
  • Why is it taking so long to get my [insert part number here]?
  • Did this shortage suddenly sneak up on everybody? If not, what were the signs, and why...

Shibboleths: The Perils of Voiceless Sibilant Fricatives, Idiot Lights, and Other Binary-Outcome Tests

Jason Sachs September 29, 2019

AS-SALT, JORDAN — Dr. Reza Al-Faisal once had a job offer from Google to work on cutting-edge voice recognition projects. He turned it down. The 37-year-old Stanford-trained professor of engineering at Al-Balqa’ Applied University now leads a small cadre of graduate students in a government-sponsored program to keep Jordanian society secure from what has now become an overwhelming influx of refugees from the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. “Sometimes they visit relatives...


Book Review: "Turing's Cathedral"

Jason Sachs November 20, 20146 comments

My library had Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson on its new acquisitions shelf, so I read it. I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of computing.

Turing’s Cathedral primarly covers the period in early computing from 1940-1958, and bridges a gap between a few other popular books: on the historic side, between Richard Rhodes’s