The Electronics Divisional Board have set up an ad hoc committee to study the basic processes and organisational procedures used in electronics design and to establish where gaps exist in the information required by the electronics designer. In this article, the committee's chairman gives the background to its work. A conference on the subject is to be held at the Institution on 8th-9th February 1965.
H. V. BECK,
M.A., B.SC., M.I.E.E.
The flexibility of electronic techniques has resulted in their
permeation, in a remarkably short time, of most spheres of human
activity. Research in both the arts and sciences has benefited, services
such as entertainment and communication have been transformed, transport
and defence facilities are highly dependent on electronics, and a
significant and growing role is being played in fields such as medicine,
materials production and administration among many others.
The design of electronic equipment thus takes place in many different
types of organisation and for a great variety of purposes, and this has
to be kept clearly in mind when discussing electronics design. The
outlook of a designer of electronic equipment for general sale differs
considerably from that of one designing for use within his own
organisation. Designing for quantity production is very different from
designing a single working unit. Within one organisation, the approach
of one design group may be quite distinct from that of another covering
a different field of application or based on another electronic
technique. An engineer designing general-purpose electronic equipment
needs quite different attributes and would express quite different views
from one concerned with apparatus for a specific application.
The profusion and divergence of opinion on the design of electronic
equipment resulting from the different objectives and facilities make
the study of basic design processes very difficult. At the same time the
level of electronics design activity is so high and its importance in
such areas as trade, public services and research is so great that an
understanding of these processes and their relationship to the fields of
application and types of design organisation would be very rewarding.
What is design?
One of the most difficult problems is to say precisely what we mean by
'design'. We can get a measure of the task by taking a few statements at
(a) 'Our designers should be concerned with cost as well as appearance.
. . .' -extract from speech by the Duke of Edinburgh, May 1964
(b) 'A multivibrator may be designed as follows . . .'
(c) 'There is really no difference between design and development'
(d) 'The original design came out in 1948, and since then we have
developed it a good deal'
(e) 'When we have developed a working model, we pass it to the drawing
office who carry out the design work'
(f) 'At the conclusion of the design process the final result must be
carefully defined so that it can be built—this is the function of layout
draughtsmen and detail draughtsmen' - extract from 'An outline of the
requirements for a computer-aided design system', by S. A. Coons.
(g) 'Mechanical engineering
design is the use of scientific principles, technical information and
imagination in the definition of a mechanical structure, machine or
system to perform prespecified functions with maximum economy and
efficiency' - Feilden Report.
Clearly, no single definition will
cover all views on design, and the only reasonable course is to
formulate and promulgate a working definition that reflects the
particular approach to electronics design appropriate to the study,
while recognising the possible validity of other definitions based on
The working definition adopted by
the committee with respect to electronic equipment is as follows:
Design is the process of
establishing relationships between all relevant characteristics of an
We can say, quite generally, that
any item of electronic equipment has a set of characteristics such as:
ease of use
The working definition of design
is based on the view that the essence of designing electronic equipment
is the establishment of relationships between all these characteristics,
taking into account the environment in which the design is undertaken.
The latter includes such factors as the time available for design, the
quantity required and the availability of engineers, materials and
Thus the designer integrates or
synthesises all the characteristics, giving different degrees of
emphasis according to the circumstances in which the equipment is being
designed and the use to which it is to be put. If the equipment is being
made for general sale, the appearance, cost and quantity required are
usually of great importance, whereas if an item with the same
performance is being designed for use within an organisation, the
quantity required is usually small, and cost and appearance may be
subordinate to most other characteristics. For a particular research
project, technical performance and the time taken to design and make the
equipment may be the overriding factors, while in another case
reliability and ease of maintenance may be paramount. For a piece of
equipment for use on a production line, reliability and ease of use may
take precedence over cost, size and weight.
These varying degrees of emphasis
and the different environments in which evolution of an equipment takes
place give rise to much of the confusion over the word 'design'. If,
however, we remember the broader picture implicit in the working
definition, we are a good way towards putting the discussion of design
on a rational basis.
|Electronics & Power December 1964
We are probably at the stage in the understanding of design
corresponding to that of the Greeks in the understanding of matter.
Information on electronics design practice can be collected fairly
readily, but what are the basic elements in the design process? This is
the largest area of unknown in the committee's field of inquiry and is
likely to require a considerable amount of creative thought before an
adequate set of concepts can be formed. Success in this area would
probably transform the whole of the design field, from the training of
designers to the practice of design. The design of electronic equipment
is as good a field, and perhaps the best, in which to carry out a
fundamental study of this sort. The large variations in design practice
resulting from the flexibility of electronic techniques suggest that the
outcome of the study could be applied selectively to any field of
Decision mechanisms in the various design and user environments will
also be investigated. Some results of such studies in the mechanical
engineering field have been published, and some concepts, such as
tractability and critical decisions in design, have been evolved. A
great deal more effort is needed, with electronics design particularly
Another source of confusion over the interpretation of the word 'design'
arises from its identification with a particular stage or area of the
organisation set up to produce the equipment. Since the organisation and
its attendant procedure vary from one company or department to another,
'design' takes on a variety of meanings. It would be very illuminating
to study and classify the various design procedures adopted by different
organisations. A company brought up in the mechanical engineering
tradition and adding electronics to its activities will probably impress
mechanical design procedures on the electronics design activity. The
drawing office will loom large in the course of design, and indeed
control of design may be through a designer draughtsman (see e above).
In other companies, the drawing office will come in at a later stage
when the basic design has been completed (see f above). Organisations
such as one designing a single piece of equipment for internal use will
not go through successive prototype stages. In others, design is not
regarded as complete until 50 models have been produced. Inquiry into
practice of this sort will enable us to determine if there is any
correlation between procedure and the mixture of basic elements of the
The number of stages involved in the evolution of even a simple piece of
electronic equipment is fairly large. A procedural list drawn up many
years ago is given in Table 1. It was compiled by thinking back on what
had taken place, without conscious organisation, during the evolution of
a particular range of electronic equipment. The list, as well as
indicating a procedure, delineated the responsibilities of an
electronics design engineer in a particular design and user environment;
but where in the Table does design begin and end and what is the
essential function of the designer? Clearly, from the Table, the
designer is responsible for activities that are not by any stretch of
the imagination concerned with design as such. Should he be?
Table 1. Example of organisational procedure
make initial calculations
investigate doubtful points
make detailed calculations
experimental laboratory model
prepare circuit diagrams specify special components prepare rough layout
supervise work in shops assemble and wire
carry out experimental investigation
make further calculations
informal discussion with drawing office
revise circuit diagram
revise specification of special components
order components and deal with any complications arising
repare detailed layout diagram
supervise work in shops
assemble and wire
carry out experimental investigation
modify to improve
performance, ease production etc.
instructions and dispatch equipment
modify equipment to meet points raised by customer
test, or return to
customer for test, if necessary
detailed discussion with drawing office
revise circuit diagram if necessary
compile list of components for specification
order components and deal with matters arising
collaborate with drawing office during drawing out of
make wiring diagram or check diagrams drawn up in shop
supervise wiring and assembly in shops
test completed equipment
carry out further investigation of likely production
supervise modifications to equipment and drawings
apply special tests (e.g. shock tests) that could not be
supervise modifications to equipment and drawings as a
result of above
revise customer's instructions and dispatch
discuss with customer
supervise modifications to equipment and drawings to meet customer's points
order long-delivery components for first batch and deal
with matters arising
deal with difficulties arising in production of first batch
draw up works test instructions
supervise testing of first batch
revise works test instructions if necessary
draw up maintenance instructions
revise customer's instructions if necessary
Some of the questions the committee will seek to answer in connection with design processes and organisational procedures are:
• What mental processes and organisational procedures are
involved in designing a piece of electronic equipment?
• Do these processes differ according to the type of
electronic equipment, the field of application (e.g. military versus civil) or the technique used, (e.g. analogue versus
• Could we classify types of design by the processes and
• How do the design processes and procedures for
electronic equipment differ from those for mechanical equipment or, say, electrical machines?
Training of designers
Detailed investigation of the way in which design proceeds is urgently needed to provide a basis for the training of designers. The ability to design in the broader sense of establishing satisfactory relationships between a large number of characteristics appears to be innate in only a small percentage of engineers and fears have been expressed that such ability is often suppressed in the course of training. The analytical
Electronics & Power December 1964
approach to simplified,
artificial problems is said to alienate
the student from the
process of synthesising in real-life
situations. If this is
true, application of the
of design processes should do much to prevent
this loss of talent.
If innate design ability is insufficient
to meet needs, we must
ask ourselves whether we can train those who do not possess it. There
are at least three schools of
here. One is that designers are born and cannot be made. This is
exemplified by Issigonis's remark, quoted in the Feilden report, that
'the craving to design exists from a very early age if it exists at
all'. Another, based on the belief that design can be carried out by a
logical process and does not depend on inspiration (just as some
scientific discoveries and technological inventions have come from
systematic investigation), assumes that design can be taught. Yet
another school takes the view that design is really a process of trying
out innumerable alternatives until one is found that is satisfactory and
that what is really needed in training a designer is the development of
an ability to persevere in the face of unusual and prolonged adversity.
Several attempts have been made to
teach electronics design but none, so far as is known, has been made
from the comprehensive point of view of synthesising
a large number of
characteristics. For example, considerations of cost, ease of use and
reliability are usually left out of students' design projects. Many of
the difficulties attendant on these
projects arise from problems of assessing the results. Others arise from
the difficulty of finding the right kind of teacher. A teacher
with no design experience may not be able to teach design, but it is
open to question whether designers themselves make good teachers of
Clearly, it is important to see that
students' design ability, innate or otherwise, is fostered in our
educational establishments. The design link between research and
production is becoming increasingly important. It is often suggested
that our national character is unsuited to the design of general-purpose
electronic equipment for large-scale production and that it would
be better for us to look for special-purpose small quantity markets as
more appropriate to our human resources. The truth of this is hard to
discover. What can be said with certainty is that a better knowledge of
design processes would enable us to determine our trading and training
policies much more surely. Such knowledge would
also benefit research projects
requiring the design of a great deal of special equipment.
With a knowledge of design processes
and procedures we can ask the following questions with much more hope
than hitherto of obtaining a useful answer:
Who make good
designers of electronic equipment?
can and should be given to an electronics design engineer?
Who make good
electronics design teachers?
be given at a university, at a college of advance technology or in
national body be set up to give confidential and impartial assessments
of students' design projects?
needs being met?
In addition to seeking an
understanding of the design process, so that improvements can be made in
training techniques, it is intended to look into the possibility of
helping the existing designers of
electronic equipment. It is hoped that designers will tell us
their needs and whether they arc being met. Are
there, for example,
any categories of information that would be of assistance
but are not at present forthcoming?
The information aspect of
design is a very important part
of the concept that
design takes place by a series of decisions,
each of which is
considerably influenced by the information
available at the time.
This has particular relevance to electronics
design, because of the exceptionally large number of
directions from which to choose in any given design
The role of technical journals
On the purely technical
side, the Services have been responsible for
much information on valves and components.
Detailed information on semiconductor devices has come
direct from device manufacturers.
Analogous information on
circuit performance, however, leaves much to be desired.
Here, technical journals could do
much to see that either the specific application of a circuit is
described in detail, so that a designer can judge reliably
whether it is relevant to his own
situation, or that performance characteristics in practical
conditions are given.
Other categories of
information useful to the designer are
related to the many
characteristics of an equipment. A few of the
topics that might repay consideration are:
studies of ergonomic
principles and practice
the effect of
of system or circuit on ease of use
likely to be met in practice and the
means of catering for them
reliability and its effect on design
criteria for the
choice of constructional form, taking into
account any economic, technical and maintenance factors
techniques of particular relevance to electronic equipment
techniques for controlling
and predicting cost
methods of reducing
size and weight
of appearance to commercial performance.
A major difficulty
in solving these problems is that there
is no independent body that can look
into them, especially those
that are not purely technical. Many organisations have
issued data sheets or guides to
designers as a means of providing information of this sort, but they arc
usually specific to a particular design and user environment. A
more comprehensive effort on a national scale would possibly be of
benefit to all electronics designers.
Some questions for the electronics designer
therefore, what can be done to help
electronics design engineers, we might ask the following:
types of information needed for electronics design are not at present
any improvements needed in existing sources of information?
a national body needed to obtain and disseminate information required
by electronics design engineers?
standardisation of electronics design information desirable and can it
is the best environment for a given type of design activity?
There seems little doubt that computers will ultimately
able to take over a good deal of the detailed work
in the design of standard circuits and their layout and
but will they be applicable to design in the broader
establishing relationships between all the relevant
We are back at our starting point, for attempts to
apply computers in this way will underline the need to
understand basic design processes.
|Electronics & Power December 1964