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Are the Glory Days of Analog Engineering Over? 236

Posted by samzenpus
from the put-out-to-pasture dept.
An anonymous reader writes with this article about the future of the analog engineer. Some say technology advancements are obsoleting the need for analog engineers, while others say that good, experienced analog designers will always be needed and currently are in short supply. After years spent encouraging engineering students to focus on software and digital electronics, some people say the day of reckoning appears to be drawing near: Many analog mixed-signal design jobs now stay open longer or are simply going unfilled, say recruiters, with some engineers even unable to retire because they can't find a suitable replacement. On the one hand, some people blame the shift from analog to digital, which produced a generation of engineers who speak the language of code, not circuit schematics. On the other hand, others say that with the advent of systems-on-chip, the easy availability of free circuits, pioneered by companies like TSMC, and software tools to verify designs, there is simply less need for analog designers.
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Are the Glory Days of Analog Engineering Over?

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  • The world... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Alioth (221270) <no@spam> on Friday June 13, 2014 @07:14AM (#47228763) Journal

    The world is analogue. Someone's going to have to design the analogue front end to your digital system. Even if you have a ready made analogue front end, you still have to understand the analogue world if you ever hope to design high speed digital systems. When it comes to the actual voltage levels on your PCB and signal integrity, the nice clean world of software where you can just expect the hardware to be predictable and just work with no effort goes away, you have to have a little bit of a clue about the analogue side if you want your high speed digital signals to reach their destinations intact. Another example is your (A)DSL line, it might be called "Digital subscriber line" but it required analogue design to get the signal from your modem (and it is a modem - it modulates and demodulates the signal) to the DSLAM in your phone exchange.

    You might not need as many analogue engineers as you may have (say) in the 90s, but they'll never go away because the world is analogue, and the analogue world constantly impinges on your digital signals especially once you pass single digit MHz speeds.

    • by Stumbles (602007)
      Yep. Until someone figures out how to bypass some physics digital could not exist without analog.
    • Re:The world... (Score:5, Informative)

      by usuallylost (2468686) on Friday June 13, 2014 @07:42AM (#47228919)

      The articles headline is a bit missleading. In the body of the article you find that even they admit that analog engineering isn't dead or going anywhere. What is changing is the exact skill sets required. If you are doing traditional circuit design on purely analog equipment you are on hard times because people aren't doing as much of that. If on the other hand you have a foot in both the digital and analog world and can do analog design for digital systems there is a shortage and money is really good. So basically the people having problems are the older analog engineers who haven't kept their skills current. I think you could write that same article about just about any technical field where there has been rapid development in the technology. Some folks end up in dead end specialties that simply aren't in demand anymore. Your options there are retrain, change carriers or compete for the ever shrinking number of jobs. I'd argue that the last one is the worst choice unless you are simply close enough to retirement that the other two are simply unviable. Which actually appears to be the case with most of the guys listed in the article.

      • Re:The world... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by tlhIngan (30335) <[ten.frow] [ta] [todhsals]> on Friday June 13, 2014 @11:26AM (#47230619)

        The articles headline is a bit missleading. In the body of the article you find that even they admit that analog engineering isn't dead or going anywhere. What is changing is the exact skill sets required. If you are doing traditional circuit design on purely analog equipment you are on hard times because people aren't doing as much of that. If on the other hand you have a foot in both the digital and analog world and can do analog design for digital systems there is a shortage and money is really good. So basically the people having problems are the older analog engineers who haven't kept their skills current. I think you could write that same article about just about any technical field where there has been rapid development in the technology. Some folks end up in dead end specialties that simply aren't in demand anymore. Your options there are retrain, change carriers or compete for the ever shrinking number of jobs. I'd argue that the last one is the worst choice unless you are simply close enough to retirement that the other two are simply unviable. Which actually appears to be the case with most of the guys listed in the article.

        Granted, few people do all analog designs these days (it's generally easier, faster and cheaper to use a DSP and work in software), but analog design skills are STILL in demand.

        Not because of obvious analog nature of the world, but digital electronics, in their push to be faster and lower power, are encountering analog phenomenon.

        Many digital interconnects have very strict analog components (e.g., capacitance, termination, etc). Many PCB designs may have analog design aspects (antennas, RF signals). Even a purely digital bus running between CPU and memory? Tons of analog designs trying to keep impedances the same and minimizing crosstalk, etc. etc. etc.

        An analog engineer not only can hack it in a purely digital build, but they're often required. It's true they're not building analog circuits, but all the troubles in modern digital high-speed design are all analog effects that are generally well understood by analog engineers. That signal may be taking on 0 and 1.2V at the transmitter, but that signal line is a transmission line at those frequencies, couples with the inner ground planes, bounces off sharp corners and has capacitance and inductance that has to be characterized and worked with.

        Anyone who designs analog circuits understands that because it influences their circuits and can form inadvertent filters. And back when digital logic was 0-5V, we simply ignored it because we overdrive the signal lines so we can safely ignore analog effects. But these days, no, you can't, if you want low power and high speed.

        • by tibit (1762298)

          Heck, when you're validating high speed interconnects on your PCB, you are also looking at the digitized form of the analog signal present on the differential data pairs. This requires some rather specialist knowledge to be done properly, if for nothing else than not to destroy the multi-$k differential probes used in such setups. Never mind the oscilloscopes that can actually do something useful with the signals the probes feed them. I don't do any bleeding-edge work in this area, but even I have a few pro

      • by TubeSteak (669689)

        . So basically the people having problems are the older analog engineers who haven't kept their skills current.

        As I read it, the problem is companies who didn't cross train their older analog engineers and don't want to train up a new hire.
        Now they're complaining that they can't find anyone with the skills they want?

        If a job is sitting unfilled for a year, you could have trained someone in that time.

        • if the job is unfilled for a month, most likely you are not offering enough pay. There's no shortage of engineers, just a shortage of ones who want piss-poor pay. (Although treating them badly in the workplace probably does not help).
      • by stevew (4845)

        If you do analog chip design - you are the highest paid guy in the building - period.That has been true for the nearly 20 years I've been in chip design and I don't see it changing anytime soon.

      • Your options there are retrain, change carriers or compete for the ever shrinking number of jobs

        Well, unless you work in telecom then I doubt changing carriers - or rather, changing the carrier you work for - would help...even then...changing careers might have better prospects.

    • Not to mention power supplies. A switching supply is very much an analog circuit.

      Even if you have a ready made analogue front end

      But someone has to design the chips. Good analog/RF chip designers are awfully thin on the ground, because it takes many years to really get good. By comparison digital chip designers are a dime-a-dozen (don't take offense, I've done digital but not analog chip design). And analog board level designs, which I've done, don't prepare you much for making chips.

    • by kegdepot (1849914)

      exactly. not to mention antenna design, transmitter output filters, receiver front ends (including filters, mixers, reconstruction filters). trust me... I know how to use a Smith Chart.

    • You might want to update your sig...

      "The page you requested could not be found. Perhaps it was attacked by a thargoid?"

    • Analog is the accepted spelling in the computer industry.

      Even worse, analogue is a model of the real. The real and continuous world is not an analogue of binary logic. An analogue is a figurative model of the real, something analogous to something else. Among the binary, however, logic is primary and real is analog. So let's preserve the proper spelling for the proper use and cede the streamlined variant to the Forces of Progress.

      These travesties may be quite upsetting, but even the word "quite" once meant

    • by kheldan (1460303)
      This.
      All over the place I see kids and even young engineers that may be geniuses when it comes to anything digital, but you ask them to design a crystal radio without cheating a looking online and most of them are completely lost, let alone being able to design the RF portion of, say, a wifi adapter, or really understand how an op-amp works or what to use it for. Online I see kids playing around with Arduinos and the like, thinking they're 'working with electronics', when in fact what they're doing is putti
    • > The world is analogue.

      Not according to Science: Planck Length [wikipedia.org] and Plank Time [wikipedia.org]

      We currently lack the ability to measure space or time smaller then these units; thus space and time appear quantized.

      At a higher level the world appears (and behaves) in an analogue fashion.

  • by fractoid (1076465) on Friday June 13, 2014 @07:14AM (#47228765) Homepage
    Analog circuits are always going to be faster, more accurate per area of silicon, and less deterministic than digital circuits. They're also always going to be harder to understand than digital circuits for anyone who isn't a wizard. There's less need for analog circuit wizards than there is for digital circuit designers just the same way there's less need for deep embedded software wizards than there is for your garden-variety software engineers. It hurts to say it but technology is advancing to the point where it's less important to get 100% out of our current technology than it is to get 25% out of it in a manner that mere mortals can understand.

    There'll always be a place for analog design but it will be confined to an ever-shrinking niche on the cutting edge where, as bogglingly capable as it is, our digital technology just isn't quite up to the task.
    • by Stumbles (602007)
      Back in the day I always preferred troubleshooting, aligning and such things on analog systems. If only analog received the same level of research dollars, investments and all that, things would be very different. In my view, analog has always been superior to digital.
      • by fractoid (1076465)
        I think analog has a higher skill cap and a higher ultimate potential (for a given level of technology) than digital. I'd love to see more funding go to it just as an intellectual exercise... but sadly 'easy' is more important commercially than 'awesome'.

        (I say this as someone who has a fair bit of experience with digital circuit design and a lot of software experience, and very little practical experience with analog circuits... I love analogue stuff but it's very hard to make it pay its way.)
    • by kegdepot (1849914)

      you clearly don't do product development. or, if you do, you are stuck in a box and work just on your little piece, not thinking of how the whole system must be put together for things to work well. I'd even guess PCB layout isn't something you think affects a design.

      • by fractoid (1076465)
        Not sure what you mean here. If anything I'm on the other end, I currently do industrial automation which is 90% just product integration with COTS modules. I'm actively working to get back to lower level electronics and PCB design because I want to be able to optimise things at that level.

        I'm definitely not saying there's no place for analog designs, I just mean that an increasing proportion of things are done digitally out of convenience where before they'd have been built with opamps and... stuff. Yeah
    • by LWATCDR (28044) on Friday June 13, 2014 @09:13AM (#47229585) Homepage Journal

      I think part of the problem is that analog has shifted of the mainstream for hobbyists. Let's face it, a lot of best engineers start as kids and kids today are not getting into HAM radio all that much but instead are working with Arduinos. It is sad.

    • by nerdbert (71656) on Friday June 13, 2014 @09:14AM (#47229589)

      No. And I say that as an analog designer. I've been doing this now for 25 years and I can tell you that analog circuits are typically limited to 8-bit accuracy without fancy digital techniques behind them.

      And that statement alone should tell you why mixed signal is really where the action is for accuracy. Take the example of delta-sigma ADCs. You need the best comparator/DAC you can design, but you follow that by massive oversampling to get your 15+ ENOB accuracy by putting the noise out of band. Similarly, all the fast electronics in your o-scope these days uses massively parallel oversampled designs.

      So no, analog circuits aren't going to be faster and more accurate per area of silicon. A good design that uses an appropriate mixture of both analog and digital is really where the best (smallest/lowest cost) solution is. There are times when you pretty much have to go pure analog (LDOs after your switched regulator in a phone, for example), but in general the best solution for nearly all problems these days is a mixture of analog and digital.

      Yes, analog circuit design is "wizardry" to some people, but I personally put it as a deeply specialized niche that's extremely difficult to master and as such it's no different than the equivalent specialization in other fields. When we get a new MS grad in here in our chip shop try to start analog design I tell them flat-out that what they learned in school is less than 5% of the knowledge they really need to make a product and not to take it personally when they are closely supervised for 5 years as they learn what's really needed. You thought circuits were hard in school? You ain't seen nothin' until you've actually tried to make a mixed signal chip in a deep submicron technology (although strangely enough, the latest FinFET processes are relatively more analog friendly than the planar stuff we were dealing with before).

      To me the real issue is what's happening in the chip industry. SoCs have huge economies that are driving their use in things like phones. But an SoC takes a huge company to make since you have to supply an incredible amount of IP and by far the bulk of that IP is digital. The problem that creates is cultural. Analog guys have hugely different needs that get ignored by digitally-oriented SoC companies, and without enough analog guys they tend to wave off what the analog guys need to do their jobs as too hard and too specialized for their support teams to bother with. That leaves the analog guys in those big companies generally supplying inferior solutions, which means that analog guys don't want to work for those big companies, which means the big guys don't get the best analog guys, etc. until you have a death spiral. So what you're seeing in the chip industry these days are big digital IP companies and smaller, specialized analog companies and that increasing segregation is roiling the traditionally very secure and stable analog design positions and making it appear analog design is going downhill.

      • by tibit (1762298)

        While you're mostly right when it comes to cookbook designs, once you are off the cookbook path you can certainly design circuits that have better than 0.5% accuracy over temperature and such. Yes, they are not trivial to implement, but it can be done, and once done it's pretty damn impressive in my book at least. This is somewhat valuable when your analog signal chain is part of a safety-critical system, where the software has to be validated and has such an overhead that it's actually often cheaper to do

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Analog circuits are always going to be faster, more accurate per area of silicon, and less deterministic than digital circuits.

      Faster? I can buy that. More accurate, less deterministic? Not buying that. The digital boils down to an on or an off, that's about as deterministic as you can get. If some component is starting to degrade, the analog can give you wildly wrong answers which still seem correct.

      With that said, until and unless we get to a point where we're delivering individual electrons (or photons, perhaps) it's all analog in the end. It's not on or off, it's did you get enough electrons to receive an on signal. Until prove

    • by gweihir (88907)

      I don't agree that digital is easier to understand. It is not. What is easier is to do some mediocre digital solution. As soon as you want quality, analog and digital are equally hard, because then you need to know what you are doing. Om the analog side, you get all those tricky effects. On the digital side, clean software engineering, jitter-free real-time processing, and other things become a concern. Digital is not easy if done right.

  • I beg to differ (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Mathieu Stephan (2892907) on Friday June 13, 2014 @07:19AM (#47228793)
    Even if you're doing digital design all day you _need_ an analog background to do a good job. Most of the time analog signals aren't directly input to your microcontroller / DSP... as you need to add protection to your input stage, filter for parasites etc... >1Mhz digital signals can't simply be laid out on a board without thinking of the problems that may arise due to the nearby signals / layout of your transmission lines. Everything on your board is analog and I'm not even mentioning what you should take care of when you'll have to do EMC testing. On a side note I'm very skeptical of the article's quality...
    • by Ol Olsoc (1175323)

      Even if you're doing digital design all day you _need_ an analog background to do a good job.

      THIS! We've seen far too many examples of bad digital design. Those digital signals get mighty analog-y, especially as the frequency goes up.

      I always pull out the example of Broadband over Power Line when I want to talk about how bad "good" digital engineering can get.

      A "last mile" delivery system. Bringing in your Data at DSL speeds. But the signal cannot survive going through the power transformer on your pole - that's okay, they'll put a coupler from the HV line to your 120 volt line. Oh, but wait,

  • If they let the position go unfilled I guess there wasn't really enough need, ie. not enough profit in it to hire the expertise which is on the market (and there are still plenty of the old guard doing consulting, not cheap obviously) or train someone.

    Quick, we need more H-1Bs to suppress wages.

  • by Big_Breaker (190457) on Friday June 13, 2014 @07:27AM (#47228833)

    Part of "Digital", the lowest level of digital, is a contract concerning how signalling between transistors occurs. This includes timing, rise and hold times, voltage thresholds and current. I'll include avoidance of race conditions, clock distribution, refresh cycles on DRAM and temperature effects as a side car. These are all design constraints that make sure the 1s and 0s working properly. It's only when you have a 99.99999999% solid digital contract that you can begin the digital side of the design.

    All of this digital design is solidly analog and will NEVER go away.

    I could make another whole post about the absurdity of traditional "analog" going away. All these mobile devices have some amazing RF design going on from the antenna down to the mixed signal SoC. Analog is everywhere and at the core of every electronic gadget.

  • by jbmartin6 (1232050) on Friday June 13, 2014 @07:31AM (#47228863)
    We will need all the analog guys when the machines become sentient and we need to keep them out of our networks
  • by Anonymous Coward

    In the experimental sciences we make heavy use of analog circuits. We need to be able to take signals scale them, filter them, integrate them, buffer them, all in analog before it reaches our DAC systems. Otherwise a voltage spike will fry your digital portions.

  • There's another technology that reduces the need for analog engineers: GPU. Three years ago, I demonstrated real-time band-pass filtering on incoming digitized sensor input that previously required a custom $20k signal conditioning unit. Except in the GPU rolloffs could be steeper, and cutoffs could be adjusted through the GUI instead of calling up one of the retired original designers to compute new resistor & cap values.
    • by tibit (1762298)

      It's only realtime if you can get that GPU to do its calculations when driven from, you know, a real-time operating system. That is often a big problem, as some GPUs come with laughably incomplete specs and there's no way to use them without relying on OS-specific, non-realtime driver binary blobs. Raspberry PI SOC's reverse-engineer is slowly coming to a state that lets one its GPU to do truly realtime computation. It's one of a very few. Maybe Intel documents their integrated graphics sufficiently for use

  • by zennling (950572) on Friday June 13, 2014 @07:49AM (#47228959)
    Just because there is no suitable replacement should not be grounds for an engineer to work forever! Which companies are saying that you arent allowed to retire because of no suitable replacements? Name and shame them!
    • by Gothmolly (148874)

      Name and shame the idiots who allow themselves to be "unable" to retire. Tell the companies to go fuck themselves.

    • I assumed that was the sentiment of the engineers themselves.

      I don't have a lot of contact with people in *this* field, but in other similarly niche fields with very concrete, yet limited demand (e.g. not aligned with the buzzwords deep in the muck where things *must* happen but 99.99% of the ecosystem take it for granted and doesn't want to actually touch it). In those fields, it was once upon a time not a 'given' and thus young blood was actively pushed in. Now it's a 'given' (despite requiring continuo

    • by nerdbert (71656)

      Let's just say that I personally find analog engineering a ton of fun and you'll have to pry the mouse from my cold, dead fingers.

      Nobody's forcing those engineers not to retire. They're just putting golden handcuffs on them to prevent them from leaving. It's not unusual in an analog chip company to get a fraction of the revenue of a chip of yours that's been in the field for a few years as long as you're employed, so if you've had a lot of successful, long lived products in the market retiring will cost you

    • Sometimes institutional knowledge runs so deep that you simply can't hand that off to another employee in time. Even in mid transfer of knowledge, they could either be hit by a bus, or walk from the company. It happens, and companies do close shop because of it. Yes, this is really the fault of the company as a whole for not managing properly, but sometimes as an employee, you are where you are with an infinite amount of job security. The problem is, does it pay the infinite amount you think it should?

  • In the past, the manufacturing processes for analog and digital circuits were so different that they could not be combined on the same chip on a large scale. There were big companies that made digital chips and a host of smaller companies that made analog chips. That changed about ten years ago and analog circuits are now included on SOC designs. That has caused a shift in the industry, as the large SOC manufacturers have absorbed most of the new analog circuit designers who used to go to smaller compani

  • It is a simple economic problem. How well does it pay?
  • by fatboy (6851) on Friday June 13, 2014 @08:40AM (#47229319)

    "Every idiot can count to one"

    http://www.theamphour.com/wp-c... [theamphour.com]

  • by thevirtualcat (1071504) on Friday June 13, 2014 @08:42AM (#47229335)

    Are the glory days for analog design over? Yes.
    Are the days where analog design is necessary over? Nope, nor will they ever be.

    That said, I know a good number of who studied electrical and computer engineering who went into software and test engineering after school and never looked back. EE doesn't pay a lot and there's a good deal of demand for people who can knock a simple circuit together AND have a good working knowledge of software that can talk to it.

    • Re:Probably. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by nerdbert (71656) on Friday June 13, 2014 @09:37AM (#47229747)

      The real world is analog, so interfacing to that will never go away. And there are times when the "digital" level of abstraction just doesn't hold, even inside a "digital circuit."

      True story: I joined a huge company as an analog chip engineer. But on day one they loaned me out to a digital team that couldn't figure out why their circuits were failing because I actually knew how to drive analog tools and I was the least valuable analog guy being "the new one." I found the problem, learned enough VHDL to fix the circuit the idiot compiler generated and rather than being returned to my analog group I got caught up in figuring out why their clock distribution network wasn't working. It took a couple of years to escape doing "analog" tasks for a digital group and I had to quit the company to get back to doing what I wanted to do and not what the company wanted me to do. (And yes, I turned down some pretty hefty raises and awards the company offered to get me to stay, but while what I was doing was considered analog by digital guys, it wasn't real analog design and I wasn't happy doing what I was doing. If I'd been in the group I had originally been hired for I would have been happy, but the digital group had more influence up the chain of command and wouldn't let me switch.)

  • by Baldrson (78598) * on Friday June 13, 2014 @08:47AM (#47229383) Homepage Journal

    Skills Shortage: The situation in which employers find themselves victimized by price gouging by employees with said skill in the form of demands for higher than minimum wage for temporary employment.

    • Raise your hand if you haven't had this conversation before...

      "We have a great 6-month contract opportunity in Nowhereville that we think you'd be a perfect fit for. The rate is $25/hr on 1099 with no benefits..."

      • Yes, and those jobs aren't for me. Those jobs are for people right out college looking for first-time job experience. So unless you're new and/or desperate, you shitcan those offers and move on.

    • by swb (14022)

      They always write "skills shortage" when the fully phrased version is "skilled and experienced workers we can hire without benefits for below market rates."

  • Think of it this way: Digital is math, Analog is Physics.

    As mentioned before, the world is analog. Obvious things like audio and video interfaces need analog circuits and always will. Our ears, voice, and eyes are all analog. However, in todays circuits the analog content is growing not shrinking. Phones have batteries that need to be carefully managed. The digital circuits need many power supplies that need sophisticated regulation. These are all analog circuits. The wi-fi, bluetooth, cellular, NFC, and ot

  • Analog is how information is collected from nature. For most (if not all) digital systems, the device used for actual measurement will have analog sensors. The electrical, then converted to digital, signals are dependent on the analog receptor.

    People can always improve on these tools.

  • As long as analog can still beat digital, its not going away anytime soon. I have designed pure analog circuits to do control and functional logic in some cases because its cheaper, easier to build, and eliminates a programming step than throwing in a micro controller. You don't see it done much these days because people just don't bother considering it as an option.
  • Heartily disappointed to find this in the dictionary as a verb.
  • by k6mfw (1182893) on Friday June 13, 2014 @01:32PM (#47231757)

    Seeing this article, I immediately remembered the book Innovative Linear Circuits by Jim Williams (by EDN, 1985). Though dated it has lots of interesting techniques (much of it I have forgot, but incentive to re-learn this stuff). Here's something mildly amusing,

    A quiz of various circuits (and how to make imperfect components function perfectly together), and ratings of correct answers:
    Number: Rating
    20-25: Circuit designer
    15-20: Electrical engineer
    10-15: TTL jockey
    5-10: Microprocessor scholar
    0-5: Computer programmer

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants. -- Isaac Newton

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