Wednesday, November 26, 2014

LAB: Lab Aboard a Box

I love wordplay. I love recursive acronyms. Remember GNU? Gnu is Not Unix. Or LOVE? Love is the Only Viable Excuse. Well, I just made that up! In the same spirit, is this LAB.  Lab Aboard a Box.

Anyway, the idea is to package a complete laboratory related to an electronics engineering student in a box. And an affordable one too. Affordable by a student. These days, a student can afford to buy a laptop, so she should be able to buy such a LAB too.

One common lament one hears regularly is why should I go to the lab? What is there in a lab that is exciting for me? This is not me but a regular electronics engineering student talking. Maybe, students from other fields also say similar things. I don't know. But what I know for sure is that increasingly, an electronics engineering lab looks no different than a computer lab. A collection of desktop computers offering simulation programs. And interestingly, students can afford their own laptops equipped with pirated or freeware simulation programs and poof! No need to go to the lab. At all.

This is probably the single biggest reason for the disenchantment towards electronics amongst the student community, aided and abetted by our curriculum that encourages 'simulation engineering' alone with no emphasis on hands-on activities and skills related to such activities. Whatever little semblance of lab that may exist is further killed by a black-box approach to experiments - a box that has input wires, power supply wires and output wires. You come, turn the power supply on, take reading on a multimeter or an oscilloscope (or better still, use ones from a previous batch!) and you are done. In such a situation, there is neither any motivation nor any pressure to dig deeper.

The implications are staring us in our face.  No path breaking Indian electronics product! Forget path breaking, not even established products of impeccable quality produced locally. The local demand is easily met by the 'CKD/SKD' approach. To the uninitiated, CKD refers to 'completely knocked down' or SKD is 'semi knocked down'; ways in which consumer product kits are imported and screwdriver assembled locally with little or no value addition. One of the 'premier' institutes, much touted as producing world class engineers were recently in news for simply providing testing support for the Chinese manufactured 'Akash' Tablet. That support job was also taken off and given to another such premier institute.

The prognosis for this malaise, if let as it is, is not very pretty either. What can we do to arrest this decline? A proactive, student-friendly approach should be adopted. Till recently, students could not afford personal desktop computers or laptops. Now, it is a common sight. It has led to increased student interest in software development field. Perhaps, a similar approach could be adopted for electronics engineering? This is where the LAB steps in.

We, at CEDT are embarking on a project to put a Lab in a box. The critical components would be:

1. Measurement instruments (an oscilloscope and a logic analyzer a signal generator, a multimeter, an LCR bridge)
2. Power Supply (+5V, 0-24V, +/-5V)
3. INSPIRE Kit (a boxful of electronic components).
4. Box of tools (a snipper, a wire stripper, watchmaker files, screwdriver set, en eye loupe etc).
5. Hacker tools: USB to JTAG/SPI/ISP/Whatever converter.
6. Popular Microcontroller/DSP evaluation boards: Arduino, Raspi, FPGA, DSP (TI's C2000?).
7. Targeted activity boards as plug in boards for microcontroller evaluation boards to engage in DSP related activity, Process Control, Software Defined Radio etc.
8. Accompanying book/manual.
Target price: Rs. 25K or less.

Target audience: every electronics student/enthusiast anywhere in the world

Some notable instrument examples already exist in the form of Digilent's Analog Discovery!

USB-to-Whatever solution exists using the FT2232 converter. Or even the Bus Pirate.

What do you think? Your valuable assessment, feedback and suggestions would go a long way in deciding the future course of action. I plan to use a control group at NSIT for evaluation and if support can be generated, distribute the LAB to others outside NSIT!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Reviving Student Interest in Electronics. First Baby Steps.

On one hand, Government of India wants all of us to 'Make in India' and on the other, we are witness to the sorry state of engineering education in the country. You cannot Make In India unless your engineering students choose to practice in life and laboratory, what they study in classrooms. As an educator in the field of electronics engineering, I am privy to all that is going/gone wrong with our electronics engineering education with it's disdain for all things practical. You can graduate with top honours without so much as ever hold a soldering iron in your hand!

There are lot of issues. Some beyond what I can even bite. I am not evening talking about faculty quality. But. What can be done to revive student interest? Maybe give them stuff to play! Share stories of success with the soldering iron as the primary programming language! Democratize access to the building blocks of electronics!

A simple kit with lots of interesting components can be a start. Here is one that we have put together. We call it the INSPIRE kit. INSPIRE is 'Inspirational and Novel Set of Paraphernalia for Innovation in and Revival of Electronics'. Soon, I will share with you here, some pictures of a new enclosure for this kit. Also, it appears that the INSPIRE kit shares a  lot of components with TI's myParts kit.

Have fun playing with it. Adapt or modify it to your needs. And most of all, PLAY with it! May the Force be with you!