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Lack of Undergraduate EMC Education Leaves UK Industry Having to Deal with the Shortfalls

Though electronic engineering students should be getting an adequate understanding of all aspects of the subject, so they are ready to embark on careers in this sector, there are serious questions being raised. In the following article, Marc Hudson MIET, Senior Compliance Engineer at Sky voices his concerns about electro-magnetic compatibility (EMC) compliance tuition.

So to with start, I’ll hold my hands up and say that I do not have a degree, although I did attend university. What I do have is a BTEC HND in Engineering and 20 years of real-world experience – having been in R&D/manufacturing engineering since 2003, covering a broad range of products that include audio/video equipment, plus radio hardware, domestic appliances, etc. I started my career as a technical assistant, where I learnt the ins and outs of engineering from some of the best engineers. This was followed by a move into compliance engineering a couple of years later. Since then, I’ve collaborated with people from a wide range of engineering backgrounds, encompassing design, quality, technical drawing/CAD, etc. I’ve had the opportunity to work within both SMEs and large global corporations, involving many diverse cultures around the world.

If you are unfamiliar with compliance engineering, I suspect you have good reason, and this is why I am writing this article. Though it is a vital aspect of product development, it just is not discussed enough at the undergraduate level. Conversely, if you are familiar, I expect that this down to experience you have obtained during your career in engineering.

EMC compliance & getting the required proficiency

In simple terms, compliance engineering involves the designing, assessing/testing, certifying and keeping good technical documentation to show that the product/s you wish to introduce to the market/put into service can attain a minimum legal requirement according to directives and/or regulations in the country/countries that it/they will end up in. Please note. that I’ve deliberately not used the word ‘sell’ here. This is because no money needs to be exchanged to be within scope of such regulations in most countries. Giving away for free does not enable any exemptions from such regulations.

EMC directives dictate that products ‘placed on the market’ must not interfere with or be interfered by, either intentional or unintentional electromagnetic radiators. The main reason for this is to assist with critical communication systems working without interruption. To achieve this, there is a lot to learn on best practices in relation to electronic schematic, PCB layout and the mechanical design of products.

The issue that I, and my contemporaries too, have witnessed is that many, many hours of work can be taken up educating newly-recruited engineers on their responsibilities when it comes to designing to standards to ‘presume conformity’ (a recognised legal term) to directives/regulations (such as EMC-D). Unfortunately, this has significant impact on the service levels that experienced engineers, such as myself, can provide in other critical areas within the companies we work.

EMC fundamentals

To be able to carry out product design project work, engineers need to be able to fulfil numerous functions. Among these are design/spec plan/review, certification planning, schematic concept review and PCB layout plan/review, followed by subsequent PCB layout testing. After that, sample product testing for compliance to a given specification will need to be conducted, as well as final product testing and reporting/certification documentation review.

All of this could easily be covered in a module as part of a university undergraduate engineering course – thereby ensuring students are sufficiently prepared when they start their professional careers. The problem is, when I have been mentoring graduates, this is very rarely the case. Some have even been entirely unaware of EMC. Case in point, one of my mentees achieved a first-class honours in Robotics, yet there was no mention whatsoever of EMC on their course. It should be noted that some universities are commendably starting to introduce compliance/EMC aspects into their undergraduate degree courses and several have affiliating with test houses to support them in this. Sadly, not enough have done this or put it high enough on their list of priorities.

From my own experience, and speaking to others, I have found that the following reasons why things are not moving quickly enough in this area:

  • University lecturers in engineering do not necessarily come from commercial engineering backgrounds themselves. In some cases, this can go as far as lecturers being academic physicists, rather than having previously worked directly in the engineering sector.
  • As a consequence of this, their understanding of the real-world, and in particular the legal importance of EMC in an engineering context is inevitably limited.
  • Therefore, if a freshly-graduated engineer entering the commercial world is not mentored appropriately, their designs are not likely to meet legal requirements. Substantial redesign work may end up being required, costing their employer financially and also leading to unwanted time-to-market delays that could mean windows of opportunity are missed (and major revenue losses seen). Please remember, I am not writing hypothetically here, I have seen this actually happen (adding that I’ve had to pick up other people’s mess, rather than being part of the original cause).

An understanding can be attained through either internal or external training. Having time at a test house or consultancy firm would be a very effective way of getting the knowledge needed, with access to materials, in-depth design reviews, plus pre-compliance as well as compliance training. Some of this, I will admit, is simply good practice anyway, but the depth of tuition needed would be more due to the lack of comprehension of the engineer at the start.

If the graduate engineer looking for work happens to find a graduate scheme within a big company, then proper support and training should be provided. But what about those applying for jobs in SMEs, which don’t have that sort of money or resource available. There a lack of compliance knowledge might be a turn-off and could mean that graduates’ applications are not successful.

Solving the problem

The beauty is that the future solution to this problem is quite simple – make graduates as attractive to the commercial engineering sector as possible (sounds obvious, but needs to be said). Compliance is a global, legal, requirement and no engineer is going to be able to avoid it in their career. EMC compliance needs to be properly incorporated into undergraduate engineering courses. Furthermore, affiliations between educational establishments and local companies/test houses will prove invaluable. It will allow students to be shown practical EMC testing at work, whether that is in terms of day trips or short-term industry placements/internships. Not only will this mean that their EMC deficiencies can be dealt with, but they can learn other key skills – including project management, process-oriented thinking, agile/collaborative working, PCB CAD design techniques and suchlike.

For any graduates who are now worried, please don’t be. There are existing courses already out there that can help you to gain the knowledge you need. Relevant training for industry is offered by the University of Oxford, for instance, to supplement the academic education already gained by fledgling engineers. If all universities could provide courses of this kind to undergraduate level, the UK engineering sector would be in a much better place. Test house TÜV SÜD has a student and employee development program that should be highlighted. Part of this is regularly organising 10-12 month secondments for students (as well as shorter term placements). More companies need to follow this lead. In addition to all this, there are consultants out there that can help – with them either visiting universities and teaching student classes/workshops, or engaging in 1-to-1 tuition for individuals.

To wrap up

In summary, there is little doubt that more must be done within academic circles to get students ready for the challenges they will face on a daily basis when they become engineers. Thanks for taking the time to read this article. My intention is to start a conversation on the subject. You can get involved by going to the LinkedIn version here: ….https://www.linkedin.com/company/electronic-product-design-test-epdt.

I’d really like to hear your thoughts.

Republished by kind permission of EPDT…..you can find more EMC-related material on EPDT via  https://www.epdtonthenet.net/search.aspx?s=emc