Merging electrical and mechanical prototypes in MIT's Engineering Design Studio

Long before any of us became addicted to Amazon.com, there were actual mail-order catalogs. A devoted hobbyist would fill out an order sheet, write a check, and seal both in an envelope; stamp and mail the envelope; and wait a few weeks.

Back when “classic rock” was just “rock,” this is how my friend R.J created special-effects “stomp boxes” for his electric guitar. He would patch together a simple enclosure out of scrap wood, an old license plate, and a few random screws.

R.J. would be jealous of the capabilities available to aspiring designers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) have access to what’s called the Engineering Design Studio (EDS). In this teaching lab, sponsored by Cypress Semiconductor, students can go from theory to idea to reality by prototyping complete electronics-based systems. To see the effects of the associated mechanical design, they can fabricate a customized housing using laser cutters, computer-controlled mills, and other advanced tools.

The overall experience is in tune with MIT’s motto: “Mind and Hand.” According to Dr. Steven Leeb, professor of EECS and mechanical engineering, modern test and prototyping equipment is changing the speed and efficiency with which “an idea can go from the mind to the material.”

This approach also unlocks new insights into electronic devices. In the past, a curious student could easily take apart a phone or TV and see how it worked. Today’s complex and monolithic products are increasingly difficult to understand without specialized tools.

To give students hands-on experience with modern test equipment, the EECS department is working with vendors such as Keysight Technologies. In support of the EDS, Keysight has partnered with the Cypress University Alliance to donate state-of-the-art mixed-signal oscilloscopes. The MIT labs are also equipped with Keysight logic analyzers, power supplies and function generators.

All of this is a far cry from the garage where my pal R.J. hand-built his prototypes. Even as today’s tools move ahead at blazing speed, it’s comforting to know one thing hasn’t changed: there are still people driven by a desire to use their minds and hands to go from imagination to understanding to reality.

 

*Keysight Technologies Inc. was formerly the Agilent Technologies electronic measurement business.

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