Engineers are created in labs. Hence it is essential to keep the lab equipment current and close to the real world to create engineers ready for tomorrow!
I still remember the excitement and contentment when I plotted the graph of diode characteristics as my first experiment at the Electronics Devices and Circuits Lab during my engineering. Before that, I thought engineering would probably be learning and mugging up of concepts and I was done with it. But it was only labs and lab studies that made me feel happy as an engineering student. As rightly said by Friedrich Engels, “An ounce of action is worth a tonne of theory.”
Labs and practical implementation of the theory play an important role in understanding the basic concepts taught in classrooms. “Academic labs provide opportunities to the engineering and science graduates to enhance their critical, analytical and creative thinking capabilities,” shares Dr L.K. Maheshwari, vice chancellor, BITS Pilani. He adds, “Labs facilitate experimentation ability of students, enabling them to convert the concepts and ideas into innovation.”
Realising the fact, test and measurement (T&M) manufacturers are handling the requirements from colleges, technical institutes and research institutions very innovatively. “Innovation for better learning is the policy that we follow. The T&M industry is working closely with the academia to understand and meet their needs,” reveals Mohammed Ghouse, manager, Scientech Technologies. Manufacturers are all geared up to create more rugged, low-cost and user-friendly equipment to meet the needs of academia. Providing detailed manuals and training to the staff, and suggesting experiments and collaboration with the industry are the other steps taken by the T&M manufacturers towards creating engineers for tomorrow!
Setting up the basic electronics lab
Technical education has multiple levels. As one goes up the ladder, more advanced and specific equipment are required. However, the basic set of equipment may be needed at any level. “The basic set of equipment that are required in primary labs include multimeters, oscilloscopes, function generators and power supplies,” says T.N. Singh, CEO, Salicon Nano Technology. “These are less-feature, low-cost and low-bandwidth equipment.”
Elaborating the specifications of the devices, Singh adds, “For basic oscilloscopes, features include x-position, y-position, time base, less calculations and less control. As in the experiments you view signals of not more than 3 MHz to 4 MHz, normally 25MHz to 30MHz equipment is sufficient.
“A 15V/30V DC power supply is sufficient with a current of 500 mA. For higher experimentation, you look for programmable power supplies with features like constant-current source, constant-voltage source and frequency locking.
“3½- or 4½-digit handheld digital multimeters with basic functions of voltage, current and resistance measurement and component testing are required.” Function generators up to 2 MHz and capable of generating basic sine, square, triangular and pulse waves are used in basic lab setups, whereas you need arbitrary waveform generators with higher bandwidths in advanced labs.
“The basic lab equipment need to be in the simplest and primitive form in order to facilitate learning,” says Anand Bhushan, managing director, Bhushan & Bhushan. He adds, “Basic equipment should be manual in order to make the engineers understand the basic concepts. Automatising can be done to higher level of equipment.”
“We try to guide the institutes towards the right balance between requirement and price”—Manish Kwatra, CEO, Metro Electronic Products
“We make sure that the equipment has proper grounding and proper cabinet coating to ensure safety”—T.N. Singh, CEO, Salicon Nano Technology
“The products are designed to impart knowledge and provide hands-on experimentation to every learner”—Mohammed Ghouse, Manager, Scientech Technologies
“As the lab equipment are used by many users for different experiments, these should have operational ease as per multiuser needs”—Anirudh Kela, Managing Director, Scientific-Mes Technik
“We bring very distinct advantage to labs by providing not only ‘professional grade’ test & measurement equipments but also complete set of experiments, practicals and teaching notes that meet every budget need”—Arun Dogra, Vice President-Sales, Marketing and Service, Agilent Technologies
“It is very important to impart training to the lab assistants, instructors and teachers and we welcome the institutes to get their staff trained”—Anand Bhushan, Managing Director, Bhushan & Bhushan
Manufacturers are working towards making basic lab equipment more and more affordable, reliable and easily available. “We try to guide them towards the right balance between requirements and prices as many a times academia is unaware of availability and price of the equipment in the market,” says Manish Kwatra, CEO, Metro Electronic Products. Maintenance and service support is another focus area of many T&M manufacturers. Kwatra adds, “We provide robust equipment with in-built protections as many a times students are not aware of the right way of handling them.”
Advanced technical labs
Colleges and institutes offering degree programmes in engineering have subject-specific labs. For example, for signals and systems, the experiments deal with high-frequency signals. To view such signals, you require digital oscilloscopes with high bandwidth. Also, you will need spectrum analysers, which you may not require in the power electronics lab.
Technical institutes and T&M manufacturers work closely in setting up these labs, providing training to the staff and also selecting list of experiments that will help the students to get comprehensive feel of the subject.
“The secondary set of equipment that facilitates experimentation includes mixed-signal oscilloscopes, logic analysers, spectrum or network analysers, frequency counters, programmable power supplies and arbitrary function generators,” explains Anirudh Kela, managing director, Scientific-Mes Technik. “These are economical and customisable lab workstations designed in line with ergonomic requirement to suit laboratory uses,” he adds.
Arun Dogra, vice president-sales, marketing and support, Agilent Technologies, talks about multipurpose lab solution (MPLS) kits. These are all-in-one solutions with certain set of equipment interconnected in one ready-to-teach package that saves lecturers’ time in developing and updating courses to keep pace with the latest industry trends. Kits available today are suitable for analogue electronics, RF circuit design, digital RF communication, digital systems and digital signal processing.
Manufacturers are engaged in creating industry-grade equipment for academia. These equipment are similar to the equipment already used in the industry. “We know the budget restriction of the academic labs, so we give them what will work for them. For example, a 50GHz performance network analyser may be an overkill for a student in lab; a simple economy network analyser with 9kHz to 20GHz range would do the trick for him for now. Once the student is familiar with the features, specifications and commercial use of the equipment, he can move to the next level of that equipment. Depending on his application in future, he will know what range or specifications he should look for,” shares Dogra.
“We expect the manufacturer to provide the service of equipment well in time. Ruggedness, low cost, low maintenance time, easy availability of spare parts and local support and training are the things that we look for ”—Prof. Khanna, Thapar University
“We expect delivery and installation of the equipment within time and demonstration/training support from the manufacturers. In most labs, equipment servicing and maintenance after installation is also desirable on suitable terms and conditions”
—Dr L.K. Maheshwari, BITS, Pilani
Another new thing happening today is the concept of creating an equivalent virtual world. “Virtual instrumentation and simulation consisting of modular hardware, signal processing units and graphical programming provides a quick learning platform to the students,” explains Dr Maheshwari. Lots of software for design and simulation have become a part of academic labs today.
Upcoming high-end research labs
Research and development is very important in accreditation of technical universities. Research labs are set up for postgraduate and doctorate programmes in the universities. As there is a huge amount of investment involved in research, the universities seek funding from consortium, associations, organisations and industries. The test and measurement equipment used in these labs exhibit very high precision, sensitivity and repeatability, high bandwidths, connectivity to external source and reliability.
One of the most promising upcoming fields is the nano technology. “In nano technology, we are talking about measurements of the order of 10-9. We require very high-precision and high-resolution equipment for these measurements,” says Singh. Also, to sense such a tiny value of signal, you need nano probes and high-precision multimeters.
“Security technology, a very interesting subject, is evolving with great importance given to topics like biometrics and pattern recognition. The labs usually have a lot of different types of sensing and measurement systems,” shares Bhushan. In these labs, lots of software are used for analysis and simulation.
Advanced communication labs also demand a special set of equipment. “The fastest growing field is telecommunication and the technology is changing rapidly. For example, multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) signal creation and analysis are needed to test the WiMax and LTE systems effectively,” says Dogra.
Recently, a lot of research has taken place in medical electronics. It’s a new topic added to many universities’ curriculum. Signals from human body are very small in magnitude, giving rise to small-signal detection and measurement. To measure these signals, you need to install equipment that are highly sensitive and responsive. High-resolution digital storage oscilloscopes are suitable for medical electronics labs.
Moore’s law states that the number of transistors that can easily fit in an IC approximately doubles every two years. There are forums that support research on very large-scale integration (VLSI) in universities and industries. Manufacturers like Agilent Technologies work closely in providing high-end equipment and simulation tools for the VLSI labs.
Microwave technology has made a great impact on various consumer products. A microwave lab is equipped with microwave anechoic chamber, vector network analyser, noise figure meter and microwave test accessories along with EDA tools and simulation software.
While the manufacturers realise the need for economical solutions for academia, there are many programmes run by them to encourage the use of latest and upgraded equipment in the labs. “Manufacturers offer attractive exchange and upgradation schemes to the institutes so that they can have latest equipment,” shares Singh. He adds, “Normally, when the syllabus changes, institutes go for upgrading their labs.”
2. Security technology
4. Medical electronics
“Government funding was always available for setting up new labs, but recently the government has started supporting upgradation of academic labs too,” shares Kwatra.
Prof. Khanna from Thapar University shares, “A lab can be privately funded by the institutes. There are government support programmes like Modernisation and Removal of Obsolescence Scheme (MODROBS) and Research Promotion Scheme (RPS) of AICTE and Funds for Improvement of Science and Technology (FIST) scheme of Department of Science and Technology (DST) that help in upgrading labs in the technical institutes for under- graduate (UG) and postgraduate (PG) levels.” The University Grant Commission (UGC) has also started funding new postgraduate programmes in technical institutes.
“Usually, industries do their research and development activity either in collaboration with an R&D organisation or with an academic institute. In such cases, the industry sponsors similar equipment to the academia to receive better and reliable results for their easier implementation and benefits,” says Dr Maheshwari.
Technical institutes, funding bodies, government and the industry all are working towards creating more practical engineers. So what are you waiting for? Analyse where you are stuck and join the initiative!
The author is a senior technology journalist at EFY