Software is now an essential part of our lives. Unless one is still plying a time-honored craft such as handrolling cigars, the chances are that each working day involves the use of software somewhere along the line. In an RF/microwave electronics house, for example, it may be on the production line, embedded within a pick-and-place machine that has to be supervised from time to time. On the sales side, it may be in the form of spread sheets that contain customer records and requirements, or in stored data sheets of products that contain the basic specifications and custom options that tell a customer whether this particular device or component will fill their requirements. But it is on the design side that software may be having the greatest impact on how microwave engineers work.
An old friend called recently to share some thoughts on a new design challenge, and how to convert a full communications system into a component-sized assembly. A variety of different multilayer technologies were bandied about, including how low-temperature-cofired-ceramic (LTCC) might fare if used to integrate this system. But all of this was "seat-of-the-pants" engineering based on what were once referred to as "paper designs," sketching out function blocks on a sheet of paper and making quick estimates on a variety of system-level performance values, such as noise figure, sensitivity, and dynamic range.
When design approaches rely on such wild approximations, it is easy to debate the merits of different technologies as possible solutions for this particular problem. But it is difficult to actually commit to a technology because of the lack of precision in the performance estimates. In the "good old days," more precision at least involved pulling out a calculator and performing some basic system-level calculations that would also consider size and power consumption for different approaches. But today's RF/microwave engineers would probably laugh at the "dinosaur" working with a handheld calculator on such a project, and would reach for the comfort of their chosen computer-aided-engineering (CAE) program.
The impact of software on this industry is apparent even by glancing through the stories in this issue, with several Product Technology stories introducing software for different functions, including design and test. That one word—productivity—keeps coming up in discussions with software developers and that is one of their key goals, of course, along with increasing simulation accuracy and adding functionality. In terms of productivity, many microwave CAE software developers are to be applauded for their efforts, because they have made a difference. Would anyone care to go back to that TI-59?