How to maximize productivity and minimize time spent on tasks when working on an electronics project.
Scientific and technological advancement was only possible thanks to mass production of food. A surplus of food and more modern agricultural techniques resulted in many people having free time (something that had not been experienced up until then). However, modern technology is slowly eating at this time and now people find themselves forever connected to work and responsibilities. Learning how to make the most of your time can be just as important as the invention of modern farming for your career and personal life. In this article, I will reveal some of the techniques I use to maximize productivity and minimize time spent on tasks.
Grouping Common Tasks
Imagine an engineering scenario where you are instructed to design multiple circuits and PCBs all being unique and unrelated. One could start with the first circuit, design the schematic, layout the PCB, and produce a prototype. Then having completed that, doing the same work for the second design and so on and so forth. However, imagine the pressure of having to complete such work in a limited time frame (say, n days and x circuits). Each circuit would have only n / x days which can cause serious problems if one circuit is more problematic that another. But fear not, as there is a very trivial solution…
While it may sound difficult, working on all projects at the same time actually saves time and allows for more projects to be done on a shorter timescale. The first task is to identify identical or similar tasks. For example, electronic projects involve the concept stage, initial schematic drawing, prototyping, PCB design, and manufacturing. Then, these tasks are grouped together and performed at the same time. So for the case of doing three projects, all the schematics would be completed one after the other as well as the PCB design. So why does this save time?
Some stages typically have set units of time that are consumed regardless of the size of the job. One classic case is PCB manufacturing, a PCB on a CNC could be a 2-minute job or a 2-hour job but either way, 10 minutes of setup are still needed. If, however, multiple jobs are combined, the time needed for tool changes, material placement, squaring etc is saved as this is only done once. The same applies to schematic design, prototyping, and manufacturing.
Having A Good Plan
Having a good plan ties in well with task grouping and is also just as important. When given deadlines and large volumes of room, your time must be planned to allow for mistakes and events that may be out of your control. With the example of multiple electronic projects, grouping tasks is important but you must allow for overtime during the prototyping and schematic design stages. Remember, most circuits don’t work first time and hours can be spent trying to determine the cause of the problem. Therefore, always allocate blocks of time for debugging and redesign. Gantt charts become incredibly useful when creating a plan as they help to show how long tasks will take, where spare time is present and how certain tasks can overlap.
As previously stated, some tasks can be done simultaneously. One example of tasks that can overlap include PCB manufacturing and circuit construction. A CNC is perfectly capable of producing a PCB without your complete attention, so instead of staring dumbly at the machine, you can populate another PCB that you fabricated earlier and test it. This method of time-saving arguably the most important as two tasks can essentially be done in the time taken to do one.
Slow And Steady
Strange as it sounds, the story of the hare and the tortoise actually applies very well to engineering. Rushing to get a schematic finished so that the PCB can be laid out makes the schematic stage useless and therefore the entire project. While time constraints do exist for completing the schematic, rushing them only results in mistakes that usually require either redesigning the PCB or worse, having to re-manufacture the project.
For the example of electronic projects, it is best to start by laying down the key parts of the schematic (microcontroller, regulators etc), and get the functional side of the circuit complete. Then, using a separate checklist, go through each check (such as “Add decoupling capacitors if needed”) to ensure that the basics have been included. You would be amazed by how many engineers forget trivial parts to circuits such as input protection, power-line stability, and even reverse polarity protection.
While some of these may seem trivial and obvious, they are often overlooked resulting in poorly organized projects. It is not unheard of to hear of products (especially on Kickstarter), having delayed shipment or being criticized of unrealistic goals and time frames. But the tips given here do not just apply to electronic projects or even engineering projects in general! You can use this information to help you in situations such as report writing, university study, and even paying your taxes!