Walk the floor at DesignCon in August after we emerge from our Covid-19 dumpster fire. You will see vendors for most of the tools professional engineers use to design and build their state-of-the-art products. You will see the latest scopes, 3D field solvers, connectors, cables, and PCB materials. You will also see the latest EDA design tools, FPGA options, and switch-mode power supply components with the latest semiconductor technology.
These are the essential tools that professional engineers use. While they are not typically low priced, they are generally a small fraction of the development cost of the product life cycle for which they are used. This makes them cost effective for product design and development.
But their price is generally outside the range an engineer is going to purchase for their own home use.
Universally, every engineer I encounter has a thirst for continual learning. Afterall, the half-life for knowledge about product architectures, the latest in power management, experience with EDA tools, and even scopes is about 4-years. If professional engineers don’t continue to learn, they stagnate, and their value will be diminished in about four years.
This is one reason why all engineers I talk to love free tools that come close to the performance of the high-end professional level tools. Full disclosure, I love tools like Ansys HFSS, Siemen’s HyperLynx, and Keysight’s ADS. I teach these tools in all my classes. But they are not free. When I show examples of simulations or design principles with these tools, I get the same response from every group of professional engineers I visit: isn’t there a free version of those tools?
These engineers are not looking to design their products with free tools. They want access so they can “play,” so they can explore simple “what if?” questions, learn design principles, and understand the nuances in the tool types.
There is an unsatisfied thirst by professional engineers to play with tools that give them a taste of the pro-level tools. This is why my colleague, Jay Diepenbrock, and I wrote “Low-Cost and Free Tools Fit for an Engineer’s Personal Budget.”
No one is going to design their product using QUCS, a free SPICE simulator. But, they will learn how specific interconnect features affect the insertion and return loss. They will be able to unwrap the phase of the insertion loss and extract the time delay of an interconnect to see dispersion.
No one is going to debug their USB 3.0 bus using a $129, 10-MHz bandwidth scope, but if they are not familiar with a scope, they can learn the principles of triggering, spectral analysis, and how noisy an electromagnetic environment we all live in.
Here is my plea to tool vendors: provide a free or low-cost “student” version of your tools to help engineers accelerate up the learning curve.
No one is going to design or debug their products using a low-end tool. The student version will rarely cannibalize a sale. (And you already have some competition out there from the growing list of free or low cost tools, driven by the maker movement, leaking into the engineering community.)
If you offer a free or low-cost version of your tool, you can collect valuable leads of potential future customers. You will grow mindshare by hooking engineers on your product so that when they are ready to purchase a professional level tool, they know exactly where to go. You can train your future customers on your user interface so they are immediately productive the day they open up your box.
Some companies understand this. PicoTech offers a $129 10MHz scope with the same user interface as their $20k, 25GHz scope. Tektronix, Keysight and Teledyne LeCroy offer a free or low-cost version of the software that runs on their scope as a standalone simulation tool to analyze scope measurements offline. Sonnet offers a free student version of their 3D planar solver, Sonnet-Lite. Quick Field offers a free student version of their field solver.
No engineer is going to design their product using these free versions. But, they will accelerate up the learning curve, and maybe become fans of your product long before they are customers. And isn’t that worth it?