Using NI Multisim and NI Ultiboard at Texas A&M for Product Development Education

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"In our electronics and telecom programs, we chose industry-quality design and analysis tools that are full-featured and easy to learn – Multisim and Ultiboard have met all of our requirements."

- Professor Jay Porter, Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering Technology, Texas A&M

The Challenge:
Finding an industry-grade software environment to complement a well-rounded curriculum preparing students for careers in the electronics and telecommunications industry, and meets the following criteria – low cost, broad industry usage, short learning curve, and the ability to be used for education programs.

The Solution:
Ensuring students are prepared for their final captstone design experience by introducing the easy-to-use, industry-accepted Multism and Ultiboard software solution package to students during their sophomore year while providing multiple opportunities to learn additional features throughout their curriculum.

Author(s):
Professor Jay Porter - Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering Technology, Texas A&M
Professor Joseph Morgan - Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering Technology, Texas A&M

Finding the Right Tools

Over the past several years we have observed an industry need to place an emphasis on product development and introduce students to the concept of entrepreneurship. In the spirit of “doing” versus “lecturing,” the electronics and telecommunications (EET/TET) programs at Texas A&M University developed programs with an emphasis on innovation and a holistic approach to product development.

As a result of this approach, the curriculum changed to include topics on electronics manufacturing, system integration, project management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. We started teaming EET/TET students with business students as part of their capstone design sequence in which the teams conceptualize a product relevant to today’s challenges then design, develop, implement, test, and document a fully functional prototype.

Early in this process, we identified a need for a schematic capture, simulation, and layout tool focused on electronic product and system development. We wanted an integrated software package capable of analog and digital schematics capture and simulation with the ability to generate Gerber files for printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturing.

In making our selections, we considered several electronic CAD packages. We found the solution with Multisim and Ultiboard. We based the final software selection on several criteria including cost, broad industry usage, learning curve, and appropriateness for use in education; more specifically, we ultimately chose Multisim and Ultiboard because they met the following needs:

  • Compatibility with NI LabVIEW, an industry-accepted graphical programming environment used by engineers and scientists, which allows students to more easily test and evaluate their final prototypes
  • Look and feel of many industry-quality electronic CAD packages
  • Easy-to-use with a short learning curve, and flexibility in the products for implementation at all levels of our curriculum
  • Features including rich, supporting extensive industry device libraries, multilayer PCB designs, customized design rule checking, and the ability to share new part designs and footprints
  • Cost effectiveness with a reasonable deployment price

Additional figures of merit include a discount for academic use and the availability of student ownership.

Our new capstone design experience now produces graduates that understand innovation and entrepreneurship and have a firm grasp on engineering and product design principles.

Spanning the Entire Curriculum with Multisim and Ultiboard

After selecting and integrating Multisim and Ultiboard into our curriculum, we quickly recognized the need for repeated exposure in a real-world environment to develop our students’ proficiency using these tools. We observed that teams having prior experience with these design tools were more successful in delivering a professional solution. The students now use Multisim and Ultiboard in eight sophomore- to senior-level courses/laboratory projects, thus ensuring they are prepared for capstone design.

Taking a snapshot of our spring 2009 curriculum, Multisim and Ultiboard were first introduced in the Circuits Analysis II course during the sophomore year in which it was used to bridge the gap between theory in the classroom and the laboratory experience. This approach significantly increases the student’s understanding of electronic circuit concepts and enhances the time spent in the laboratory. It is later re-enforced in upper-division courses such as applied electromagnetics and analog electronics. 

The first time students use these tools in a true design project is in the junior-level Electronic System Interfacing course. Students integrate analog, digital, microprocessor, and communications concepts learned in previous classes and use them to implement a fully functional Modbus-based smart sensor system. This course encompasses the design process where students move from a conceptual system-level design to a fully functional prototype that is tested and documented. These skills, along with the experience gained and using Multisim for capture and simulation, Ultiboard for layout, and LabVIEW for test and verification, provide significant value to students in preparing them for their capstone design experience and the real world.

Student Success

The success of the capstone design sequence has proven that students are graduating with an in-depth understanding of innovation and entrepreneurship with a solid foundation in engineering and product design principles. An example of this value-add process can be seen in the efforts of a recent capstone design team. The team FourTel designed an operational product prototype that was entered into a campus-wide Ideas Challenge competition. Out of more than 40 entries, FourTel received first place, which included a $3,000 USD grand prize and provisional patent legal assistance from a Houston-based law firm for their idea. The provisional patent has been issued, and a small company is in the process of licensing the intellectual property for commercialization.

We believe that part of FourTel’s success can be attributed to the adoption and integration of standard design, simulation, and implementation toolsets, such as Multisim, Ultiboard, and LabVIEW, and the vertical integration of these tools in our curriculum. Giving students repeated exposure throughout their curriculum helped them develop proficiencies needed to be successful after graduation.

Author Information:
Professor Jay Porter
Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering Technology, Texas A&M
Tel: 979-845-1459
porter@entc.tamu.edu

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