Work From Home (WFH) with COVID-19 amounts to a lot more than constant Zoom meetings, at least for engineers. There are diagrams, circuits and parts to design and test, and the digital world can only go so far.
Engineers have been part of the WFH world for years, and many have learned to supplement their home development work with visits to an office or a lab to test out physical circuit boards or electronics under development. Now, nearly all trips to the lab are nixed amid pandemic stay-at-home guidelines.
“It gets a little more involved these days,” said Florian Bohn, the CEO of startup GuRu. The company is VC funded and is developing commercially ready millimeter wave wireless power technology in what promises to be an industry first.
“Now when people test, they set up a test at a home session and take some of the equipment home or have things shipped there,” Bohn said. “There’s overhead to hauling or shipping things home and you have to be very clever and efficient about who does what in a team and in what way.”
There have also been study-from-home challenges for would-be engineers, including 72 students at Louisiana State University who are learning about oil well drilling through a simulation over home internet connections. The DrillSIM program was developed by the company Drilling Systems and is being used in online laboratories by LSU instructors Jonathan Knowles and Otto Santos. Students can monitor warning signs, like an influx of gas into a well. Pre-COVID-19, the students would have attended a physical lab to do the work.
GuRu engineers are using various well-established Electronic Design Automation tools to design integrated circuits (from Cadence and Mentor Graphics) and printed circuit boards (Altium) and to conduct simulations for thermal, mechanical and electromagnetic effects (Ansys). “We do drop test simulations, antenna simulations, thermal simulations—you name it and they can do it all,” Bohn said.
Surprisingly, the simulations are run on the mainframe in the main office so the home computer is basically a terminal that runs in a remote mode. “The software that is running is running remotely and all you have on the screen is display data that’s fairly low bandwidth and far less than streaming video,” he explained. The software is not streaming the hard data back and forth.
Most electronics development work is online, however, and requires a reliable internet connection with a VPN. “The number one thing you need to have is a very good internet connection,” Bohn said. “Every employee needs the best connection so that it’s almost transparent that you are connected remotely.”
After the simulation phase, there’s fabrication and testing, which is a little more involved. It helps to have a good amount of home desk space for such tasks, maybe a large desk or two pushed together. The garage or the patio may also be converted to workspace.
GuRu’s headquarters are in Pasadena, California, but Bohn works at home nearby and has found his 100 Mbps download cable connection gets bogged down at times. “One challenge is that people are watching Netflix in the early evening, but overall it’s not too much of an issue.”
Since GuRu is a startup, only 15 people are on staff and most were already set up for WFH. “A lot of people work in the evening with flex hours so it’s not too challenging,” he said. “If someone has consistently slow internet, we support them.”
“It’s important to have a good set up that’s quiet and uninterrupted without kids walking in and out every three minutes, but we let people have much more freedom now when to work. With schooling going on at home, we don’t expect everybody to be available during normal times,” he said.
Bohn is the self-appointed staffer who goes into the office to take care of essential business, including checking mail and keeping the office refrigerator clean. One benefit of COVID-19 is less highway traffic and a shorter commute time.
“Overall, we are still engaged with a bunch of people in the electronics industry and are more or less able to work from home,” Bohn said. “We can’t do largescale production tests and for some fabrication we certainly do see a slowdown with longer lead times and access to boards.” For needed electronics supplies, Bohn has checked which vendors are overbooked or shut down for the time being and has diversified to different suppliers in various countries.
“Some of our work can be done more efficiently in the office where we have an open floor plan and can shout when we need something but now it’s email or Messenger. “It becomes more tricky, but it’s not a hurdle.”
The pandemic “is certainly a challenge to a startup like ours, although it’s a challenge to everyone,” Bohn said. “Nobody is sleeping soundly. You always have challenges as a startup.”
A few weeks into the pandemic and stay-at-home guidelines, Bohn rates GuRu an 8 out of 10 overall for WFH compared to working in the office. “The takeaway is that being forced to work from home, we’ve learned to be more flexible. We don’t have the option of going to work. The work from home has had far less impact than what we worried about initially and we continue to improve.”