Nov. 6, 1997 ROLLA, Mo. — Electrical engineers at the University of Missouri-Rolla are working with several private companies to create a software program designed to catch and fix electromagnetic glitches during the design of printed circuit boards used in computers, automotive parts and a broad array of other electronic products.
The three-year project, now in its second year, will result in "expert" software products that will help electronics makers meet federal standards on electromagnetic emissions. The expert system should also save circuit board makers a lot of time and money by allowing them to catch and fix problems before the circuit boards are manufactured.
"Computer systems are getting faster and faster, and the faster they get, the more likely they are to act as tiny radios and emit signals," says Dr. Todd Hubing, an associate professor of electrical engineering at UMR. "What we have to do is make them extremely inefficient radiators."
Hubing is one of four UMR electrical engineering researchers involved in the UMR EMI Expert System Consortium. EMI stands for electromagnetic interference.
The UMR research team also includes one visiting scholar, 15 graduate students and five undergraduate students.
The consortium is a three-year project between UMR and nine diverse businesses -- from equipment manufacturer Caterpillar to computer giants Intel and Sun Microsystems. The consortium's goal is to develop software to eliminate electromagnetic interference problems during the design phase of computer circuit boards. The project has more than $1 million in funding from consortium members.
In the personal computer's early days, the circuit boards that ran the PCs often would interfere with the music of an office radio. That's because the circuit boards act as miniature radio stations and broadcast signals. The result is radio static.
This is one common example of how electronic noise can disrupt the operation of everyday products, and this problem, for the most part, has been taken care of by manufacturers of both PCs and radios. But new problems of electromagnetic interference are likely to arise as portable electronic products -- such as compact-disc players, laptop computers and hand-held computers -- become more commonplace. Signals from these gadgets could potentially wreak havoc on the computer systems of airplanes, automobiles and other complex electronic systems.
At UMR, the researchers test a variety of products in its Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) Laboratory, analyze the results, and write the algorithms that will be used to develop an expert software system that can be used by any circuit board designer. The UMR researchers then hand off their algorithms to the consortium's software partners. Those partners, in turn, develop computer-assisted design software products to be used by circuit board designers in the industry. All information is shared among the consortium's members, and all hardware companies in the consortium receive free evaluation copies of the early versions of the software.
When completed, these expert systems will diagnose circuit board designs, catch any potential problems, predict the extent of those problems, and recommend ways for designers to fix them.
"Through this consortium, we're developing software that does the same thing that an EMC engineer would do, looking at things the way a human would," Hubing says.
The need for an expert system is great because circuit board designers often know little about EMI concerns, Hubing says. There are few EMI engineers in the world, but many circuit board designers, he adds.
"If you had a human EMC expert looking over the shoulder of circuit board designers, then you wouldn't have a problem," Hubing says. "But circuit board designers have a lot of other things to concern themselves with besides EMI problems.
"As a circuit board designer, you've got thermal considerations, EMI considerations, cost trade-offs and manufacturing considerations to take into account -- plus you must keep up with the latest in digital technology," Hubing adds. "Circuit designers can't be experts in all of these areas, and so they're having to rely on tools to catch certain things automatically."
Already, the UMR EMI Expert System Consortium has developed prototype software that all partners in the consortium are evaluating.
Hubing and his colleagues in UMR's electrical engineering department -- Drs. Tom Van Doren, James L. Drewniak and Richard E. DuBroff -- first got the idea for developing an expert system after working with Boeing on a similar project. With Boeing, the UMR researchers developed software to locate EMI "design rule violations" in circuit board designs. The expert system software now under development not only locates potential problems, but also analyzes them and proposes specific solutions.
Working with the four UMR professors is Dr. Sergiu Radu, a visiting professor from Romania.
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