Zen Engineering

Zen Engineering
By Frank Greenhalgh

Zen Engineering sounds a bit like an oxymoron. How can pondering the answer to the Koan; "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" have anything to do with calculating the phase angle at zero crossing of a closed loop? Both problems require absolute attention and understanding to solve. That is how.

My wife and I recently visited a Japanese Garden on Long Island's North Shore. The tour guide included in his lecture, the basics of Zen philosophy, and its concept of living in the now. After the tour we witnessed a Japanese Zen Tea Ceremony. I had seen the same ceremony thirty years ago, and I reflected now, how different my life might have been if I hadn't. It was the teachings of the Tea Ceremony that started Zen Engineering.

The Tea Ceremony http://www.niwa.org/Tea.html has been performed in Japan for over five hundred years. It is a symbolic performance, teaching that when performing an act, no matter how humble, you should be totally in that act.-in the now, enjoying the present.

Two persons perform the Tea Ceremony. One is the guest the other the host. The ceremony itself is the work of the host. The guest sits and bows and then watches the host prepare a cup of tea for him/her. The host begins the ceremony by bringing forth the utensils necessary to make a cup of tea. A charcoal fire is started and fanned until it is capable of heating water. A bowl is cleaned and then filled with water and placed on the fire.

The teacup is cleansed and dried using a whisk, a cloth and water ladled from the water container. The host selects a vial of powered tea and pours it into the cup. He next ladles the heated water into the teacup. The combination is mixed with the whisk and presented to the guest. The guest bows, receives it and drinks it down.

Each act is performed slowly and with great attention and patience. The method of sitting, walking, handling the utensils is very important. Finally the host returns all the utensils to their proper place and bows. The End

The ceremony can take an hour to complete. To shorten the one I saw recently, a fire already heated the water. Each movement is studied and orchestrated perfectly. Cleanliness and artistic honesty pervade. During the ceremony it is possible to lose one's self as in meditation.

Frantic Engineering

When I first saw this ceremony it impressed me at how different my approach to engineering was. My technique as an engineer was frantic. I would spew out design concepts on scraps of paper and breadboard them as soon as I could find the parts. With unlimited energy, I would spend my evenings making that breadboard work. Usually it would look very little like the original design. Finally I would copy down the final component values and redraw the schematic to reflect the last breadboard configuration.

Many young engineers approach electrical design this way. The fun of hanging out in the lab with a smoking, soldering iron and a scope probe, looking at the latest breadboard, sure beats sitting at your desk, pondering over each component used, and knowing why you are using it before the breadboard is constructed.

The Zen Design Ceremony

I am not sure how it happened but I slowly started to perform the Zen Design Ceremony.

With each new design, I would take my utensils, the specification, my slide rule (later calculator and then computer), and a brand new engineer's notebook into my office. I would close the door and perform the ceremony.

A design ceremony requires a new engineering notebook. The first page is dated and signed. Then you proceed to insert the design. First, a conceptual design is generated. Next, a complete schematic of the circuit without values is drawn. Each component on the schematic is given a part number. On the pages of the notebook you list each part and then calculate the value and stress for it. Although this seems simple it isn't. When you calculate a snubber circuit, or the resistor setting the current level for a zener diode in a power supply, you must now know the frequency, voltage levels, and specified zener knee current. The discipline required forces you to better understand the circuit. Eventually you feel a kinship with each component you are using. As you slowly prepare the pot of electronic tea and the design proceeds, you and your design become one. Transformer design itself is a Zen experience. Finally, when each component has been selected and defined the schematic is updated with the values and part numbers and released for breadboard. The ceremony is over.

Caution: During the ceremony, one should not become distracted by meetings, or telephone calls. or radios playing. The intent is to be one only with the design and the moment. Failing to do so can cause poor designs.

The Tea tastes great

The design ceremony can take from hours to weeks depending on the complexity of the design. The results however generally are worth the effort. Breadboards work as soon as they are built. There are no surprises such as capacitors failing due to ripple current, or snubber resistors burning up at high line. Stability also is no longer a hit or miss game.

As the utensils for the design ceremony improved, so did the results. Soon, using computer simulation, gain phase plots could be calculated. When network analyzers became available we could verify our models and tweak them.

The design discipline described is actually the same one many of us were taught in college labs, but forgot as soon as we entered industry. If you are a, "Soldering Iron Engineer", step back, perform the ceremony and save those nights for sleep.

Also see: http://www.art.uiuc.edu/tea/mainTOC.html , http://www.art.uiuc.edu/tea/2/5/tcc/2_13a.html

Frank Greenhalgh
Oct. 13th 1999

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About the Author

Frank Greenhalgh has been working in power supplies and systems for 38 years. He has many impressive accomplishments and patents. Over the years he has made significant contributions to Trio Laboratories where he held the position of Chief Design Engineer and was then promoted to Vice President.

He co-founded CEAG Electric Corporation (now ABB CEAG) and developed the first mainframe power system using the droop paralleling concept. He has written numerous articles and columns, presented papers at the milestone PowerCon convention and consulted for ABB CEAG and other companies. Recently his accomplishments include the development of two Web sites, www.fgl.com with the Power Corner and www.amityville.com. Frank is presently functioning as "Director of Technical Sales" for Toritsu Tsushin Kogoyo Corp.