Friday, 19 September 2014

Southampton Part II

The amount I learnt in first year of university was ridiculous.  The course touched on almost every area of electronics - maths, physics, solid state, digital design, programming, communications, to name a few.  In second year we were we were trusted to go and hone these new skills, mainly in the form of larger group projects i.e. the D4 project.

Most of the modules were advanced something - continuing on from the work of last year.  One of the most interesting new subjects was a module on computer architecture.  At the start I had a vague idea of things like instructions, but by the end I was up to speed on computer design, concepts such as processor pipelines and caching.

The first major project was designing an integrated circuit (D2).  There was a specification of a few modules we had to implement - things like a 4-bit adder, ring oscillator and an 8-bit counter.  As a team we designed and built the different modules.  Then, at the end we fudged together some kind of final IC and realised it wasn't all going to fit.  This was the first real taste of having to work as a team, and having a fairly tricky deadline.  There were plenty of stressful moments and staying in the lab until 11pm (even on a Sunday...)

The circuit designs were done by hand, although someone in the class discovered an amazing tool - logic Friday - which is a free program that minimises logic for you.  Once we knew which gates we needed, we started simulating in OrCAD.  Simultaneously, we were laying out the designs on an IC using L-Edit, putting down the tracks and trying to cram the designs into the smallest possible space.  The whole work-flow at this point was pretty nasty and clunky.  There was a lot of exporting hundreds of files to use the different tools, for example to simulate the IC design by creating a PSpice model.  Also, the L-Edit middle mouse button fixation was fairly frustrating.  However, this was our first experience with the tools, we all rushed into the design without spending much time to get accustomed to the programs we were using.

Why I had no life for about a week - everything was done by hand
This was early on in Semester 1, fast forward quite a few months (including winter exams) and we had a physical IC with our design etched on.  In Semester 2 we had to test it, this meant writing a set of test vectors (inputs and expected outputs) which could test the chip for any faults.

D2 was tough, but the main highlight of 2nd year at Southampton was the main group project D4.  D4 is a fairly crazy 3 weeks of designing, implementing and presenting, and a traditional part of second year at Southampton for electronics.  D4 is going to need its own write up to do it justice, but in summary we had to build some kind of musical "thing", ideally used by a street performer - meaning it needed to be portable, have built-in amplification and the possibility of being battery powered.  There was a whole range of projects from different people but ours was essentially a (computer) keyboard operated synthesiser, all processing done by a Raspberry Pi.

After D4 it wasn't long before summer exams, which were all fine and there weren't too many surprises.  Generally, I find focussing on exams uninspiring, although it forces you to properly understand all the material you've neglected.  For me, there was a fairly big chunk of knowledge missing where lectures had been going parallel to the group projects.

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