Emma McFadden | Soldering Pro Tips, & How CPAP Machines Work

 In Being an Engineer Podcast


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Who is Emma McFadden?

Emma McFadden is a senior engineering technician at a large medical device company in their Sleep Therapy new product development group. Emma holds an associate’s degree in electronics engineering technology, a bachelor’s degree in technical management, and a master’s degree in project management.

In this episode Emma shares with us how engineers can most effectively work with technicians by employing an “elbow to elbow” strategy. She also provides insight into how engineers can improve product development outcomes by gathering information from the technicians, who are generally the “front line workers” interfacing directly with the technology as it is being developed.

Aaron Moncur, host


Presenter  00:00

Hi, everyone, we’ve set up this being an engineer podcast as an industry knowledge repository, if you will, we hope it’ll be a tool where engineers can learn about and connect with other companies, technologies, people, resources and opportunities. So make some connections and enjoy the show.


Emma McFadden  00:18

We’re we’re kind of like an extension of your skills or like your hands. I mean, treat us like that that were important because if we all work together synergistically, we would be so much more efficient and get so much more done.


Aaron Moncur  00:48

Hello, and welcome to another episode of The being an engineer Podcast. Today we’re speaking with Emma McFadden, who is a senior engineering technician at Philips in their sleep therapy, new product development group. And holds an associate’s degree in electronics engineering technology, a bachelor’s degree in technical management and a master’s degree in project management. Emma, thank you so much for joining us today.


Emma McFadden  01:13

Thank you for having me.


Aaron Moncur  01:15

All right. Well, what made you decide to go into the engineering and technology space in the first place?


Emma McFadden  01:21

Well, um, I remember when I was a child watching my dad, like, tear my toys apart to fix them. And I started tearing my toys apart, because I was curious what was inside. And I used to watch this show called Mr. Wasn’t world. And he was always making things like electromagnets and stuff like that. So I was like, seven when I built my first electromagnet. And then I saw an episode where he built a simple DC motor, so I built one. Oh, wow.


Aaron Moncur  01:55

It’s such a young age. That’s awesome. Yeah.


Emma McFadden  01:59

And my dad used to buy me these kits from RadioShack that you could build different circuits on. So I mean, I’ve always been playing around with electronics, and I always loved science. One, when I was a child, I could probably pick up a rock and tell you if it was igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary. Just a nerd.


Aaron Moncur  02:18

That’s just way over my head already.


Emma McFadden  02:22

But But yeah, I love science and technology.


Aaron Moncur  02:25

That’s awesome. Very cool. So this was just a passion from a very young age.


Emma McFadden  02:29

Yeah. Yep. As far as I remember,


Aaron Moncur  02:32

walk us through a day in the life of a technician. I mean, what are some of the common activities that you fill your days with?


Emma McFadden  02:40

So I normally get in early in the morning between four and 5am. Were at work, we kind of flex time. And I work in Pittsburgh and live north of Pittsburgh, so the traffic kind of sucks. So if I get in early, get out early, then I’m good. But I go and check my emails. If an engineer needs a test set up or something run or something soldered or built or modified, then usually I tried to have it finished before they even get in the office. And through today, engineers will come down to the lab or labs on the fourth floor and miss the engineers are on like the fifth sixth and eighth floor. And you know, the house something that needs modified or build or whatever. And I’ll build it for him, then I’ll take it up to him or they can come get it. And that’s pretty much how it goes.


Aaron Moncur  03:36

Cool. Okay. I’m curious about the separation of technicians on one floor and engineers on another floor. And is that is that efficient? Or would it be better if you were all on the same floor?


Emma McFadden  03:50

Well, I think it would be better. But they built us this big new building in East East liberty, which is part of Pittsburgh, and it’s kind of stacked nine storeys. And it’s just logistics, they


Aaron Moncur  04:05

just it is what it is. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Okay. Well, in your experience, what are one or two ways in which you’ve seen engineers not working as effectively as possible with technicians?


Emma McFadden  04:21

Well, the biggest thing is, since COVID, we have this working from home thing, and technicians are almost always in the office. And a lot of engineers work from home. And sometimes it’s difficult to get the proper communication, or you have engineers that they don’t want to have to come in the office. So that kind of makes it hard for us technicians. But that’s pretty much the biggest challenge and well, another challenge is people just don’t communicate, don’t always share knowledge. And if there was more of that, we would be so much better.


Aaron Moncur  04:59

It Interesting. So engineers don’t want to come into the office, which I mean, I kind of get right like this whole work from home thing people enjoy that. I have I have thoughts on that as well I, from my perspective, we should always work wherever we’re most productive. In fact, core value number two here, pipeline is governed by productivity, not bureaucracy. So work wherever you’re most productive. But to your point, it sounds like a lot of the time, or at least sometimes the most productive place for the engineer to work would be on site. So the two of you can communicate back and forth effectively. But what’s the roadblock there? Is it just, I hate to say it this way, but engineers being lazy, or are there other factors that come into play? Do you think?


Emma McFadden  05:46

Well, I can’t say that they’re lazy. I mean, where I work, we’re a medical device company. So they get stuck in a lot of meetings and doing a lot of documentation. So I can understand them wanting to work from home. But, but in my experience, and I’ve been doing this since 1999. The best things, the best solutions we came up with is when we were when we were working elbow to elbow. Like I got my name one, two pattens with a bunch of engineers and like we were all working together really good synergy. It was great. I missed that so much. But but with them working from home, we just don’t have that anymore.


Aaron Moncur  06:31

Hmm. And is this a topic of conversation where you work? Or? I don’t know, do people just kind of sweep it under the rug and not talk about it?


Emma McFadden  06:41

I think a little both happen. Like with technicians. We all know that. And sometimes we feel abused, because engineers kind of take advantage of us being in the office and them not. And, and I think management to some degree recognizing recognizes that. However, the it’s the world has changed since COVID. And that’s kind of the norm now. And I don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward.


Aaron Moncur  07:09

Huh? Yeah. Well, that’s frustrating, I imagine.


Emma McFadden  07:13

Yeah, a little bit. Yeah.


Aaron Moncur  07:16

You also mentioned just general communication. Can you think of ways that engineers and technicians can communicate better? I mean, we’ve talked about being like elbow to elbow, as you put it, right, which is really good way to put it. Beyond that, are there other things that technicians and engineers can do to foster better communication?


Emma McFadden  07:36

Well, um, I think some things have been tried, but it still boils down to we need to be face to face. I mean, that’s just, that’s reality. We need to be working elbow to elbow I need to be if they’re upstairs in their cube, I need to be able to go up and ask them not send them an email and wait for a response. Hmm,


Aaron Moncur  07:58

how about web meetings, like teams or zoom? Or can those be effective working between soldiers and technicians?


Emma McFadden  08:06

So we use teams, and sometimes people aren’t very good at responding to messages and teams, and we have a lot of teams meetings. But, but once again, you’re kind of dependent on that engineer looking for that paying on the teams. Mm hmm.


Aaron Moncur  08:25

So if you’re pinging an engineer, and and they don’t see it, then, you know, the work doesn’t get done.


Emma McFadden  08:34

Right. Right. And I mean, they are always in meetings. So I get that. And I hope I don’t sound negative toward engineers, because I have a lot of respect. They work very hard. Least where I work. But yeah, I would never want a discount.


Aaron Moncur  08:51

Yeah, no, thank you for saying that. I can understand the frustration that like you’re trying to get something done and engineers or they’re in meetings or wherever, not able to respond, and you can’t just walk up there and talk to one of them. So I guess you just have to make your best guess or wait. That’s what it comes down to?


Emma McFadden  09:12

A lot of patients.


Aaron Moncur  09:15

Yeah. All right. Well, let’s see. In addition to your your bachelor’s degree, you also obtained a master’s degree in project management, no small feat. Congratulations on that. What are a few of the most important skills that you acquired with that degree and how have you How have you been able to use those at work?


Emma McFadden  09:35

Um, well, the skills I obtained the biggest one was motional intelligence. Are you familiar with that?


Aaron Moncur  09:42

I am, yeah, EQ, right. Yes. referred to.


Emma McFadden  09:45

Yes. So understanding my emotions, understanding how I react and act affects other people has has been super valuable. And that in and of itself has made me able to be a But or technician, and then the the leadership side of it, you know, taking initiative or just being consistent having integrity. Like, I remember one of my professors saying that people tend to follow somebody lead who acts and is how they aspire to be. So instead of be that type of person, then that makes me a better employee all around.


Aaron Moncur  10:28

Yeah, for sure. Can you think of? And if you can’t, it’s fine. I’m kind of putting you on the spot here. Can you think of a particular situation in which this heightened sense of EQ of emotional intelligence really helps you solve a problem or resolve some conflict at work?


Emma McFadden  10:46

Well, I’ve worked with a nother technician who’s easily excitable, and he’s a Marine, or he was a Marine. And it’s just his personality. But he’s a little rough around that just so understanding that helps me to control my emotions and have a much smoother working relationship with him. Does that answer your question?


Aaron Moncur  11:09

Yeah. So what’s the thought process like something happens? And maybe it could be taken, you know, multiple ways. You could just react and be upset or fireback and insult maybe or something like that? What’s the thought process that goes on? In your head in those situations?


Emma McFadden  11:25

Well, I have to be mindful of how I feel and think about, you know, how this is impacting me. And then I have to make a choice of how I’m going to react, think about how it’s going to affect him, and then react to them or not react or take whatever actions,


Aaron Moncur  11:42

right, yeah. Let’s see. Moving on to kind of a another topic here, you have tons of experience soldering PCBs. And for those who have done this occasionally, and maybe we want to improve there, are there any, it’s probably tough to describe, like over a call without being elbow to elbow right actually showing, but are there any any pro tips that, that you can share with those of us who maybe want to get better at this skill.


Emma McFadden  12:10

So if, for example, you’re gone, us going to solder a processor, it’s four sided, has 128 pins, it’s about an inch by inch square. The best, the best trick is to tack one of the pins down and then move to one of the other sides, put a bunch of flux on it. And the flux will help to keep the solder from bridging. But you just get a really fun, small bead of solder on the tip of your iron and kind of just make sure you’re holding the chip down with your finger a pair of tweezers or something and just slide it down. And you might have to do it a couple times. But it’ll it’ll flow so nicely, as long as you have enough flux. And then you just kind of glide the tip down away from the chip. If you do have bridges and usually the solder enough of it six to the tip that it gets through the bridges or not 70.


Aaron Moncur  13:06

Nice. So this solder one leg down on one side and then move to the opposite side and start working. Right. Yeah. Kind of like putting a tire on a car. Yeah, kinda. Yeah. Cool. Okay, and the other pro tips you can think of?


Emma McFadden  13:23

Well, troubleshooting, that’s like finding a short. Is it okay, if I kind of move into troubleshooting? Because absolutely, yeah, please say you have like a 3.3 volt line on, you know, whole line in the circuit. And it’s shorted. So shorts are very difficult to find. So I learned I figured out a trick and I got laughed at when I told other technicians, so I proved to them that it work. So if you saw her a lead on the that line and what it shorts, which is usually ground, and you hook to Digital Multimeter leads to those leads that you soldered on, and you turn to ohms. And you take the whole board and drench it in isopropyl alcohol, and then you take a heat pencil and you turn the flow way down. And if you move it over the board, when you get to where to short is it’ll change the resistance, maybe not a lot. Sometimes that doesn’t always work. So if you put it to like where it’s measuring millivolts you might get a voltage because there’s a Seebeck effect. Are you familiar? The Seebeck effect? I’m not know you’ve heard thermocouples, right? Yes. So that’s that’s how it works. Don’t ask me to physics because I don’t know but but when you heat the dissimilar metals, the junction they create a voltage.


Aaron Moncur  14:42

Interesting. Okay. Very cool. Well, I can tell you’ve done this a lot. Yeah, yeah. As as you work through some of these troubleshooting steps. Have you ever identified patterns that patterns of problem Those mistakes, design flaws, maybe manufacturing flaws that could have been anticipated during the design phase. And then now that you’re kind of aware of these patterns could be communicated to the engineering team so that these don’t occur in the future?


Emma McFadden  15:18

Well, I can’t say it’s necessarily because of the design phase and stop me, this isn’t answering your question properly. But I remember we are developing a product and the engineers, the software engineers kept coming back with blown processors. And they were 128 pin processors, and they’re kind of a pain in the butt to replace. And it was something simple. They weren’t following ESD. And they were frying the chips from simple yesterday. So So that’s like a big thing. design that you got to follow yesterday.


Aaron Moncur  15:54

Yeah. And ESD electrostatic discharge, what else? Can you say about that? Like, how do you prevent that from happening in the first place?


Emma McFadden  16:03

Um, well, grounds your wrist with a wrist strap. Use a ESD surface, that’s dissipative. And if you’re removing the board from one area to another, make sure it’s in the ESD bag. I mean, it’s pretty simple.


Aaron Moncur  16:19

Follow some best practices. How would you know if one of these chips has had been fried?


Emma McFadden  16:27

Well, a lot of times, the board just doesn’t work or beeps, or there’s no display or they just can’t talk to with their I think they’re called emulators or whatever. And, yeah, it’s pretty easy.


Aaron Moncur  16:43

Got it. Okay. So if you’re, if nothing shows up on the screen, if you don’t get communications, one of the things that you could explore right off the bat is whether this chip has been fried,


Emma McFadden  16:55

right? And sometimes as simple as the chip gets really hot.


Aaron Moncur  16:59

All right, well, I’ll take a very quick break here and share with the listeners that Team pipeline.us is where you can learn more about how we help medical device and other product engineering or manufacturing teams, develop turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines to characterize, inspect, assemble, manufacture and perform verification testing on your devices. And today, we’re speaking with Emma McFadden. So Emma, one of your responsibilities at work has been to support technologies that are associated with sleep disorders, can you share a little bit about the root cause of these sleep disorders? And then we can talk a little bit about the the technology that has been developed to resolve them?


Emma McFadden  17:45

Well, I’m, I’m not an expert on the matter of sleep disorders, however, I will share with you what I do know. So there’s obstructive sleep apnea, where when a person sleeps usually on their back there, their muscles relaxed in their throat. And when that happens, their throat collapses, or at least partially, and that’s part of the reason they snore. And they have sleep apnea is because their third shot. So one of our devices, probably the original CPAP. The idea was, if you pressurize the person’s airwave airway, it acts almost like an air mattress and hold it up. And so then they can breathe. And our devices can actually, we have different, different versions of devices, but our more advanced devices can pick up on when the patient’s snores, and change the pressure till they stop snoring. And interesting.


Aaron Moncur  18:43

So as you’re asleep, is your airway pressurized the entire time?


Emma McFadden  18:49

Um, yes, yes. Like on a on our more advanced devices that measure snores they can, the respiratory therapists can start it out at like a lower pressure, like maybe four centimeters of water. And if they start to snore, it’ll gradually raise the pressure until they stop snoring.


Aaron Moncur  19:09

Interesting. Okay, so I have not understood how these machines work this whole time. I’ve never used one. But I assumed that I don’t know every couple of seconds, it would. It would force a breath of air down into your lungs, you know, there would be almost like a puff. But but it’s actually pressurized the whole time.


Emma McFadden  19:32

Yes. Well, the device I was previously talking about was a CPAP. Now we have bilevel devices or BiPAP. And you have IPOP an epoch IPOB was when patients and Helling epoch is when they’re exhaling. So you have modes that it can sense when you start to inhale and it will raise the pressure. And then when you start to exhale, it lowers it back to whatever the EPAP pressure set. Those Those are more often than not used to treat patients with central sleep apnea, which is where your brain has trouble regulating your breathing. And those when they’re used for that they have a spontaneous mode where if it doesn’t sense a breath for a certain period of time, it’ll do a IPOP to try to get a patient that do an inhale, and then an E.


Aaron Moncur  20:22

I see. But what does pap stand for?


Emma McFadden  20:25

Positive Airway Pressure?


Aaron Moncur  20:27

What are a few of the biggest, like technical challenges that that your team within the new product development group has had to overcome to bring these devices to market?


Emma McFadden  20:41

That’s that one? I’m not sure I have an answer for me think about that. I did look at these questions and think about them. Oh, God, you know, relying on manufacturers that manufacture components, that’s, that’s a big one, like, and I do a lot of power supply testing. And we will send the vendor, you know, our test procedures that we do, and they’re supposed to run the tests on them. But we get them and they don’t pass our tests. And I’ll give you an example of one, it’s called her back EMF testing. So when the blower speeds up, like if you’re inhaling or whatever, and it slows down, well, the software slows down and it has all that energy, so it dumps it on the V bus to which causes a voltage spike on V bus. And when you have a switching power supply, you have a circuit inside it’s monitoring the output and controlling how the pulse width of the pulse width modulator. And it takes a certain amount of time for it to adjust. So when when the splitter slowing down, it dumps all that voltage on to V boss, or V ball. And the power supply circuit sees that, then the powers the circuit, like shortens the pulse width. And if it doesn’t recover quick enough if the voltage can drop below a certain threshold and causes a voice to shut down. So so that’s one of the tests that I have to do it like if I if I took a CPAP and hooked it to a programmable power supply, it’ll probably go in the air. Because of that, hmm,


Aaron Moncur  22:28

the prototypes that you work with, do they resemble closely the final product? Or are these like very different, you know, like benchtop style r&d prototypes?


Emma McFadden  22:39

So the prototypes? I mean, I start, I’m working with engineers, when they’re designing the individual circuits at the very beginning of the hallway to the point that we’re ready to do engineering builds, and pilot builds. The funny thing is, they usually know what the device is going to look like before the internals are made.


Aaron Moncur  23:01

Certain for the cosmetic exterior. Yeah. So yeah, the poor


Emma McFadden  23:05

engineers have to work around that, which is a challenge.


Aaron Moncur  23:09

I bet. Yeah. Let’s see, what what’s a tool that doesn’t exist, but if it did, would make your job way easier, you know, faster, more efficient, higher quality, etcetera,


Emma McFadden  23:25

something that makes it easier to find shorts, because if you’ve ever troubleshot it’s really difficult to find the shorts. So interesting. That that’s the big one.


Aaron Moncur  23:36

Yeah. Okay. All right. And let’s see just one or two more questions here. And we’ll, we’ll, we’ll wrap things up. Specifically within the context of your role as an engineering technician, what is one thing that frustrates you? And one thing that brings you joy?


Emma McFadden  23:52

So a big thing that frustrates me is sometimes engineers and managers don’t listen to technicians. And the engineers and technicians see the world from different angles, like, in my opinion, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, but engineers see it more of a theoretical standpoint or a mathematical where technicians we see it more as a hands on what I can see with my eyes, what I can measure with a meter. And I think if if there was a mutual level of respect, and listening, we could be so much better of a team. But I’ve been in situations where I couldn’t get engineers to listen to me and managers and actually, one time had to trick an engineer to get him to listen to me and my work.


Aaron Moncur  24:45

That’s awesome.


Emma McFadden  24:46

Which is what I got to Patton’s on Oh, wow. I wasn’t one of the inventors on a two patents,


Aaron Moncur  24:54

which is also really kind of sad, right? I mean, here you are hands on like first hand experience. As with the technology, right? And an engineer won’t listen to you, when you say, Hey, here’s a problem. And here maybe a couple ideas for how to solve it. That’s that’s got to be super frustrating and hugely inefficient. As far as the work goes.


Emma McFadden  25:15

I agree. I, there used to be an engineer that work with us, he went to school to be a physicist, but his title was electrical engineer. And I was the only technician me and one other when I wasn’t available that he wanted to work with. But I remember being at our RF lab like him trying to figure out a way to get noise down a specific frequency, and he would actually listen to my ideas. And some of the times they helped him at least get closer to where he needed to go. And I miss working with him.


Aaron Moncur  25:49

Yeah, well, why do you think that discrepancy exists? Like, where does this chasm come from? Where engineers won’t listen to technicians?


Emma McFadden  25:59

Well, to be honest, there were a lot of for profit schools that put out a lot of bad technicians. And I’m pretty sure that’s why it’s like that.


Aaron Moncur  26:10

Interesting, huh. So at some point, there was maybe this legitimate reason to not trust what your technician was saying, in some areas, maybe. Right. Do you think that has largely changed?


Emma McFadden  26:24

Ah, not really. No.


Aaron Moncur  26:27

And conversely, you know, there, there certainly engineers out there that aren’t the greatest either, like they have their degree, they’re a piece of paper, but they don’t, they don’t really know what they’re doing. Right. That’s it. It works on both both sides. I think


Emma McFadden  26:41

I agree. I agree.


Aaron Moncur  26:44

All right. Well, Emma, thank you so much for spending some time with me today. Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you think would be interesting or useful, especially for engineers to hear about, like how to work really well, with technicians?


Emma McFadden  26:59

Um, well, we’re, we’re kind of like an extension of your skills or like your hands, I guess you could say No way. So I mean, treat us treat us like that, that were important. Because if we all work together, synergistically, we would be so much more efficient and get so much more done, and probably be happier, too. Man,


Aaron Moncur  27:22

I hear you, I hear you. And I wish there was something more that I could do. I’m 100% in your camp. And I think that technicians and engineers should be working very closely. We have a couple of technicians here at pipeline, and they’re, they’re constantly back and forth, you know, technician will come and pull the engineer out of his seat. And hey, come back and take a look at this with me. And they’ll go look at it together. And they’ll brainstorm and figure something out. And I just, I can’t even imagine not having a strong relationship between your technicians and your engineers. It just seems wildly inefficient. And to your point, not a very joyful environment in which to work.


Emma McFadden  28:04

For for the most part, there are some engineers that I work with that actually started out as technicians and then went back to school, and there are some of the best engineers I’ve ever worked with.


Aaron Moncur  28:14

I have no doubt. Yeah, they have the hands on experience. Right. And the engineering know how that’s a potent combination, for sure. Very, very much. Well, Emma, thank you again, so much for spending some time with me today. How can people get a hold of you?


Emma McFadden  28:32

I’m on LinkedIn, so you could look me up on there. That’s probably the best way. I always check it regularly.


Aaron Moncur  28:40

Okay, excellent. Well, thank you so much again, ama for being on the show with me today.


Emma McFadden  28:44

No problem. Glad to be here.


Aaron Moncur  28:49

I’m Aaron Moncur, founder of pipeline design and engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please share the episode. To learn how your team can leverage our team’s expertise developing turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines and with product design, visit us at Team pipeline.us. Thanks for listening


About Being An Engineer

The Being An Engineer podcast is a repository for industry knowledge and a tool through which engineers learn about and connect with relevant companies, technologies, people resources, and opportunities. We feature successful mechanical engineers and interview engineers who are passionate about their work and who made a great impact on the engineering community.

The Being An Engineer podcast is brought to you by Pipeline Design & Engineering. Pipeline partners with medical & other device engineering teams who need turnkey equipment such as cycle test machines, custom test fixtures, automation equipment, assembly jigs, inspection stations and more. You can find us on the web at www.teampipeline.us


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