Arduino – Friend or Foe?

It’s been a quiet week. Nothing of note has really happened. People are starting their Ski holidays and all our service technicians are in house – nothing is going wrong.

Then one of them came for a chat. Unusual. The Engineer is not known for engaging in chit chat.

“I’ve been playing with Arduino in my spare time”, says the service tech. “I’d like some help”. The chap in question is capable, but not technical to that degree. The Engineer was impressed that he wanted to learn. Help was gladly given.

A few days later, there was an issue with a machine on site. The same technician had found the interface to that machine to be different than expected. He had taken it upon himself to bodge an interface adapter with an Arduino, but hadn’t quite understood what he was doing.

The Engineer had a private face palm moment. Had this been a problem of The Engineer’s own making? Is Arduino a good or bad thing?

For those of you who that don’t have a background in electronics, Arduino is an open source hardware and software platform, most often characterised by a collection of modules which can be plugged together, with good software libraries and easy to use IDE.

Its simplicity allows making of devices with relatively little background knowledge and is therefore popular for prototyping, proof of concept and especially with hobbyists and the maker community.

But is this a good thing? Outwardly yes, of course. Not only does this bring more people towards engineering, it unleashes creativity and innovation, and brings practical experience to those, including students, who may not otherwise get the opportunity. Just look on Youtube or search Google for the evidence. There are some impressive creations out there, and all the big IC manufacturers now supply Arduino compatible modules.

But does The Engineer’s experience with his colleague hint at a downside? Perhaps. You see, professionals learn through experience and education how to design from the ground up, with deep knowledge of the inner workings of hardware, software and systems.

But now we’re saying “we’ve done most of the hard work for you, off you go”. The deep learning and understanding is no longer there. Are we then breeding a generation who can plug things together but have no real understanding?

Are we also convincing people they are capable of things they simple are not? There’s an old saying, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so expertly demonstrated by The Engineer’s service technician.

In industry such devices are finding a home – they are quick and easy to make and program, particularly ideal to one off kit needed on production line test fixtures and the like, and very cheap. The Engineer is not against such devices at all but with convenience comes the temptation to laziness and sloppy engineering.

Occasionally then, maybe we should do things “the hard way”, if only not to dull our expertise.


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