Ready, FIRE! Aim – A Magnetic Origin Story

Ready, FIRE! Aim – A Magnetic Origin Story

Sometimes the path to success isn’t as direct as we would like.  I was fortunate to have worked at a startup that proliferated and went public in the early 90s.  With a bit of cash in hand, my buddy Dave and I decided to strike out on our own to see what products we could make by ourselves.  After a few small projects, we landed a project to design a check reader (a machine that reads the funny-looking characters on the bottom of the check) to speed up check authorizations in supermarket checkout lines.   

Dave and I worked from 9 AM every day to well past midnight, and after several months we had a completed prototype.  We just had to turn it on.  At first, as the oscilloscope came to life with a beautiful clear signal indicating we had managed to get a signal from the magnetic read head, we were elated.  But then it dawned on us: the signal was a bit “TOO” nice. Magnetic characters each have their own unique signature, but we saw a pure sine wave.  As I stared at the machine, wondering where the signal was coming from, I suddenly realized that the read head (sensitive to faint magnetic fields) was right next to the drive motor (which works thanks to vast magnetic fields).  So that was less than ideal.  Necessity being the mother of invention, and a bit of adrenaline thinking about what I was going to say to the customer in the morning, I wondered if the signal from the motor was consistent enough that I could isolate it and subtract it from the output.  Long story short, it was, I could, and I did.  Now, all we saw was the signal from the magnetic characters.  We added some magnetic shielding for good measure, and disaster was averted.  

Product development is a bit like driving in heavy fog.  At the start, you have a rough idea of the direction and an idea in your head of the things you are likely to encounter along the way. As you go, you find something along the way that can alter your planned route: Road construction, maybe a missed exit, a roadside attraction, and so on.  In much the same way, the design of a product doesn’t come into existence as a complete package but evolves as you test assumptions, try different approaches, and inevitably run into situations you didn’t predict.  

In the days since the check reader, several design projects have come and gone, and my working career touched on projects ranging from point-of-sale terminals to printers.  In 2005, I wrapped up my first career in firmware, went back to school to complete my degree in engineering, and my partner and I moved to Canada to start a new life. For the last 15 years, I’ve been focused on low-noise hydrophone preamps and signal processing.  But I can trace my interest in signal processing techniques back to that evening in a basement in Dutch Flat, California and the moment when signal processing saved my career and, indeed, defined it.  

Jay Abel, Product Development Team Lead for Sensor Technology Ltd 


Jay’s Bio:  

Leading our Product Development Team, Jay Abel brings 35 years of product development experience ranging from firmware and electronics to design for manufacturing. Jay joined Sensor Technology after 12 years of designing digital hydrophones and related products and helped to transform a consulting engineering company into a full-service manufacturing company with several product lines. After working alongside our engineering department to understand our existing products and designs, Jay will serve as Product Development Team Lead, providing technical leadership for an expanded offering of standard, semi-custom, and OEM products.  



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