The Integrated Designer

Magaly Sandoval-Pichardo’s vast range of experience lets her make the smallest circuits

2 min read
A woman in a red turtleneck and black blazer smiles at the camera.
Chad Neidigh

Creating integrated circuits requires a mind capable of juggling extremes of scale. On the one hand, you’re pushing electrons through components with dimensions measured in nanometers. On the other hand, there can be billions of these components on a single chip, interconnected with staggering complexity. Magaly Sandoval-Pichardo has just such a mind.

“I grew up in Costa Rica, was always drawn to science and math, and have always been very competitive,” Sandoval-Pichardo says. “In college—the Costa Rica Institute of Technology—I signed up for what at the time was the hardest engineering degree in my country to get into—mechatronics. I was one of the first two women in Costa Rica to hold this engineering degree.” She received it in 2015. While at college, one of her first experiences as a project manager was volunteering on the first satellite to be made in Costa Rica, which launched in 2018.

But following two internships, Sandoval-Pichardo realized that she “wasn’t into the mechanical side—I liked the electronics. Also, although my background is in large-scale automation, my passion is on the smaller—nanometer—size.” Subsequently, Sandoval-Pichardo landed a job at Intel, where she started as a SoC (system-on-a-chip) design engineer. “I helped close several ‘tape-outs’—bringing a chip from design through to manufacturing. So almost anybody using an Intel server is working with products I helped create.”

In 2021, Sandoval-Pichardo went to Synopsys, as senior analog and mixed-signal circuit design engineer and project manager. “We do EDA—electronic design automation," she says. “My team makes the rules and processes to be followed by every relevant part of a chip design from concept to manufacturing rules. And I also develop automation methodologies for circuit designers.”

In addition, Sandoval-Pichardo says, “I am working on a two-year master’s of science in engineering management degree at Tufts University, in Somerville, Mass., to add leadership skills to my toolbox. I’m a committed advocate for underrepresented minorities, including as a member of several DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) boards and as a volunteer. I dedicate an hour a week to watching programming videos on YouTube to keep current. And I’m a competitive extreme sports skydiver.”

“I have learned that I tend to perform better in dynamic roles where change is the norm—that’s very aligned to my diagnosis with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder),” she says. Last year she penned the online essay “Being an Engineer With ADHD.” Her variety of interests has also helped in other ways: “The first time I got asked about scripting in a job interview, I talked about how I played a lot of World of Warcraft, and how that taught me to identify repetitive sequences of events—attacks, usually—and generate my own single-keystroke macros,” Sandoval-Pichardo recalls. “It turned out that my interviewer also played World of Warcraft. I'm pretty sure my answer helped me get the job!”

Sandoval-Pichardo's general career advice is that “becoming and being an engineer is more about creating good study habits, and practicing—putting the effort in, rather than being supersmart or really good at STEM projects.”

In her specialty,using transistor-placement algorithms in chip designs, she says, “you need more than a programming background. You have to understand the physics behind it, like heat transfer, speed-of-light concerns, and interference. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know something—that’s the quickest way to learn. Good engineers give good answers, exceptional engineers make good questions.”

This article appears in the April 2022 print issue as “Magaly Sandoval-Pichardo.”

The Conversation (1)
Ashok Deobhakta19 Apr, 2022

Very encouraging!

The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.