Terminology Guide

Hardware Engineering

Engineering encompasses a wide variety of specialties, each with its own language that is often extremely specific and technical. We have created this guide to touch upon the most important areas of engineering that relate to hardware systems, in hopes of helping you to develop a core understanding of the subject.

  • A4WP (Alliance for Wireless Power, now Airfuel Alliance)

    An organization promoting a protocol that uses magnetic resonance to provide wireless power.

  • AC vs. DC (Alternating Current), (Direct Current)

    An alternating current’s direction changes constantly, while a DC current’s direction always stays the same. AC can be readily changed from one voltage to another via a transformer. Higher voltages are used in transmission to reduce losses, and then lower voltages are delivered to the home (such as appliances and small electronics). AC is most convenient because it can be readily transformed from higher voltages to safer lower voltages in equipment and consumer appliances. Electronics typically require DC (like what a battery applies), and so an AC to DC converter is found in virtually all appliances.

  • Accelerometers

    A device used to measure acceleration.

  • Accuracy vs. Precision

    Two quality assurance criteria. Accuracy refers to how close a measurement is to the true value. Precision is how consistent results are when measurements are repeated.

  • Actives

    Components of electrical systems that can manipulate the voltages or current flowing through them.

  • Actuator

    Devices that use air, liquid, electricity, or heat (varying forms of energy) to create motion.

  • Alpha Testing

    When other personnel within a company are used to test unreleased software with the expectation that they find and report bugs in the software. In some firms, this is synonymous with Engineering Verification.

  • Altimeter

    A device used to measure altitude.

  • Amplifier

    An electrical device used to increase the intensity of a current or voltage.

  • ANT

    A proprietary technology used to transmit data packets within the 2.4 GHz ISM Band. It is used in sensors such as Fitbit and Garmin activity trackers.

  • API (Application Programming Interface)

    A published software portal/interface and protocol that, when followed, allows two different systems to speak to one another.

  • ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Current)

    A silicon chip made for a specific purpose —to efficiently perform a repeated function. For example, an ASIC related to machine learning would help a robot to repeatedly run critical algorithms that help the machine execute new tasks with best efficiency and accuracy.

  • Asynchronous vs. Synchronous

    This term has special meaning in software systems vs hardware systems. In software applications such as a web page, these terms are often related to communication between the client (such as a browser) and the server. Synchronous operations must be completed before the process can continue. Asynchronous operations can be completed while the page continues to load. Asynchronous processes are more challenging to work with because messages may fail to be delivered or become delayed due to buffering.

  • Beta Testing

    Another layer of Engineering Verification. It is often used to deliver a new product or feature to customers at an early stage, without the promise that the software is fully functional or bug-free.

  • BJT (Bipolar Junction Transistor)

    A common transistor type that uses both hole and electron charge carriers.

  • BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy)

    Has a range similar to conventional Bluetooth technology, but it requires less power. When devices run on BLE, applications can run a lot longer on a smaller battery.

  • Bluetooth

    Bluetooth technology is a wireless network that uses radio waves to transmit digital audio and data between devices. This is what allows you to wirelessly connect an earpiece to a smartphone.

  • Board

    A short reference to a circuit board or PCB or PCBA. This component is a material that allows for the connection of components within electrical equipment. It is the foundation for electrical activity within devices (e.g. computers, televisions, and video game systems).

  • CAD, CAE, MCAD (variants on Computer-Aided Design)

    In mechanical, structural, and electrical engineering contexts, CAD is a computer-assisted drafting environment that uses shape-based parameters to create functional and realistic models of design. The models can be used for simulations and provide useful outputs to facilitate an objects actual construction.

  • Capacitor

    Stores energy; used in stabilizing power supplies and analog circuit functions.

  • Cellular Protocols

    Technologies that allow wireless transmission of voice and data. Long-Term Evolution (LTE) enabled cellular carriers to move large packets of data at one time, compared to the small packets moved by its predecessors (GSM and CDMA).

  • Circuits

    A system of connected electrical components through which electrical current can flow.

  • Closed Loop Control

    A control system that allows a process variable to be regulated through feedback from the system itself. In contrast to an open loop control system, closed loop control does not require manual input from a person to regulate the system. Closed loop control systems are an important part of automation in many industries.

  • CM (Contract Manufacturer)

    A manufacturer that constructs assemblies of parts or complete products on a contractual basis.

  • CNC (Computer Numerical Control)

    The process by which computers control machine tools in the manufacturing sector. A customizable software program is used to receive inputs from the machine and control its motion and positioning to a high level of precision.

  • Compliance

    When a product is in compliance, it meets the regulations or standards of a regulatory or standards body. This principle is commonly used in medical, energy, communications, manufacturing, and industry-related work, where compliance helps ensure safety, security, and quality.

  • Conductor

    A material that carries an electrical current. Typically, conductors are made from metal and used to move electricity from the battery’s electrode to its terminal. For example, copper wire is used to carry current from a power source to a device. A circuit board conducts electricity between various components on metal tracks made of copper

  • Converter

    This is how power transfers from a higher voltage AC energy source to an everyday consumer electrical object we use.

  • CPU (Central Processing Unit)

    Manages logical operations and the flow of data within a computer. Sometimes just called “processor.” CPUs process instructions and are responsible for running operating systems and applications running on the computer.

  • Current (Amps)

    A current is an electric charge in motion. It is analogous to water flow in a hose. For example, in an incandescent light bulb, electrons flow through the copper wiring (the conductor) to the tungsten filament. The filament both conducts and partially resists the current heating it up and lighting the bulb. An Amp (short for Amperes) is the unit of measurement for current.

  • Design Control

    A formal methodology for product development. In certain regulated industries, a formally written design methodology is required. Elements of design control include development planning, design verification/validation, and thorough documentation of the design process & results.

  • Design Review

    A checkpoint to verify whether a product is meeting the stated design requirements. It can help bring attention to early problems in the product development process.

  • Design Validation

    Testing that occurs towards the end of the design phase but before any beta or meta testing. Much like a design review, it ensures that problems are caught before initial release or early outside testing.

  • DFM (Design for Manufacturability)

    The process of designing a product so that it is easier to manufacture. For instance, designers try to simplify the physical form of the product, the raw materials used, and the processing techniques involved. They then verify the consistency and tolerances of the design make for a product that can be constructed by the particular factories employed. 

  • Diodes

    An electrical component that passes current readily in one direction only.

  • Dogfooding

    Giving unfinished software to other engineers for a quick testing before releasing it to be tested by a wider audience.

  • Electrical Engineer (EE)

    A professional who designs, builds, and tests equipment that uses electricity. This can include anything as small as a portable music player and range to something as complex as a navigation system.

  • Encryption

    In computing, encryption is a process by which data (such as plain text) is scrambled using an algorithm. Only authorized users with a decryption key can decode the message. Encryption is used to protect sensitive information being sent between the user’s browser and a web server, such as passwords or account information.

  • End of Life (EOL)

    This is a phase in the lifecycle of a product that represents its retirement. The product will no longer be supported, marketed, or produced by the company, often due to the technology becoming obsolete or to a decline in interest.

  • Engineering Change Order (ECO)

    A document used to express modifications of a product configuration or document. It establishes who would be impacted by the change and also seeks approval from this group.

  • EV (Evaluation Version)

    A product version that may or may not resemble the final product but tests out key concepts critical to the design.

  • Ferrite

    A material (made of iron oxide and other metals) that can absorb electromagnetic interference to and from a device as either a surface shield or a device in a conductors path to absorb unwanted high-frequency noise.

  • FET (Field-Effect Transistor)

    A three-terminal transistor that requires little input current to operate. Common variations include MOSFETs (Metal Oxide Semiconductor FieldEffect Transistor), [N, P]FETs ([n,p]-Channel Field-Effect Transistors), MESFETs (Metal (Schottky) Field-Effect Transistors), and JFETs (Junction Gate Field-Effect Transistors).

  • Firmware Engineer

    An engineer who creates software that provides low-level control of computer hardware.

  • FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array)

    A type of high-performance programmable logic that can be reprogrammed after manufacture.

  • Frequency (Hertz [Hz], KiloHertz [KHz], MegaHertz [MHz], GigaHertz [GHz], TeraHertz [THz])

    Frequency measures the number of times something occurs over a given interval. Hertz (Hz) is the measure of how many times something (typically cycles) happens within a second. For example, the vibration of sound waves is generally represented in KiloHertz (1,000 cycles per second). Hz, KHz, MHz, GHz are often used to measure both digital and analog frequency signals. A gigahertz (GHz) is equal to 1 billion cycles per second. It is common for microprocessors to reach this speed. On the other end of the spectrum, a TeraHertz (1 cycle per second) can be used to measure low-frequency radiation

  • Gage R&R (Repeatability and Reproducibility)

    A statistical tool that reveals the variability between measurements due to nuances of the device and the people operating it.

  • Gantry

    A bridgelike structure used to support or carry materials.

  • Geometric Tolerancing (GD&T)

    A system of universal symbols used to communicate engineering tolerances visually; it helps clearly define the accuracy and precision requirements for each part of the system.

  • Ground (Earth, Chassis, Digital, Analog)

    This is a common reference point and return path for electrical currents. Voltages can be safely measured from this point. The concept of grounding was created to prevent the possibility of electrocutions and dangerous work environments. In Earth grounding, the electrical system is connected to the Earth, which is neutral and can accept large amounts of electrical current. Chassis grounding connects electrical currents between electrical components or shield (or shunt) currents and Electro-magnetic fields. Digital and analog ground refer to localized ground connections specific to the respective digital and analog components of a system. Since analog electrical signals can be more sensitive, digital and analog grounds are often separate and only strategically connected.

  • GSM (Global Services for Mobile)

    One form of mobile phone technology, GSMs are used to divide mobile frequencies so that many users can place a call through a tower at the same time.

  • Guidance

    A subdiscipline of systems engineering that involves directing an object’s direction and velocity of travel as well as controlling rotation and acceleration during movement. Benefits include reducing turbulence and making movement more efficient.

  • Gyroscope

    A spinning disc that is a visual representation of the conservation of angular momentum – ”the tendency for the spin of a system to remain constant unless subjected to external torque.” A spinning bicycle wheel is an example of a gyroscope. Within devices, it is used to guide rotational movement.

  • Hardware Engineer

    A professional who is responsible for researching, testing, and developing the physical components of computer systems.

  • Hardware Engineering Stages – EV (Engineering Verification), DV (Design Verification), and PV (Process Verification

    Verification steps that occur during the hardware product development process.

  • Hydraulics

    The use of pressurized liquids to generate or control power in a mechanical system.

  • IC (Integrated Circuits)

    A series of tiny electrical circuits integrated onto a common semiconductor material, resulting in compact, cost-efficient circuits with fast performance.

  • IGBT (Insulated-Gate Bipolar Transistor)

    A transistor useful for fast and efficient switching of very high currents and voltages, often used in industrial motor controls.

  • IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit)

    A device used to guide aircraft, satellites, and other vehicles by calculating movement variables using accelerometers and gyroscopes.

  • Inductor

    A coil of wire wound around an iron core, linking electric currents and magnetic fields. Commonly used for sensors. Inductive sensors are used to detect traffic patterns and adjust the signal based on this analysis. Motors, transformers, and energy storage devices also take advantage of the inductor’s properties.

  • Industrial Design

    A creative discipline with the goal of solving real-world problems through a blend of art and design, technology, and science. Industrial design drives innovation through practical ideas and scientific processes by creating physical products that are user-friendly, manufacturable, and able to meet business goals.

  • Industrial Engineer

    A professional who focuses on factory layout, automation cost reduction, increased efficiency, and improved product quality.

  • Injections Molding

    A method for manufacturing parts; it involves injecting molten material into a pre-made mold.

  • Insulator

    A material that does not allow for easy flow of electrons. Insulators are often used around conductors to protect humans from high voltage exposure. Circuit board material, capacitors, and wire coverings all use insulating material.

  • Inverter

    An electrical device that converts DC voltage (from batteries) to AC Voltage (typically in vehicles that need to present consumer voltage such as 110AC).

  • IP (Intellectual Property)

    A set of designs or other creations of the mind that are critical to the success of the product and may be kept as trade secret or protected by patent law. In the world of technology, it usually refers to innovative ideas that belong to a person or organization.

  • LabVIEW

    A graphical program sold by National Instruments to facilitate hardware communications and data acquisition in engineering and scientific projects.

  • Laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission Radiation)

    The emission produces highly concentrated and directional light. Lasers can come in the medium of gas, solidstate, liquid, or semiconductor. The concentration of light is powerful enough to allow lasers to be used to cut, cauterize, weld, or point out survey locations.

  • Laser Diode

    A semiconductor that amplifies and emits light in common phase.

  • LED (Light Emitting Diode)

    Emits random phase light when an electrical current passes through it. LEDs use lower energy than equivalent incandescent bulbs. They also last longer and do not contain mercury.

  • LiDar (Light Detection and Ranging)

    Allows scientists to obtain information about objects or areas from a distance using lasers. Autonomous vehicles use LiDar to detect the world around them, building a model of the space they’re operating in with 360-degree vision and accuracy unparalleled by the human eye.

  • Linear Stage

    A component of an electrical device that allows for smooth operation by restricting the movement or “slide” of an object to a single axis. A linear stage is also known as a linear slide.

  • LoRa

    A long-range data transfer technology that uses sub-gigahertz radio frequency bands to transmit data.

  • Machine Learning

    The concept of machine learning, sometimes called artificial intelligence, or AI, is based on the idea that machines and robots can use the principles of feedback to interact with data and optimize their response.

  • Machining

    The process of removing material from a product still being developed. This could be through cutting, applying abrasions, or using electric or chemical energy.

  • Mechanical Engineer (ME)

    An individual who designs mechanical systems. They take into account the scientific concepts of motion, energy, and force, as well as concepts from the material sciences.

  • Mechatronics Engineer

     A professional working in the area of engineering dealing with objects in motion, who blends the principles of mechanical and electrical engineering with computer science.

  • Microprocessor

    Microprocessors are at the center of all activities that occur within a computer. A microprocessor sits on a single chip and completes complex computations that make the computer operational. A notable example of a microprocessor would be a Pentium Processor, a personal computer microprocessor first created by the Intel Corporation.

  • Modular Design

    A design approach that allows engineers to combine blocks or other independent building materials of standardized sizes to create a new object or product. This allows for materials to easily designed, constructed, or broken down to be customized, repaired, or reused.

  • NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement)

    Individual parties and organizations enter into NDAs to prevent the sharing of trade secrets or other sensitive details regarding products or ideas. NDAs are legally binding contracts, and each party must receive a signed original copy.

  • NPI (New Product Introduction)

    A set of activities that companies undertake to organize the messaging that defines a product’s purpose and features. Certain contract manufacturers specialize in NPI services. Often individuals in an engineering firm carry this title as a brain trust of the path to production.

  • OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer)

    A manufacturer that makes equipment or industrial parts that are then sold by a partnering reseller or client to be included in subsequent product integrations.

  • PAL (Programmable Array Logic)

    The earliest type of programmable logic that allows for configurable digital circuits. Some versions of PAL architecture are one-time programmable, while others are erasable devices.

  • Passives

    Components of electrical systems that do not require an energy source. They are used for storing or dissipating energy.

  • PLC/PLM (Product Lifecycle Management)

    A process that represents four key stages a product goes through while on the market. These include the product’s introduction, growth, maturity, and decline. PLM is generally the process and/or tools to facilitate managing the capture and release and ongoing management of a product.

  • PMA (Power Matters Alliance, now incorporated under AirFuel Alliance)

    An organization that promoted the development of inductive and resonant wireless charging protocols.

  • Pneumatics

    The use of gas or pressurized air to generate power in a mechanical system.

  • POC (Proof of Concept)

    A process of testing a design idea. The purpose is to check and verify the function of a key technology and provide details regarding its suitability to be productized.

  • POE (Power Over Ethernet)

    Facilitates the flow of an electric current to devices through data cables instead of power cords.

  • Power (Watts)

    A watt is a unit of measure that represents the rate at which electrical energy converts into another form (electrical power). For example, any electronic device in your home needs power to run. If your television, microwave, refrigerator, and even smartphone are currently running, they are converting electrical energy into power. Electrical Power is the combination of Current times Voltage. Mechanical, acoustic and other physical systems can also transfer power, but in all cases power is the transfer of energy per unit time.

  • Product Road Map

    A graphical representation or product plans that are mapped against time to inform internal teams and external stakeholders about the product’s development progression or plan.

  • Programmable Logic

    A device programmed using a hardware description language (e.g. Verilog or VHDL or in some cases even C); used to create instant ASIC-like behavior in an electronic system.

  • Programmable Logic Controller (PLC)

    A specialized computer IC with limited functionality useful for controlling machinery in a manufacturing process.

  • Qi

    A protocol that uses induction to provide wireless power.

  • R&D (Research and Development)

    The process by which companies gain knowledge to invest in and develop new technologies, products, or services.

  • Rapid Prototyping

    Quickly creating a product using computer modeling or computeraided design. A physical mock-up is produced using 3D printers.

  • Resistance (Ohms)

    Resistance is a material’s tendency to oppose the flow of a current. Conductors have low resistance because they contain a large number of delocalized electrons that can be moved. Insulators have high resistance due to their tightly bound electrons. Ohms are the unit of measurement for resistance.

  • Resistor

    Used to control the amount of electrical charge (or current) that flows within an electric circuit. In the water in a pipe analogy, this device would control how much water (current) is moving through the tube.

  • Reverse Engineering

    Occurs when a piece of technology is taken apart to see how it was made for duplication or enhancement.

  • Robotics

    The study of a machine that can learn, think, and act with or without the help of humans. For example, NASA’s Mars rovers (Spirit and Curiosity) would be considered robots, but so would the Roomba. These machines can interact with objects and respond to specific stimuli on their own.

  • ROHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances)

    Restricts the use of certain hazardous or toxic materials in electronic components. This was a directive that became a law in every State.

  • ROS (Robotics Operating System)

    An ROS is not an operating system, but it provides the same functionality of an OS: managing and controlling the hardware and software across a collection of various computers.

  • Schematic

    A diagram that uses symbols to express the function or purpose of a product

  • Schematic Capture, PCB (Printed Circuit Board) Layout, and Fabrication

    Schematic capture is the process of creating a logical diagram for a design. Using CAE tools, an engineer can efficiently turn schematics into PCB layouts, which are physical representations of the circuit and parts. Once the layout is finalized, the PCB is fabricated from the resulting artwork.

  • Sensor

    A device that responds to a physical input such as heat, pressure, light or temperature and relays a message back to a controlling mechanism. A simple example of a sensor would be the mercury inside of a thermometer that expands and reacts to changes in temperature.

  • Servo Motors

    An electric motor with built-in feedback sensors that allow for the precise movement of angular or linear motion.

  • SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping)

    Addresses the task of locating a sensor while visually identifying the environment surrounding it. Many times, robots or unmanned vehicles will use SLAM to map out the environment around them, while also identifying where they are within it.

  • Software Engineer

    Someone involved in the development, testing, and maintenance of computer software.

  • Source Control

    The management of files and documents as a means of tracking changes in files over time.

  • Stable Platform

    A fixed platform to which a gyroscope can be attached in order to measure the effects of outside disturbance on a gyroscope system.

  • Stage Gate Review/Phase Gate Review

    A project management approach that divides a project into phases. Each phase includes a milestone where team members can decide how to move forward with the project.

  • Standard vs Differential vs RTK GPS (Global Positioning System)

    GPS uses data from satellite positioning systems to produce precise and accurate location information. Differential GPS, a variation of the standard GPS, uses a fixed base station as a second reference point. The roving device (such as a smartphone) calculates the differential between its own position and the position of the base station as measured by the satellites to get a more accurate location reading.

  • State Machine

    A functional implementation of a state- or sequence-based plan of action. In a state machine model, the machine can have a finite number of “states” and switch between them depending on the input received and a set of pre-planned outcomes. In the case of machine learning, the planned outcomes of a state machine can be changed based on optimization rules.

  • Stepper Motors

    Instead of turning smoothly like a traditional motor, stepper motors move in incremental steps. They are often used in robots and computers because of their precise movements.

  • Strain Gauge

    A tool that allows scientists or engineers to measure how much the shape of an object or piece of material changes once a force acts upon it.

  • Supply Chain

    A process by which companies take raw materials from vendors and produce goods and services that are delivered to consumers. The supply chain process incorporates planning, sourcing, manufacturing, delivery, auditing, and financial considerations.

  • Systems Engineer

    A professional who oversees the life cycle of a complex engineering system. The systems engineer considers the project as a whole and directs how different engineered aspects fit together, partitioning the design to the various engineering disciplines and defining requirements and interfaces.

  • Testing

    Manufacturing and software testing allows engineers to see if programs are meeting specific goals or are suffering from glitches or errors. Popular tests include UI/ UX, reliability, post-install, compliance, weatherproofing exercises, and safety tests.

  • Thermal ME (Mechanical Engineering)

    An engineering discipline that uses the principles of heat movement through objects to create mechanical engineering solutions.

  • Tolerance and Stack Up

    Tolerance refers to the allowable variations in a measured value of a product, such as dimensions, distance between components, hardness of material, humidity, and many more. Tolerance stack up is the total amount of variation allowed in all parts of the object combined. Tolerance stack up is important for setting limits on variability to reduce the chance of object or system failure.

  • Transformers

    A device that uses induction to transfer current between circuits.

  • Transistors

    Semiconductors used to amplify and/or divert current from one conductor to another.

  • V&V (Verification and Validation)

    A process that first proves a system meets specified standards at specific points in development by testing, calculations, and/or simulations and then ensures that the final system or product meets shareholders’ initial expectations upon completion.

  • Voltage (Volts)

    A volt is a unit of measurement of the difference in electric charge between two places. It is analogous to pressure in a water system. This difference is what makes a charge move within a wire.

  • Voltage vs. Current vs. Power

    In relation to electricity, voltage is the cause, and the current is the effect. The voltage is the difference between two charge potentials, and as a result of this difference, the current flows between them. Power (measured in Watts) is a measurement of the energy generated by the flow of current.

  • Wireless Data

    Data transfer between two devices that are not connected by a conductor.

  • Wireless Power

    Transmission of energy from a power source to a device, without using connecting wires.

  • Zigbee

    A wireless data transfer protocol that allows for close-range, low power consumption data transfers.