Opinion: How Relevant is Construction Today?

Our thanks to Essex Ham member Ed G8FAX for submitting the following article.

The relevance of construction to the radio ham today – a bit of history and going forward

Homebrew amateur radio setupIn bygone days Radio Hams had to make many of their own components. In terms of technical electrical/rf competence, I suggest their knowledge was apt for their time but much less than current requirements. They needed various practical skills, such as wiring, cabinet making and metal bashing, hence they needed access to good workshop facilities and a range of materials to make cat’s whisker detectors and spark gap transmitters.

As the demand for broadcast radio and other commercial wireless services evolved, understanding of electronic technicalities grew as did the demand for ready-made components, these found application in the Amateur Radio community. As technological advances were made and with an increasing number of services springing up there became a need for improvements to address issues like frequency stability and interference. The electronic/rf technical demands on Hams therefore increased. With mass production looming the requirement on fabrication and assembly lessened somewhat, but good practical skills were still essential in addition to sound technical knowledge.

Close-up constructionThe Second World War saw the mass production of good quality valved radio equipment, which sometime after the war was over found its way to Radio Hams. It could be used directly or with slight modification and of course keeping it good working order and making occasional repairs still necessitated good technical skills and some practical ability on the electronic/rf front.

The widespread use of transistor technology and also that of PCB fabrication saw the start of miniaturisation and company’s, especially in Japan mass producing equipment specifically for Radio Hams. This had two main effects, Hams could buy and use equipment straight out of the box and didn’t need to modify other apparatus or build their own. Plus it made Amateur Radio more accessible. Yes the cost was high, however considering the extra theoretical knowledge acquisition (books, courses etc) and the need for good and expanded workshop facilities and skills (PCB design and manufacture), there was a general decline in construction.

More close-up constructionFurther advances in electronics have led to greater reduction of component size (surface mount technology), very large scale integration (complex integrated circuits), which push the bounds of homebrew construction for the vast majority of us. The drive for mass production in the Far East, China, for example, has seen a great number of very cheap rf and other useful electronic modules appear on outlets like Ebay that has changed how home construction and building occurs, it now principally by buying and connecting together a number of modules or blocks.

A further big game changer is the advancement of digital technology in communications and electronics in general, as well as a shift to computers and software. This places greater demands for theoretical and practical skills for those wanting to do home construction. In some respects, it considerably lessens the need for extensive workshop facilities and tools as with an SDR block just software needs to be created on a computer. With the many free programs available to develop SDR applications, there is no additional expense needed above the SDR hardware, assuming one already has a computer to connect it to.

Thus I see traditional radio construction is rapidly dying. For some time, in IT parlance, “building a computer” is taken to mean installing one or more software packages on a machine and configuring it. Even putting together the various parts to make a desktop PC is on its way out. These ideas of ‘building’ are different to my experience of soldering together a (considerable) number of ’74-logic’ IC’s to make a computer. Thus construction of radios in the future will be along similar lines, it will all be software and programming.

I doubt that this change in construction will kill Amateur Radio, it most certainly alters how things are made and for sure Hams wanting to engage in radio construction and experimentation will need to gain new theoretical knowledge and develop vastly different practical skills. These are exciting times and will take the hobby to a new level.

 

Ed G8FAX

 

Thanks Ed. Any comments? Please add them below

16 Comments

  1. Andrew M6XFC Andrew M6XFC 11 April 2018 Reply
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