Electric circuits use electric power to perform some function, like energize a heating or lighting element, turn a motor, or create an electromagnetic filed. Electronic circuits differ from electric circuits in that they use devices that can themselves be controlled by other electric signals. Restated, electronic circuits are built from devices that use electricity to control electricity. Most electronic circuits use signals that are within 5 to 10 volts of ground; most circuits built within the past several years use signals that are within 3 to 5 volts from ground. Some electronic circuits represent information encoded as continuous voltage levels that can wander between the high and low voltage supply rails – these are called analog circuits. As an example, a sound pressure level transducer (i.e. a microphone) might drive a signal between 0V and 3.3V in direct proportion to the detected sound pressure level. In this case, the voltage signal output from the microphone is said to be an analog ifthe sound pressure wave itself. Other circuits use only two distinct voltage levels to represent information. Most often, these two voltage levels use the same voltages supplied by the power rails. In these circuits, called digital circuits, all information must be represented as binary numbers, with a signal at 0V (or ground) representing one kind of information, and a signal at 3.3V (or whatever the upper voltage supply rail provides) representing the other kind of information. In this series of modules, we will confine our discussions to digital circuits.
A basic understanding of electronic circuits is important even if the designer does not intend to become a proficient electrical engineer. In many real-life engineering projects, it is often necessary to communicate, and also negotiate, specifications between engineering teams having different areas of expertise. Therefore, a basic understanding of electronic circuits will allow the mechanical engineer to evaluate whether or not a given electrical specification is reasonable and feasible.
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