Garfield Downes, M.A.Sc.
Every engineer has their own story of how they started on their path to a career in the field, but for Garfield Downes, it all started with a solar-powered calculator.
“One day when I was a kid, it fell on the floor and split in two,” the 36-year-old recalls. “Inside was the circuit board, and there was the screen and the rubber buttons that went on top of it.
“At that age, you have no idea what it is, what it does, but it was cool. It was green and it had metal stuff on it.
“So you sit there and you play with it, and by touching it, you break some of the wires that you can’t really see because they’re tiny whiskers of wire that, just by touching them, you brush them away and it will never work again.
“But whether it was drawing pictures of it, or trying to break parts off of it and put them back on, I wanted to know why it didn’t work and how to make it work.”
And so the obsession began.
Designing the next generation of defence electronics
What started with a sense of curiosity about how a calculator worked led to an interest in science and a habit of taking apart the toys that his parents bought him to see how they worked. This then led to his attending a high school in his native Toronto that had an electronics program, which then brought him to the University of Ottawa to pursue an electrical engineering degree.
After completing a variety of co-op positions, he returned to the university to complete a Master’s degree in electrical engineering, and when he finished, he got a job at Nortel Networks in Ottawa.
It was at Nortel that he decided he wanted to design circuit boards for high speed communications and in 2009, he started in his current position as a Hardware Designer at General Dynamics Mission Systems - Canada, one of the country’s largest defence electronics companies.
In his particular division, he is part of a team that develops smart displays for military vehicles, such as tanks, submarines or ships.
“Think of a computer embedded in a console of a car,” Garfield explains. “That display would hook into the car’s electronics system so you can monitor things like engine information, oil pressure, gas, anything that displays the vehicle’s health.
“Then on top of that, you could look at navigation information; you can look at situational awareness information; or you could look at battle management applications.”
At its core, as a Hardware Designer, Garfield’s work is electronics design and research and development. Whether it be to come up with new designs himself, or evaluate someone else’s, his daily tasks can be varied.
Designing, testing and troubleshooting
“On any given day,” he says, “I could be in a design role, a test role, a troubleshoot role or I could be attending meetings to go over issues with units that have come back from the field.”
For example, Garfield might be designing prototypes for new products that need to be introduced, or to retrofit older designs to bring legacy products up to current standards.
Or he might be evaluating designs that are currently being tested by a customer, or that have been designed by other engineering teams at General Dynamics. In these cases, he tests the designs and catalogues their successes and failures.
Or he might be reviewing the requirements and specifications of contracts that the business development or marketing teams at General Dynamics want to bid on, assessing whether the company has an existing product that could fit that need or whether a new product would have to be designed.
It’s these design aspects that Garfield enjoys most about his job.
“The primary reason I joined General Dynamics was to be a part of their research and development team and design the next generation of products.”
And he’s doing just that. But through it all, he’s been driven by that same obsession that drove him as a child staring at the broken calculator: a desire to fix what’s broken.
“If I know that something isn’t working properly, I’m going to try to find out why it’s not and come up with a solution,” he says. “And that’s really what I’ve always been doing: developing solutions for unique problems.”
“Engineers are problem-solvers. Whether it’s an existing problem or a unique problem, you’re there to engineer the solution. That’s the way I’ve always seen it.”
--Garfield Downes, M.A.Sc.