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Are PCB Layout Designers an Endangered Species?

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antedeluvian
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It has changed...
antedeluvian   4/17/2014 7:03:39 PM
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It seems to me that there are far fewer independent PCB designers than there were 15-20 years ago. Some of them grouped together and morphed into turnkey operations offering PCB layout, PCB manufacture (or organizing PCB manufacture), prototype assembly, mechanical design and production assembly.

Of course there are good and bad PCB designers, but one of the problems we have faced frequently is CAD compatibilty with our own, so that we can maintain the design. Thde only time we had any success (and we have tried most of the above approaches) is when we absorbed the PCB Designer into our organization.

Looking at job adverts, it seems to me that autorouting and multilayers have allowed engineers to encroach on PCB design. I suppose this is part of the enterpreneur environment where resources are at a premium and PCB optimization is not.

I have laid out many boards (I did write the blog Max referred to above), but I am nowhere near as good as the dedicated PCB designers I have worked with. I also feel that my time is better spent elsewhere. 

I think that the requirements for PCB designers have changed, and I do hope (for my sake if not theirs) that the profession can adapt.

Charles Pfeil
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Re: PCB Layout Guys Not Going Anywhere
Charles Pfeil   4/17/2014 2:50:41 PM
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Max, I agree with this statement completely.  It's not about taking work away from layout designers, rather it's about facing the reality that the first generation of layout designers (who began in the 60s and 70s) are retiring AND the demand for pcb design work is increasing.  First generation layout designers have valuable experience and have developed techniques over the years that cannot be learned quickly and easily.  I believe it is the role of software companies to understand these methods and to develop sophisticated software that can empower less experienced designers and even circuit engineers with tools that will automatically accomplish the same end.  I'm not talking about autorouting, rather tools in the interactive environment that enable user control, quality and performance.

Etmax
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Re: PCB Layout Guys Not Going Anywhere
Etmax   4/17/2014 1:26:20 PM
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Max, I personally think that layout design is as important as the circuit design. A badly placed track in a audio power amplifer can dramatically increase THD or hum or even channel crosstalk and in digital designs EMI and a lot of other aspects can be adversley affected by bad layout. It's basically a case of teh PCB being an important part of the design. You need to be an RF capable engineer (even if only in skill set) for a modern RF board.

I remember 30 years ago passing a microcontroller based telephony I/F schematic to a design house for layout and we were later puzzled by the micro resetting when it turned on the switchmode power supply. This was because the inrush current to switcher produced a negative 10V glitch in the adlacent ground lead to the micro such that it saw 15V for a microsecond. This put it into latchup resulting in it shunting the 5V supply. A micro that normally drew 3mA was drawing almost an Amp until power was cycled. The PCB just wasn't "engineered"

I draw my schematics with the PCB in mind even doing design calculations of how many Watts I can disipate in my available board area, and track PCB impedances for clock lines or other lines with sharp rise times.

I then always do the layout myself because it is such an integral part of the design.

I struggle with being able to put enough information in the schematic without creating a situation where there are more PCB annotations than components :-)

I don't think layout designers are becomming extincted so much, but rather those without a good understanding of the engineering aspects of it are being replaced by actual engineers that enjoy the physical design process.

Sheepdoll
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Re: Need more folks doing PCB layout, not fewer
Sheepdoll   4/17/2014 1:17:24 PM
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@betajet: modules with 0.1" spaced wire-wrap posts, which I then wire-wrap together on a perf board

Oh this is getting interesting and I have to leave for my work inside a pipe organ.

In my "Music of design" talk at EELive! I covered with examples how I took small boards with the wire wrapping post on a .1 (2.54mm) grid that would plug into a standard solder less breadboard.

I also showed how Fritzing (which is the program) Max mentioned was used to add an analog amplifier to a digital design.

Keep watching this space...  I am working on updating my slides for a proper blog post ...

betajet
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Re: Need more folks doing PCB layout, not fewer
betajet   4/17/2014 1:03:59 PM
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Disquitioner asked: how do we make it easy for more people to get comfortable designing PCBs?

Oh, I'm fine with designing PC boards.  The problem is that all the interesting components are too fine-pitched for me to solder.  So for my own work I buy (or get as swag) modules with 0.1" spaced wire-wrap posts, which I then wire-wrap together on a perf board (with ground plane and twisted pair clocks) or use a solderless breadboard for quick experiments.  I like the irony that I'm dealing with the continual rapid changes in technology by using breadboards and wire-wrap wire from my high school and undergraduate days.  Le plus ça change, and all that stuff.

dwinder991
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Re: Their roles and scope might change, but we still need them!!
dwinder991   4/17/2014 12:41:06 PM
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As a (somewhat) younger wearer of many hats, I am very grateful for the opportunity of working in a smaller company, and learning how to be a part of many different teams. I enjoy bringing in interns and helping them learn some PCB design, and then doing the same thing that I was allowed to do... define my own project. Meaning I was able to take an idea that my company was tossing around at the time and run with it from schematic to PCB and firmware prototyping. It was an incredible learning opportunity, and has continued to be a source of inspiration as I work with other college aged interns.

On a slightly different topic I am wondering about tradeshows and education. I have been to IPC APEX expo, and PCB West, but feel like I would benefit from the something different. Anyone have experience with IEEE MWSCAS or EMC symposium?

Sheepdoll
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Are we artist
Sheepdoll   4/17/2014 12:39:45 PM
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For the last decade I have been a single person shop.  Making and coding complete embedded designs that relate to audio/video or what most would call robotics.

I would guess that possibly as much as 40 to 60 percent of my time is spent in the board layout programs.  Most of the time I do work as a Layout designer.

I typically use the free or limited tools, such as expressPCB, KiCad and Eagle.  I also work with legacy designs from OrCad and Pads.  In a perfect world I would use Altium. None of my clients have the budget for that.

Like many I have been designing since the rub on transfer days.  I was actually taking art classes, with the EET classes as a fall back for remunerative work.  This was 35 or so years ago. 

My first job was selling computers (Apple/// and Lisas the high end stuff.)  When computers became commodity items t I worked for a Temp agency.  All of the jobs required typing in the lists that the so called designers were not good at. 

I was a terrible typist, but fell naturally into using a mouse. It was not easy getting others to understand that CAD/Cam and especially photo plotting requires special skills.  I finally found a niche design testing Laser printers.

Then I took up high temperature enamel painting and metal etching as a hobbie (glass on metal) These processed are not unlike board design.

There was another group of technicians at apple what were into early embedded system. At the time we had access to scrap materials for robot projects.  It was watching the layout designers and the layout mistakes that I learned to rework SMT devices.

SMT practically demands the use of  a layout package. This was all in the late 1990s. 

I typically make about 3 manufactured board layouts a year.  Have been doing such for 14 years, that is a lot of board prototypes.

Too me this comes second nature.  I suppose that if others like myself make it look easy then it could look like anyone can design boards.  Reading the comments here and the articles  in the popular press that artists have different brain structures, this may  be the case.

It could be that we have been attempting to shoe horn and train the wrong sort of person for design layout.  Better tools and more understanding may instead of endangering designers, may create a new evolved breed of designer that can satisfy the needs that the makers and next generation embedded systems will require.

 

Disquisitioner
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Re: Need more folks doing PCB layout, not fewer
Disquisitioner   4/17/2014 12:37:48 PM
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@MaxTheMagnificent: Cool, I'll keep an eye on this space (but then I *always* keep an eye on this space :-).  Hopefully the simulation environment doesn't get in the way of PCB creation.  I'd be truly impressed if someone has built an Arduino simulator that can handle all the external components and breakout boards I routinely use as well as the programming techniques commonly required (interrupts, PROGMEM, etc.).

Given I'm going to need to build and test the whole project anyhow I'd be happy if the rascal tool just let you say "this is an 8 pin DIP with these lines carrying TTL data and these are power and ground" and "this is a power transistor so these lines carry 2A", etc., and then from there generated the basic PCB layout.  I don't really need the tool to know that the 8 pin DIP is a 7 channel graphic equalizer display filter and simulate same...

Max The Magnificent
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Re: Need more folks doing PCB layout, not fewer
Max The Magnificent   4/17/2014 12:13:54 PM
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@Disquisitioner: ...how do we make it easy for more people to get comfortable designing PCBs.

I can't speak for the medium and high-end tools, but -- as I noted in yesterday's PCB Designline newsletter:

I saw the most amazing tool targeted at the Arduino user. This little rascal (the tool, not the Arduino user) provides you with a graphical view of an Arduino and associated breadboard. You drag-and-drop components onto the breadboard and then add wires connecting everything together. Next, you create your Arduino sketch (your C/C++ program) and simulate it on the PC, with LEDs and things lighting up on your virtual breadboard. Finally, your design is exported into a PCB layout package in which you perform the layout, and then you upload your design to a board shop for fabrication.

I'll be blogging about this later today or tomorrow ... watch this space...

Disquisitioner
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Need more folks doing PCB layout, not fewer
Disquisitioner   4/17/2014 12:01:18 PM
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I certainly don't want to see PCB layout designers as an endangered species, but am also thinking about the other end of this problem namely how do we make it easy for more people to get comfortable designing PCBs.  With all the recent growth and commerce around the "Maker Movement" (and I'm an enthusiastic participant), we still haven't done much to make the PCB part of the creative process easy. I don't have the data but I'll bet there are a lot of makers who comforably crank through the design and prototyping part of the process with great tools like Arduino, pre-built shields, breadboards, etc. and then grind to a halt because of the steep learning curve associated with PCB design and associated tools.

I've tilted at this windmill several times myself with Eagle, various on-line design sites, etc. Not only are the tools tricky to figure out (and the tricks are hard to remember once you've learned them if you don't make boards all the time), but the part libraries are widely scattered and inconsistent.  I regularly search for "learn to build your PCB" classes at dojos like TechShop without any success.  There are some good on-line videos, and even an on-line class or too but I keep coming back to the whole process being too hard for people to feel good making their first board.

Perhaps it won't solve the problem at the serious professional end of the scale, but I'd like to see us get more people with good basic PCB fluency in broad end of the funnel.  At least perhaps then there'd be greater appreciation for the art of (and need for) sophisticated PCB design.

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