Having also got my start in board layouts using tape and photo-reduced artwork, the advent of the lower cost PC based solutions did usher in an era where the circuit designer was also the PCB designer. Once CPU clock speeds passed 500 MHz , and once devices had over 300 contacts, then the circuit designer would hand off the desgin to the PCB designer. The time needed to stay current with the PCB design tools ( and work arounds to all their problems) is time that most engineers do not have. Let alone all the PCB fab advances that seem to occur every 6 months or so, it is very easy to fall behind. IF your designs contain mostly standard parts and are less than 50 IC's, the circuit designer can do the PCB design. BUT if you have large QFN or BGA's and high frequency operation, it almost ALWAYS better to allow an experienced PCB designer do the work.
I was around back in the day of taped boards, too. A good PCB layout person knows how to deal with the mechanical issues, as well as today's PCB manufacturing issues, that most electronics design engineers rarely deal with. Several years ago, I worked as a consultant at a small company that thought the design engineers would save time and money by doing the layout themselves. I had no training in the layout tool, and I suggested that while I wouldn't mind learning how to do layouts on their $$ (at my consultant rate), it would probably be cheaper to bring in a PCB designer. We updated a large system connector board, with dozens of connectors consisting of several different varieties. The PCB designer asked if there was a reason the company-made connector footprints had the drill holes off-center -- the footprint appeared normal, but the drill data showed the offset (and not normally shown during layout). I said I didn't think so -- could it be easily fixed? He quickly fixed the problems and the board was built as planned. The original board took nearly a full day to assemble by hand, because the mechanical problems caused by the drill offsets required a special order, e.g. install CON1-3, stuff CON4,5, mate with metal plate, solder CON 4,5, remove plate, etc. It was like taking all day to build a sandwich. With the expertise of the PCB designer and his use of industry standard techniques, the assembly was cut to 90 min -- most of which was applying a special metalicized tape for shielding. The metal plate slipped over the connectors and was easily fastened to the fully assembled board in minutes. That was the end of letting the design engineers do it themselves. When management doesn't know how to quantify what a PCB designer can do for them, they think electronics design engineers can do it and save money. That may be true sometimes, but not nearly as often as management thinks!
I have worked in military and aerospace requirements.
I have worked at dot com startups...
I currently have my own company.
Each situation has it's own requirements.
Large companies.. people will be compartmentalized/specialized in their job. Generalist (master of many skills) will not be tolerated or encouraged in this environment. These companies will have resources and reasons to push the bleading edge of technology. These companies will have dedicated pcb layout designers. The cost of extra layers of communications/ quality checks (CYA activities)/etc. are expected and tolerated. But the speed of idea to physical example is generally slow. Each sign off signature for a design change costing 1 day - 2 weeks (he was on vacation) often with 6 signatures required.
Once they FINALLY approve something.. they can assign armies to move the project quickly.
Great ... if the product definition is stationary or slow moving. And a lot of engineers like the idea of sharing the responsibility of a product's success (or failure). There is less personal risk involved.
Small companies.... speed and efficiency is King. Fast turn around is more important than "getting it right the first time" (while it is still important). Reason? because it recognized that the product definition will likely change before the product can be built. With a tightly coupled design/layout/manufacturing I have seen complex 10 layer ,4mil line/space, high freq designs completing all of these phases - idea, schematics, pcb layout, fab and prototype built on automated production line - in less than 5 working days (using 3 day pcb turn). And it worked great. This is only possible because of the newest CAD tools and a willingness of the employee to wear multiple hats. The engineer involved MUST be the pcb designer/mechanical engineer/manufacturing process engineer. Not all engineers are up to the task or are willing to become proficent in all the areas required. Indeed, many engineers don't believe it can be done with any real quality (I am NOT of this camp).
A large number of engineers are lost without their technician! or their pcb designer!
For the company or project... RISC or CISC based work flow?
For you ...Generalist or Specialist.. what are you?
(or more accurately... what percentage are you?)
You have to understand enough about yourself to recognize which environment you feel most comfortable.
I don't see a single solution/process for all companies, because I don't see a 'one size fits all' engineering talent pool. So, pcb designers will be around for awhile yet.
Like you, I too started when you gave your hand drawn schematic to the drafting department where they would make the schematic look nice. Then someone else in the drafting department did your PCB layout using red and cyan tape on clear acetate.
A few years later, you gave your schematic blueprint to a technician who extracted the net list by hand into a text editor. The net list was then input into the CAD system where a design house (in my case associated with the PCB fab company) routed the PCB using a Calay system. As the designer, your main input was this is the outline, here are the connector locations, and put these chips over here and those over there. (These were big all TTL panels.)
Then OrCad (and Pcad, and Pads, etc.) came along. You could do your schematics and layouts on your own desk. Over the last 20 years or so I've worked at tiny to smallish companies. For all but the simplest circuits, I've always designed my circuits and laid out my own PCB's. Everyone else I know generally does the same thing.
I've always considered the PCB part of the circuit design and I want to make sure all the signals and grounds get routed correctly. The PCB layout is part of the circuit especially for RF designs but it is also for power supplies which you want to not emit RF. The same is true for fast digital boards. And for very low noise, low power analog you want it to not be susceptible to RF. Actually you have to consider EMI and RFI for pretty much everything except for maybe the simplest embedded PCB with a PIC, a linear regulator and a few simple peripherals.
Everyone has heard the stories of handing a design off to a layout person and getting the board layout back with all the bypass caps grouped together in one corner... Recently I was at a place where for time reasons they farmed out the layout. It had lots of mechanical positioning constraints. It took so much time to convey all the information to them and so many back and forth phone meetings, the designer could have just done it himself in less time. On the other hand, maybe it was that particular layout house, there's another I know here that does well.
I did contract work at a large company for a bit a few years ago and they handed off the layout to the layout department. While I was there, I watched the layout guy spend days editing the locations of few caps. Maybe big companies can afford to hire dedicated layout people who understand all the nuances of both good layout practices and circuit design and are not just hooking up black boxes, but at small companies the designers do the layouts in my experience.
I've seen job postings lately requiring circuit design and circuit board design skills. I doubt that many experienced circuit designers, except maybe in very small companies, have that combination of skills. When I see that I pass that job by.
I don't see layout designers losing their jobs. If anything, layout is getting more challenging, and a good layout guy is essential. I scoff at the notion of CAD tools that will make layout automatic, or that circuit designers will all start doing layouts too.
NASA's Orion Flight Software Production Systems Manager Darrel G. Raines joins Planet Analog Editor Steve Taranovich and Embedded.com Editor Max Maxfield to talk about embedded flight software used in Orion Spacecraft, part of NASA's Mars mission. Live radio show and live chat. Get your questions ready.
Brought to you by