Are PCB layout designers as a group poised to fade into the sunset? If so, can design engineers pick up the slack, or are we all doomed to failure?
There have been a spate of recent announcements about astoundingly cunning PCB layout technology. Two proclamations in particular spring to mind: New Cadence TimingVision Technology Speeds PCB Interface Design and Mentor's Xpedition: Putting More Power Into Your Mouse.
When I was being briefed by the guys and gals at Mentor Graphics, one topic really struck a chord. They were saying that a lot of the technology their company was developing was intended to make the layout tools understandable and usable by design engineers. One reason for this is that PCB layout now involves a lot of tradeoffs that require a mix of design engineer and layout designer knowledge. Another reason is that layout designers are starting to retire, and not many young folks are stepping forward to take their place.
According to Mentor, within a decade or so, layout designers may have to be placed on the "endangered species" list. Ever since I heard this, a number of thoughts have been rattling around in the back of my mind.
How did we find ourselves in this situation? Here's how I remember things. I would be really interested to hear if you agree or disagree. Also, my knowledge is based on what I've seen in England and America. I'd be very interested in input from people in other countries.
Just to make sure we're all tap dancing to the same drumbeat, I use the term "design engineers" to refer to the guys and gals who design the circuit and capture the schematics. The term "layout designers" refers to the chaps and chappesses who place and route the components and tracks on the PCB.
When I was starting my career, circuit board layout was often done by hand by sticking colored tape on transparent sheets of plastic. (See How It Was: PCB Layout from Rubylith to Dot and Tape to CAD.) At that time, one way to spot layout designers -- in addition to the hunched shoulders and nervous twitches -- was the fact that they never wore wooly pullovers. Errant fibers could become incorporated into the design and cause short circuits when the board was fabricated.
In those days of yore, to the best of my knowledge, there wasn't any formal training in layout design. Oftentimes it was a case of someone being in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time and being told, "You look like you'll make a good layout designer. This can be your desk." It was not uncommon for the person to have little or no knowledge of electronics, but that typically didn't matter. These people treated the components as black boxes. Their only interest was in placing the components on the boards and routing the component pins together.
In some respects, I really don't think things have changed that much. On the bright side, there's now much more training at universities in the stuff one needs to know to become a design engineer. On the downside, universities still offer relatively little training (if any) on the tools and techniques one needs to know to become a layout designer.
Also, being a design engineer is generally perceived as being more interesting and demanding than being a layout designer. As a result, as we noted above, relatively few young folks are keen to learn the tricks of the layout design trade.
I also agree that today's designs involve a lot of tradeoffs that require a mix of design engineer and layout designer knowledge. I can understand the importance of making the layout tools amenable to design engineers. Nevertheless, PCB layout is nontrivial, and the tools cannot do everything automatically. They work best with human guidance, and layout designers have a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise that would be difficult for design engineers to assimilate.
What do you think? Are PCB layout designers as a group poised to fade into the sunset? If so, can design engineers pick up the slack, or are we all doomed to failure?
— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting