Tips for Real-World PCB Design: Timing, Communication, and Traceability

Pins in-contact through a network of string

 

 

I love food; I love the preparation, finding the ingredients, adding the minute adjustments of seasonings and salt, and cooking multiple courses at once. But when I first started cooking for myself, I prepared each part of the meal individually. I found it immensely difficult to keep track of the different dishes and ensure none stuck to the pan—or went without stirring for too long. So I sacrificed time and did each task individually.

What my cooking came down to was that there were too many activities dividing my attention, and no simple way to keep track of them all. Often there were multiple people in the kitchen at once which only brought more chaos to the already-tumultuous task. But when my dinner preparation began eating up the majority of my evenings, I sought a solution: I started setting timers. Anyone going in and out of the kitchen knew how much longer something would be cooking for, and I could keep track of the different needs of each dish. It immediately reduced my stress from trying to time my many dishes and made it easier for the others to plan their meals. Let’s face it—the last thing you want when you’re hungry is a delay from someone else.

Wherever you’re working, and whatever you do, you probably have many things vying for your attention as well. We call it by many names: multitasking, juggling, having too many irons in the fire, constantly shifting gears. These terms for competing demands are often good descriptions for the job of a PCB designer. You may be work with an engineering team that is pushing boundaries or as a contractor with multiple clients. Or, iterative design processes that require testing can leave projects in the lurch for days to months. Priorities can shift for many reasons in the middle of a project, requiring management to adjust a department’s course to match. These twists and turns can actually help to keep a job interesting when things go smoothly, or they can make it miserable when they don’t. In order to keep things running well, you should consider focusing on three general areas.

Timing—and Good Personal Notes

Timing and notes may seem like an odd mix, but it does take some time to make good notes. Stopping halfway through complex design calculations or in the middle of laying out an involved portion of a PCB can make picking such tasks up again risky and even necessitate starting over. It’s easy to neglect a section when coming back to power calculations or to have lost track of the master plan for the perfect routing strategy, so try to take a little extra time to get to a good stopping point if you can. Politely letting customers or management know about the risks associated with such changes in schedule when appropriate can help to keep you in good standing and might buy you a little time as well.

When you do reach a stopping point, taking clear notes about past issues, the current status of the project, and the direction in which it is going can help to resume course when the time comes. Remember to leave blank pages for future entries in your engineering notebook for when things pick back up. Take advantage of your design software’s capabilities, such an ability to associate useful files with a project. To make sure your file structure is clearly named and somewhat intuitive, try to imagine if someone else could find what you are looking for.

 

 

Business people meeting at office and using post-it notes to share ideas.

Making your notes easy to access keeps your team on track

 

 

Team Communication

The fact that priorities can change quickly is a big part of the reason why companies prefer to hire individuals with excellent communication skills. When jumping from one task to another, crazy things can happen. Breakdowns in communication can lead to mixed-up budget allowances, conflicting goals related to time-frames, and even the confusion of technical requirements of different designs. Needless to say, such happenings can cause serious setbacks. Good enterprise resource planning software makes this specter less daunting, but only when people actually use it.

In the buzz of activity and change, it can be easy to forget the first step of making any workflow change: keeping all the team members in the loop. Taking a few minutes to explain why things are happening is a good way to try to alleviate frustrations that changing plans—and losing efficiency—can cause. Even if it means having to support an argument you might not agree with, the effort can help make team members feel more valued. Having a clear goal and idea for the project’s reprioritization also enables team members to understand what they’re working towards.

Timely communication among team members or clients regarding events that affect a project’s deadlines are also very important. Changes due to supplier backlogs, parts shortages, design difficulties, and other unforeseen events can really shake things up. Disseminating such information as completely as possible will help reduce further surprises since it is often difficult to know the effect such changes can have on every member of a team, or on a customer’s plans.

 

 

Young brothers talking with tin can telephone

Whether it is by email, messenger, or can, keep communication open

 

Traceability: Tracking Changes to Important Data

A dynamic workplace will sometimes have many people looking at one project over its lifetime, and it is important to be able to display changes that you or others make. Such traceability is very useful when resuming a project, or even when coming back to a different part of a large project. Integrated BOM and component library functionality can help you track changes to important documents. The fact that this information is recorded automatically whenever changes are made means that more resources are made available by the same amount of work. These records can be viewed offline as well as in the cloud, allowing for maximum flexibility when it comes to team operations and customer interactions.

Inside the design department, knowing who made a library change is the first step to finding out why, which greatly helps to streamline communication. Knowing when a change happened might even answer such a question before it needs to be asked. Access to these resources can help purchasing track down answers for contract manufacturers when placing orders. Billing departments for third party clients can be given the ability to use BOM-related information to answer questions as well. Whether looking at a component library or at a BOM, traceability features can save time and prevent errors.

By creating an environment in which your team members can effectively communicate with each other, you can save precious time and encourage a healthier, more efficient team-environment. Using software that works for you to make notes of changes and encourage easy communication makes establishing this environment that much easier. Save yourself the future frustration by using the BOM software CIIVA, and find out more information by talking to an expert at Altium.

 

About the Author

Altium Designer

PCB Design Tools for Electronics Design and DFM. Information for EDA Leaders.

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