Am I Big Enough for Data Management?

February 19, 2019 Judy Warner

In this episode of the OnTrack Podcast we echo the style of “Ask me Anything” and feature Ben Jordan and Judy Warner who will mine the AltiumLive forum for questions. Ben will answer your questions about Engineering and PCB Design and Judy will respond to topics related to manufacturing and supply chain. Join us today as we tackle the question: If we have only one or two EEs, do we really need data management?

For future episodes, you can submit your questions on the AltiumLive forum, and sign up to be part of the community. Or email your questions directly to us.

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Show Highlights:

  • The Lounge is where the community talks about interesting topics related to PCB Design and Electronics Engineering, not necessarily only Altium products.
  • Today’s question from the lounge is: “Is the Altium really worthwhile in a company with just two EEs??” Perhaps another way to pose this question is: is it worth having a formal data management system for your electronics design, if you’re only a small business? We could even ask, is it worthwhile for an individual design contractor? The short answer is: Absolutely!
  • Statistics and analytics from webinars, show that 80% of designers do not even use a formal version control system.
  • A version control system allows you to have a central location for storing data, and as you work and make edits, and save files; it must be committed to the system as a revision.
  • Version control allows you to go back to any point in time and restore it. Also, it allows comparison changes, in context, in a team or if you’re an individual designer.
  • A normal backup system does not give you associativity between that moment in time and what you were doing, or the engineering intent.
  • A version control system is not a formal data management system: it doesn’t give lifecycle management or links to supply chain data.
  • A true data management system would not permit release unless everything is saved, committed to version control and contains the latest revision. Including in the component .
  • Provides accountability in the way you use and store your data.
  • What are some problems with footprints in manufacturing?
  • Panelization, v-cut, scoring for breakaway tabs etcetera, not following procedure.
  • Slow down to hurry up - spend time upfront to set up the system, then you can move faster.
  • Documentation is essential in the industry for re-use and provides a lifecycle.
  • Data management keeps you accountable.

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Transcript:

Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the OnTrack Podcast. Today is an extra special edition in which I will be joined by my colleague Ben Jordan, and we are launching a new ongoing series that we’ll be doing together called Ask Me Anything, where Ben and I will join together. Ben will answer your questions about engineering design. I will answer your questions about manufacturing and supply chain, and we'll do this about once a month and so you can submit your questions on the AltiumLive forum, which is free, and go to the lounge and submit your questions there. We've also set up a custom email just for you, which is ontrack@altium.com. And today, Ben and I are going to take one of those questions from the forum in which an engineer asked: if there's just one or two EEs, do we really need data management, or is that overkill? So, enjoy this conversation with Ben Jordan and I and we'll see on the other side.

Welcome to Altium’s OnTrack Podcast, where we talk to leaders about PCB design, tackling subjects ranging from schematic capture all the way to the manufacturing floor. I'm your host, Judy Warner. Please listen in every week and subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher and all your favorite podcast aps, and be sure to check out the show notes at Altium.com. where you can find great resources and multiple ways to connect with us on social media. 

Well, today is a really special day for me. I'm so glad to once again have my colleague and friend Ben Jordan in with me. And we just had an impromptu meeting and decided to shake up this podcast a little bit. So we've decided to have Ben and myself get together maybe once a month and do an “ask me anything.” So Ben’s, really an expert in engineering and design. And of course, I come from the manufacturing is supply chain side, so we thought, “Hey, you know, you guys can ask us anything”, so we can do that through the Forum, which is, you give them the information on the forum.

Yeah, actually, it's kind of what partly inspired this. As many Altium customers would know, this is a user forum that's pretty vibrant. There's a lot of regular contributors there, and a lot of people in the community help each other out with technical questions. But there's one area in the forum that's always fascinated me, and it's called ‘the Lounge’, and it's kind of an extension of the lounge.  The point of the lounge is, it's the place for all the other topics that are interesting to people who do PCB design and electronics engineering, but maybe aren't related to Altium products necessarily. Or, you know, it just might be a little more controversial in nature or a place where people can feel free to express their own truthful, honest opinions and share their knowledge and help each other out, without getting bogged down into the weeds of the actual where to click in the design tools necessarily. And so a lot of fascinating, conversations tend to crop up there.

They do, and in addition to that, we've decided to set up an email where you can submit questions to us and that will be ontrack@altium.com. I'll put that in the show notes so you don't have to write that down while you're driving or working out right now. And so you can submit questions to Ben and I directly through that email or go to the lounge and just ask questions. And there’ll be people to engage with you there. But then we'll also pluck juicy topics out of there once a month or so. So we're super excited. Yeah, we were late for recording because we already just started doing ask me anything on our own. Okay, so today we're going to jump right in; and you had a fascinating question. So, the question that stuck out to Ben from the lounge was: Is the Altium Vault® worthwhile with a company with just two EEs?

It's a really excellent question to ask, because it's a simple question with a very deep answer, and to answer it properly would require maybe more questions to be asked. Now, just to preface this, the question as it reads on the forum is using the word Altium Vault®, which is a product. Vault as a brand name has been retired officially and in its place we have Alium NEXUS® and soon to come through, 365, which we've demonstrated at our AltiumLive user conferences in San Diego and Munich. And, lots of people are very interested in that because they see that the other side of engineering a PCB based product, is making sure you can actually build it. And getting to production involves a lot of things like supply chain, making sure your date is correct and so on. So, this question, “is it worthwhile having Altium Vault for a company with only two electrical engineers” is really, I think, another way of putting it, and especially for the purposes of the OnTrack podcast, it's really asking, is it worth having a formal data management system for your electronics design if you're only a small business or a one man show? Or I would even extend this and say, is it worthwhile doing formal data management practices, if you're an individual design contract engineer or contract PCB designer and I would say the short answer is - absolutely. Definitely it is, but the reasons why, may be different for different people. So, I think we should dive down a little deeper and find out what are the elements that make that so?

Okay. Which, actually, your answer would surprise me because I would think you would just again, not being a designer, you would just use version control. Like, why wouldn't people, if they were just a single contractor, why wouldn't they just use a version control system rather than... you know, it takes a lot of energy and discipline, I imagine, to put together a really good system.

Well, you actually just really hit on something there by saying energy and discipline. I'm going to come back around to that energy and discipline - that's a perfect way to describe something. So you mentioned version control systems. So, for those of you out there, I've looked at the statistics and analytics from our webinars and from the analytics engine, that was for a time - it isn't there right now - but we did have an analytics engine within Altium Designer® that would report back to us, not just crash reports or issues with the software so we could gather statistics, but also different areas within our CAD program that would show what features people are using and what they don’t know about. And one of those is version control systems. As many people do know, we have had for some time, support for Subversion (SVN), and in more recent times where we're supporting with AD 18, introduced it sort of in a quiet way, support for GIT, and these are version control systems. And what a version control system does for the 80% of Altium users who do not use version control... 

Eighty percent? 

Yeah. 

That's crazy!

-coming back to the statistics and analytics I've personally looked at. More than 80% of designers do not use a formal, version control system. So let's explain what that is at the baseline level. A version control system allows you to have a central location where your data is stored, and as you work on that data, and you save files, you make edits during the day. You get to the end of the day–you're constantly saving your schematic. If you're an engineer, PCB designer, and at some point you say, I need to commit this to the system. So, that goes into version control as a revision and you carry on like this through the entire design process and what it does for you, is a few things, but it allows you to go back to any point in time if you run into problems. If you have a crash on your computer or suffer some kind of data loss event in the version control server, it's effectively like a versioned backup that lets you go back to a specific point in time and restore that, at least that point in time. And you may say, well, why not just use a backup system? You could, but it doesn't give you associativity between that moment in time and what you were doing and what your engineering intent was. Whereas a version control system does give you that. The other thing a version control system allows you to do is compare changes. So the point of that is, if you're in a team-based environment or even if you're a team of one, you can look at the differences of what you did yourself, you can compare; this is my current version, and I want to go back in time to what I was doing, so today's Monday afternoon and I've made some design decision to do something, and I'm looking at my schematic on my PCB and I'm scratching my head thinking, now, what was I thinking on Friday when I did that? And you can you can go back to Friday and compare now, Monday to Friday, and see the differences and that works across teams with multiple people as well, so you can compare different revisions from different contributors and see what's changing and have some sort of traceability or trackability in that, and be able to…

-in context?

-Yes, and to be able to see exactly what's going on. Even if you're on your own, that is extremely helpful. But a version control system is not a full formal data management system. It doesn't give you things like life cycle management. It doesn't give you links to supply chain - and in terms of managing components - a lot of people like to manage their component libraries with SVN, for example, it gives you that versioning of the symbols and footprints, but not of the actual parameters or supply chain data. So it's like driving a car on the freeway at high speed and feeling safe because you know how to drive. And you trust yourself as a driver and you're in a car that's presumably roadworthy. So you're surrounded by metal. But if you think about it objectively, there's any number of things that could go wrong and cause an accident and severe damage to you and other people. If there’s black ice on the road outside of your control, things may be outside of your control - drunk drivers around you, or if you're tired and just have a momentary lapse of attention while you're driving, we all know a lot of people have accidents when they're drowsy. The same thing happens when you're designing, and I'll just share one quick story with version control feeling like it's safe when it it doesn't give you complete coverage if we have time for that. 

Okay.

I remember when I was managing technical support several years ago, I had a customer who I won't mention, but they had this situation where they were using version control, and they were generally speaking a very high-quality person - excellent design engineer, excellent PCB designer, knew what they were doing, very competent, totally trustworthy - but had a deadline. And that deadline caused them to work nights, weekends and late into the night to get this board finished and…

Not your best working brain.

-Right. So, the board was finished and sent to production, and it came back with the first twenty thousand dollars worth of stock, scrap, because an internal plane layer had become - somehow, no one knows how to this day - but an internal plane split for the power power supply, had become disconnected from the component leads and vias on that plane, it had lost its net assignment. It had lost its net name, and instead of being 3v3, or whatever it was, it was now no net. So, the copper was there, but it wasn't connected. And the question was, how did this get out without failing that design rule check? And the whole design was in version control, so version control enabled us to actually check out the exact revision of the entire project documents from the time of release. And there was a design rule check report, but the design rule check report file was dated a month earlier. And so what had happened was, the designer had this DRC report that said everything was clear, but being 03:30 or four o'Clock in the morning, and very tired - just like it could happen to any one of us. And I’ve made very similar mistakes myself. But unfortunately, this time it actually cost the designer money out of his own pocket and it was very painful. But the upshot of all that is, you can have a version control system and it's not going to… you as a designer, still have to have some discipline to know how to use it right, and to make sure you're still doing your design rule checking and things.

So, in the context of your story, how would data management protect that designer from that situation?

That is a beautiful question.

Thank you.

Because this is where a true data management system differentiates itself from just using version control. The data management system, one of the functions - one of the many functions of a formal data management system - would be you don't get to generate new Gerber files unless you've done a DRC. It creates a process where, for something to happen, like generating outputs for manufacturing, all the other ducks have to be lined up in a row perfectly. And that can be annoying to designers.

What would be annoying?

Like, for example, if I'm committing a project release to a data management system. In our case, it may be Vault or Altium 365 workspace or whatever we're going to call it, if I'm releasing a project, it won't release unless the status of all of my files is; they are saved, and they are committed to version control, and are the latest revision.

So, I think you mentioned this before. This reminds me of a pre-flight check - like you can't move ahead until you've gone through... so it really gives you forced accountability at every step.

And this comes back to that question from the forum. Is it worth having formal data management for only a small team? And this scenario I was relaying was an actual user, an actual designer who I haven't met in person, but I'd spoken to on the phone several times, a real person, who was a contractor and having formal data management, at least on the project side, would have saved his bacon and saved $20 000 out of his own pocket in that scenario.

And once it's populated right, because that's parts costs, or was it just the bare board? 

That was the cost of the initial run of boards fully assembled. I really felt pain for the designer. But this goes down to every level, all the way down. You know, a lot of people are using version control for their designs, but not for their libraries they’re still managing... again I look at the statistics of our customers 80% - more than 80% of them - are not not using any kind of version control, and especially for libraries. They’re using integrated libraries which are good, it works and they’re using discrete, schematic and PCB component libraries for designing from, and that's cool. But the other thing, version control systems at least, and better yet, data management systems give you accountability; not just in the process but accountability in the way you organize and store your data so that you can have a much more efficient time finding the parts you need when you need them.

Which again, back to my original point - what is that saying? Carpenters have to measure twice; cut once. You know, it's that kind of - I would imagine if I were a designer, I would want to just run ahead, sometimes with deadlines and all of that, rather than take the time upfront, to invest into making sure that was in place. 

So, if you're not employing a good process for... and it could just be for one person, for yourself, even or for a team of people. Sort of bringing this back to part libraries; one of the things I like to say about a footprint or a library is, it's the oldest form of design reuse in our industry. The first, or the most basic form of design, reuse is because if you think about a component footprint on a circuit board, it's a collection of pads at fixed sizes and spacings That's a land pattern and those are standardized, and in the very first prototype CAD software, each pad would have been an individual item that would have to be placed onto a grid. And then from that, you’d create like... let's reuse all of these together, and now that's called a footprint. And it's still done to this day that way, you create footprints by placing things, or now we have wizards, to speed up and automate that process. But where am I going with this? In the standard, we're reusing the same kind of package type over and over again so we can make one footprint in a library and make it useful for lots of different components. And so a library is the most basic form of design reuse but you can't trust any kind of design reuse if it's not done to a standard and to a particular process. So you have the library, but then you have another layer of protection and control over that, that helps you reuse things more easily and effectively. Version control and one more layer on top of that, again is the full data management system, which incorporates; like version control may only give you versioning and comparisons for just the graphical stuff - the symbol and the footprint - with a formal data management system like Vault or Nexus 365 workspace, you're going to get versioning for the graphics, but also for every aspect of the component and its life cycle - so that's another whole level again.

Yeah, life cycles which is, as we know, especially critical now, with all the parts shortages. I was just thinking about we were chatting earlier; I told you that I had five minutes, as an interior designer, and I had a teacher and we were having to hand draft, which is a painstaking process, and I found myself wanting to just rush ahead and get the work done right. And there were door swings and window openings and different things that we were doing and it was very painstaking, and I found myself just wanting to create the product and she used to tease me; she said, Judy, no hippie drafting, stop it! But then when you think about it, if I had given that to a builder and the door swing was off, you know what I’m saying - how much trouble and I kind of...

Well, then that's a really good point. So, just to make sure I understand what you're saying correctly, you can do a rough hand drawing of where things should be, and most people could look at that and understand the vision you have for that room in the house, and that's cool. 

But if it's not to perfect scale...

So then what would happen? The builder would take that hand drawing, that sketch…

-and make all kinds of assumptions. 

Yes! Make assumptions, redraw some of it to be to spec first, maybe? I don’t know...

Call me six times...

Yeah, wanting to clarify things, but the whole project. What happens then?

Yeah, it's slows down or gets made wrong. 

So this has happened. Also, and most people would be familiar with this in the PCB industry, this kind of thing goes on a lot.

I'm telling you, from a manufacturing standpoint, it happens all the time. So, here's my board, build it for me and here's a readme file and some Gerbers, have a nice day, and then it's like use FR4...

What order are the layers in? 

Yeah, all of that. And so these phone calls go back and forth, because there's no proper documentation or people assume: “oh, you didn't say the brand of laminate?” I know what you mean. I'll just use this other one this happens all the time - and it's, what happened? Well, we used X brand instead of Y brand because there weren't notes that said, use this, no exceptions. Or, you know, you can put “or equivalent” if it’s simple, but when you get into high performance materials, they’re critical and so there's all these... it's hippie board making, I'm telling you, it's like everybody's innocent here. It's just the state of the speed at which we move. And so, you know, I used to tell designers,  in fact, I remember writing a blog once, and I used to tell people, talk to your board fabricator before you have everything laid out and cast in stone because we can make recommendations early. And so I wrote this blog about that, and I said, “slow down to hurry up.” 

Which is exactly what this whole thing is about.

Yes, so that's what I hear you saying. 

It's like the tortoise and the hare. You spend time upfront creating a system for yourself that gives you rails to run on. Now, once you've built the railroad, the train goes, anyone who's been to Europe knows, once you build a good railroad, you can get places very fast, very cheaply, because the train goes real fast. And a good data management system with good data management practices; you have to think about these things up front to set it up. But once you've set up the system, your own rails, and you can scream through projects and have a much higher... nothing's ever one hundred percent absolutely certain about this world except death and taxes. We know that right, but you can get to 98% and have a much easier time getting things to production and that's a really good example from the building and interior decorating industry. But it's the same thing.

It is.

People spec boards all the time that are under specced, and we think, well, it's a design documentation problem. Well partly, yes you need to provide the full set of specifications and even I perceived recently, updated or come out with good standards in the two thousand series. For classifying electronic versus hard copy versus files data transfer; there's now three classes of data set you can send to manufacturing, and they're graded based on how complete they are. 

I need to see this documentation thing.

Right, so that's needed in the industry to solve at least the documentation side of it. But most of you would agree that it's a case of, you need to have a really detailed standards-based fabrication and assembly drawings. Some of us would argue that theoretically, theoretically, all the design intent can be captured in your electronic files, and if we have a complete enough file standard, we could use that and drawings may not be needed; except that there are still people at the manufacturing plants...

Stack up, laminates, there are still things that cannot be...

-Well, they still, to provide you an accurate quote for your job, they still want to be able to print things out and look at them that way or at least do that in some electronic form. Which, you know, we're working on that right, Leigh Gawne and his team are doing a great job sort of building that out. But you could say it's a documentation problem, but I say it's a data management problem because you shouldn't be able to release a product. You can generate files for making your prototypes and your first articles maybe and you're willing to work around those issues of testing in your own lab. But if you're going to produce something, a good data management system won't let you send anything out that's incomplete. That's what a good data management system will do. If you release a design all your parts have good life cycles. If you release a part, every pin on the symbol is correctly numbered and assigned to its correct pad on the footprint and it gives you reuse - reuse on rails, let's say. Because I now have a Vault-based or data management-based library of graphics, of symbols which all follow standard IEEE 315 symbols. I've got a bunch of footprints which are all IPC7351 or with JEDEC standard packages and good 3D models. (That's another whole podcast). [laughter] And I can very rapidly reuse the graphics without having to regenerate them each and every time. Because most of them, more than 80% of the CAD data in a library is standards-based and therefore, apart from a few exceptions with different component heights and strange packaging for connectors and things like that. Generally speaking, you have a system where you can reuse most of what's in there for the graphics and save a lot of time. And and then it's just a matter of linking in the supply chain and other metadata of the component, like its manufacturer, part number. What its temperature ranges are, tolerances, all that kind of stuff. So, but then, with all of that, you have a life cycle. So if this part becomes no longer available or there's some reason why you're not allowed to use it, you mark it as such in the system and then the whole team, even if it's a team of one, doesn't accidentally put this part that you shouldn't be using into a new design.

Right, and like you said, we're all human we’re all apt to do it. Especially when we're working overtime and we’re sleep deprived. 

And every engineer and PCB designer out there I know, from time to time works through the night to get something done.

I just flew to Munich with one guy, and he's working on projects on the plane. And because you can't sleep on a plane, even though it was an international flight.

Ah, the old does the CAD work on a plane argument.

Yeah, that’s another topic. 

We have so many. Okay, well, thank you. And this has been really fascinating because, actually, I didn't know there were certain parts of data management that really keeps you accountable. And I can see, the slow down to hurry up. It makes perfect sense to me. But, you know, initially I would think if you're one guy, you can do hippie drafting.

You can - just be prepared for lost time and back and forth and its problems... nobody has time. Okay. On the lighter side, another person put kind of a quirky funny thing up on the forum, which made me laugh. How do you pronounce via? “Veea, or vaia?” Which side do you fall on Ben Jordan?

I'm a “veea” guy.

I'm a “veea” guy too. I  keep thinking Via con Dios, who says “vaia”? Do you know anyone that says “vaia”?

I think it depends where you come from?

Yeah, I think it is an international thing.

I think I've heard more English friends use the word “vaia” which I would expect from Australia too. But Australia's a bit mixed you now, the vernacular use of that. If I was talking back in Sydney, where I grew up, and talking about roads, you'd say, you go “vaia” that route.

I see.

But then you switch gears. You're talking to a fellow designer about PCB is that's a “veea”. It's really weird. It's messed up.

So, via, what is the root of this word? I mean we know what it means - we need to do some research or you can comment and tell us. Is it a Latin word, is it a Spanish word, right? Because it's in Spanish, we live here in California, everything - the word via around here, and in Spanish that vowel; that “i” and “a” can only be said one way. 

How is it in Italy with the via? See again - I say ‘vaia’ when it's viaduct. But is it “veeaduct” or “vaiaduct”? [laughter]

I have no clue. We need you to jump on that and give us the answer. Yeah, we should've Googled this ahead of time and acted like we knew - but it was a funny question. So speaking of “veea/vaia” they’re “veeas” to me, I'm sorry. And being in the board industry for this many years they've always been “veeas” to me. So, a friend of the podcast, his name is Jesus, by the way. Jesus, thank you so much for your kind comments about the podcast and I had asked him, well, two funny things first, but I have to tell you, this guy Jesus, he sends a comment, saying that he loves the podcast. They learned a lot from John Watson and because we're talking data management. 

Absolutely brilliant. 

So he said he learned a lot from it. Thanks for making the podcast so and so forth. So I said, hey, thank you so much, what would you like to learn more about because we’re always looking for designers to tell us what they want to learn about. And so he mentioned vias. So he's like; via protection - should they be covered, uncovered, filled, unfilled, conductive, non-conductive? I mean, there's a whole rat's nest in there and planerized, non-planerized. 

Rat’s nest, I like that, sorry… [laughter]

That was no pun intended. Oh my gosh - I stepped right into that. That's sad. So, we're going to do a podcast on that. And I think I know it's just the guy who is a friend and engineer at a really fabulous board shop who will give us all the ins and outs. And I've been around vias and via filling and all of that in the board industry. And it really is - there can be a lot to it, and it's gotten so much better. But if you don't do it right, it could be a disaster. So, coming soon we'll be [doing that].

I’ll be watching that one.

Yes, and by then we’ll know whether it's a “veea” or “vaia” and so we'll jump on that. So Ben, thank you so much. I say this all the time, but every time I hang out with Ben Jordan, I learn something. So this is good.

You’re so kind. I learned a lot from you too.

See? Yeah, and if you need to know something about boards, we learn from each other so it's a good thing. So, thank you again for tuning in and enjoying the OnTrack Podcast. Remember to hop on the AltiumLive Forum, send some questions and also send emails too. Send us your questions through email at ontrack@altium.com.

Okay, thanks guys, see you next time and remember to always stay on track. 

I like that one.

About the Author

Judy Warner


Judy Warner has held a unique variety of roles in the electronics industry since 1984. She has a deep background in PCB Manufacturing, RF and Microwave PCBs and Contract Manufacturing with a focus on Mil/Aero applications in technical sales and marketing.

She has been a writer, contributor and journalist for several industry publications such as Microwave Journal, The PCB Magazine, The PCB Design Magazine, PDCF&A and IEEE Microwave Magazine and is an active member of multiple IPC Designers Council chapters.

In March 2017, Warner became the Director of Community Engagement for Altium and immediately launched Altium’s OnTrack Newsletter.
She led the launch of AltiumLive: Annual PCB Design Summit, a new and annual Altium User Conference.

Judy's passion is to provide resources, support and to advocate for PCB Designers around the world.

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