10-Ounce Copper PCBs and Design Library Migration
When you hear about 10-ounce copper PCBs, high current and high voltage come to mind. In this episode, we will have a deep dive discussion on designing heavy power boards with Mario Strano. Mario is the senior PCB designer at Nikola and also president of ECAD Central. He will share with us his 16 years of experience in PCB design and the migration services he provides through ECAD Central.
Watch this episode or listen on the go. We’ve touched on many other interesting topics, such as setting up clearance and creepage rules and a 57-ounce copper board.
Listen to Podcast:
Watch the video:
- Mario’s background and professional path as PCB Designer and Component Engineer
- He is currently the only PCB designer at Nikola
- His expertise includes but is not limited to designing 10-ounce copper boards, real heavy power boards, HMI boards, human-machine interface boards
- Setting up creepage and clearance rules for heavy copper was a challenge to Mario during his transition from SQL Semiconductor to Avnet
- Mario and Zach discuss more 10-ounce copper PCBs
- Zach was amused to hear about Taiyo Kogyo’s 57-ounce copper
- The Japan-based company developed proprietary processes that allow them to do things like Bus Bar Embedded PCB
- Mario briefly shares his experience as a component engineer at Avnet for six years
- The two discuss the tantalum capacitor shortage in 2018 and compare it to the current semiconductors shortage, which started in 2020
- How is the supply chain shortage affecting PCB designers, and how are they working around it?
- ECAD Central, an Altium 365, Concord Pro, and Altium NEXUS Database service provider – setup and configuration, database migration
- Mario compared migrating data to “like moving mountains”
- Is mirroring parts between two systems possible? Mario explains what can be done. Definitely not a simple drag and drop operation, though!
Links and Resources:
Connect with Mario Strano on Linkedin
Visit the ECAD Central website
Learn More about Taiyo Kogyo and their 57-ounce copper boards
Watch related podcasts:
Easily Find Electronic Components for Your Next PCB Design
The Benefits of Diversifying PCB Industry Supply Chain
Mario Strano: And they could do 57 ounce copper. I forget what it comes out to, it's something like a quarter inch thick copper.
Zach Peterson: That's almost a joke.
Mario Strano: It's ridiculous.
Zach Peterson: Hello everyone. And welcome to the All Team on Track podcast. I am your host, Zach Peterson. I'm very happy to be here today with Mario Strano. Senior PCB designer at Nikola, and also president of ECAD Central. We're going to be talking to him today about his journey, and eventually making it to work at Nikola. And also what he does through his business, ECAD Central. Mario, thank you so much for being here today.
Mario Strano: Yeah. Thanks Zach. Thanks for having me on.
Zach Peterson: You've never been on the podcast before, but I know you actually do some work servicing All Team customers through ECAD Central. Before we talk about that and what folks need from ECAD Central, maybe we can learn a little bit more about you and your background, and how you got to where you are at Nikola.
Mario Strano: Yeah, sure. I started doing PCB design 14 years ago, I was working for a startup company called SQL and Semiconductor. It was acquired by Texas Instruments, and then a position opened up to learn PCB design from the ground up. My manager at the time taught me best practices for PCB design, for power electronics, is a power supply business unit that I worked at for Texas Instruments. Learned PADS and did design work in Mentor Graphics PADS for about two years, did a few designs in OrCAD Allegro as well. But for the last 12 years I've been using Altium Designer, exclusively. So basically, I worked at several companies as a PCB designer since my time at TI, I worked as a component engineer/PCB designer as well at Avnet for six years. Currently, the only PCB designer at Nikola Motor Corporation right now. We're going to hire on at least one other person though, we're starting to get to the point where time schedules are going to be impacted negatively, if we don't get another resource.
Mario Strano: And that's pretty much that. I did a lot of evaluation modules, when it was at Texas Instruments for these power phases and whatnot. So I got really good at doing PCB designs. But when it comes to the work that I'm doing at Nikola, we're doing 10 ounce copper boards, real heavy power boards. I'm also doing HMI boards, human machine interface boards, such as the board that controls the user gauges heads up or the user's gauges. And then also the infotainment, there's the GPS maps, and audio, and the camera interface, everything goes through the machine interface board that I did. And also we do all the ECUs, electronic control units. They're basically, boards or designs that control aspects of the vehicle, one of them is a vehicle control module. And one of the main functions of that, is to translate the user's accelerator pedal into signals that drive the whole vehicle propulsion. And that's about it, unless you have any other questions on that.
Zach Peterson: So you said you started in a semiconductor company, before it got bought out by Texas Instruments. Was that correct?
Mario Strano: Yeah. So SQL Semiconductor, they started by a few people who worked for, I think at the time it was Lucent. And they were working on a type of FET, the project had gotten canceled and they asked Lucent if they could buy the patent rights to that technology. They did, and they started a company and they were doing, some kind of RF vets. And then they used that technology to do standard MOS vets for power electronics, and they had some really good advantages to the technology. I wasn't a product engineer, so I don't know exactly what the difference is between your standard FETs and these kind of FETs. But they were just really efficient and Texas Instruments liked what they had, Texas instruments at the time didn't have any FETs. So a lot of their evaluation boards would have their controller in their PWM generator, but they'd have to use somebody else's FETs. And obviously that wasn't desirable, so they decided to buy the company I was working for.
Zach Peterson: That's interesting. Because when you said you worked at a semiconductor company, I had this image in my head of you doing microcontrollers, or something like this.
Mario Strano: No, it was all power electronics, it was really FETs. They had end-channel, P-channel, and then they had in one package. And then in a stacked dye on top of each other. I think they had other ones that had an integrated PWM chip inside with the two FETs, all about real estate savings for designing this onto a motherboard, and that's the kind of market they had. Probably still one of their customers, is Apple. I know at the time when I worked for them, that was a big customer of theirs, and they actually got that customer before TI acquired them. So it was a really good technology. But again, pretty much anything that had to do with the power phases around a mother board, that's the types of semiconductors that they developed.
Zach Peterson: So now being at Nikola and working on, as you said, 10 ounce copper boards. I could imagine that's a bit of a shift in mindset, or do you find that there are similarities there with what you used to do SQL?
Mario Strano: Yeah. The only thing is... Well, I also worked for a design services house for Avnet. Avnet had acquired Premier Farnell, and Premier Farnell prior to the Avnet acquisition, had acquired a design services house. So when I was at Avnet the last few years, I worked for the design services house. So I saw a lot of other designs between the time I was doing stuff at TI and Nikola. But the main difference really is just, learning how to set up creepaging clearance rules for the heavy copper. Clearance is pretty straightforward. Creepage was a little bit of a learning curve, because I hadn't used that feature in Altium. But really what it comes down to is primarily, you just have larger gaps. The heavier copper weight you go up, you have to larger align widths and spaces.
Zach Peterson: So is that due to risk of ESD?
Mario Strano: The primary concern is creepage at high voltage, and also high current. Some of the modules that the board said, that I did the PCB designed for, they control IGBTs that are capable of 1200 volts at 1800 amps, and three per board. So this really high voltages on these things, and so very large creepage and clearance requirements on those high voltage sections, high voltage to low voltage. And then some high voltage to its own reference ground. Of course, you don't want dead shorts or you don't want shorts due to voltage creeping across the board.
Zach Peterson: Sure. When I hear 10 ounce copper, I'm thinking this is super high current, and maybe it isn't super high voltage.
Mario Strano: Well, that's not always the case but for what we do, we're dealing with motor drives and various kinds of designs that would go on an electric semi-truck. So we're dealing with high current and high voltage.
Zach Peterson: Right. Electrified semi-trucks. So they've got a huge battery pack somewhere, and then you're routing all that power through these control boards, essentially.
Mario Strano: Yeah. Not all the current passes through, say the one board that I was talking about, that's controlling these FETs or IGBTs. But I'm doing the design right now that I think it's 180 amps, are going through the board.
Zach Peterson: That's a lot of amps.
Mario Strano: Yeah, through PCB.
Zach Peterson: Sure. Well, so in back planes that I've done, some back planes can get to that level of current, but you're not going to see 10 ounce copper. They're going to interleave a bunch of copper in different layers, because it's already going to be a higher layer count board.
Mario Strano: Right.
Zach Peterson: And that's how they get the copper capacity. So I think it ends up working out to the equivalent of 10 ounces of copper, if you were to take all that copper and stack it up on each other.
Mario Strano: It probably would. There's a little disadvantage in that, when you have one chuck and copper as opposed to... 1, 10 ounce layer as opposed to five two ounce layers that are stitched together. It's obviously more thermally efficient and electrically efficient, to just have one solid layer that is 10 ounce, right?
Zach Peterson: I think so. Actually, I think that would make sense. And maybe depending on how you divide up the currents. Because maybe, one of those layers gets the bulk of the current. And so the bulk of the heat is being generated there, whereas in other layers it's lower current, so it's not so much heat. They can accept some of that heat from that layer that's doing the bulk of the heat generation. Is that the right way you would think about it?
Mario Strano: Yeah. That's fair to say. Would it really comes down to the one that I'm doing right now, it's a system of a couple of boards. So we have the gate drive board, and then we have the power board. And the gate drive board it's only two ounce copper, it's six layer. And it has all the control circuitry and everything, and then it meets through connectors with the power board, whose main purpose is just to pass the high voltage in current. So that's only a two layer board, the power board that I'm talking about for this application. But you could have a six, eight layers stack up that has two ounces externally. Have all the control circuitry on that and have internal layers that are eight, 10 ounces. Or I think the one five house that we're using, can do up to 15 or 20 ounces. But there's another place called Taiyo Kogyo, I think it's called. It's in Japan, and they could do 57 ounce copper. That's like... I forget what it comes out to, but it's something like a quarter inch thick copper.
Zach Peterson: That's almost a joke. I only say that because, I get emails from manufacturers overseas all the time. And sometimes they're a little ridiculous like, "We'll do a 48 layer HDI PCB." And I'm thinking, "Okay. No, you won't." But when you hear like, "Oh, 57 ounce copper." That can't be a thing, right?
Mario Strano: Well, this company, they have some proprietary processes that allow them to do things like embedded bus bars. They could also do on one layer. They could have up to, I think it's like a 10 ounce area and a two ounce area, on one layer.
Mario Strano: But they're the only ones I heard of, that can do that. And the advantage of that is instead of having the system, like I talked about having a control board and then having the power board, you could have the control circuitry in one area and then have the heavy copper power in another area, that same board. It's kind of interesting though, because you're like, "Well, how would I define that in Altium, or any other tool for that matter?"
Zach Peterson: That's exactly what I was just wondering.
Mario Strano: Yeah. So the way that it would be done is you, assign mechanical layers for, "Okay, this is a bus bar layer." And then you just define that in your fab documentation, send it to them, and then they translate that. Because I don't think there's any software that could actually handle that, just from any kind of modern PCB design software.
Zach Peterson: Well, sure. It's so conditioned to operate with just whatever the thickness is, or the copper weight is, on just that one layer. But when you say an embedded bus bar I think you mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but a large bus bar that passes through a cutout into multiple layers. And it just ends up being a very thick piece of copper. That's not correct?
Mario Strano: No, it's actually embedded in the stackup.
Zach Peterson: Oh, okay.
Mario Strano: And the leads come out, say the middle of the stackup, and then hook up to your battery or whatever it is that you need the bus bars for.
Zach Peterson: Okay. I see. That's interesting.
Mario Strano: Yeah. It's called, Taiyo, like Taiyo Yuden. Taiyo K-O-G-Y-O, Kogyo. I don't know how you pronounce that exactly, but they're in Japan. And if anybody needs their services, they do stuff that I've never heard of anybody ever even talking about.
Zach Peterson: I've seen on some websites, where they talk about like 15 ounce or 30 ounce copper, but 57 is the new record.
Mario Strano: Yeah. And when it comes to having the heavy copper and the two ounce copper on one layer, I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I think there's some process limitation that limits those heavy copper areas to tenons. But if you could embed a bus bar, this shouldn't be a problem to get the power through the board that you want.
Zach Peterson: Certainly. And then I wonder what the process looks like for that. Because in my head, I imagine a cutout that size to fit the bus bar and they just toss it in there, and then they put the top layers over it or the outside layers over it, I should say. But I'm sure it's much more elaborate than that, so speculating here.
Mario Strano: Yeah. They're the only ones I ever heard that has the capability. The only problem with using a company like that, that has such a unique kind of process or unique process capability is that, good luck shopping that around. And I express some of the concerns, I'm like, "Well, what happens if there's a typhoon and your facility gets wiped out, then I just can't get my boards produced." Of course, sorry for you guys. But I really hate using single source suppliers for anything components. Whenever they could be avoided, of course, I definitely try to get multiple source footprint pin out and whatnot. But for the PCB, you can't just shop that around anywhere, because of the unique processes they have.
Mario Strano: One of the things they said though is, if you order a board from them, basically you put in an order for three years worth of boards or whatever you guys agree to, they produce all the boards at once. So they're not producing a hundred boards three years down the road, they got them all produced, and they have some kind of way to preserve them. I'm not sure what they would use exactly, but I'm sure they'll goal play it anyway. But they have some ways to mitigate the risk, because they understand that.
Zach Peterson: I suppose that makes sense. It's almost the same strategy that you have to use today, when buying your micro controller or certain Asics, or whatever it may be. Try and project where you're going to be at in a year, maybe three years, and buy as much as you can now if you can.
Mario Strano: Yeah. It's kind of tough. I'm not an electrical engineer, but I do component engineering functions for the group that I'm in. Mainly supply chain management, EOL, obsolescence management, and that kind of stuff. And then also finding alternates. I was a component engineer at Avnet for six years, so I know a lot about components. I'm just encouraging them to design in parts that they can find a pin to pin compatible, and footprint compatible part. Of course for logic ICs and things like that, it's easier to do, a lot of them have common pin-outs. But again, when you get into P-mix and certain other types of parts, it just is what it is.
Zach Peterson: Yeah. And then with some analog parts, like I had to deal with this recently with an ADC. It's always nice if you can get pin compatible from the same vendor, but then specifications vary. And if you need really tight specifications, you may be out of luck.
Mario Strano: Yeah. This is just crazy, the situation we're all in. I've been never anywhere near this kind of stuck like we are in so many designs, just having to buy parts to support production for two, three years, just because they're just not around. You have to...
Zach Peterson: That was actually something I was going to ask you was, what is your perspective on shortages over the long term? And I bring it up because, I started working in the industry level in 2017, before that I was in academia doing research and teaching. So I was never having to go to Digi-Key and buy 400 parts for an assembly, or whatever it may be. So my perspective on this is not as broad as I think some other folks. My first experience with the word shortage, in the context of electronics, was with capacitors in 2018-ish. And then it seemed to roll over to semiconductors in 2020, 2021. And I'm wondering based on just your experience, you've seen this kind of shortage issue, just roll around to different component classes.
Mario Strano: Well, I think the capacitor issue you're probably referring to, I think you're talking about tantalum caps.
Zach Peterson: Oh, yeah.
Mario Strano: Yeah. So I think there was a conflict minerals issue with tantalum in Africa, and whatnot. And I think some of that was related to the shortage on that. But we haven't seen something as widespread as we are seeing now, it's ICs, it's even a lot of times capacitors as well. Your standard whatever, like 50 volt, a hundred micro Farid, electrolytic cap, surface mount, sometimes you just can't get them. There's a shortage that's across all different types of components, even connectors.
Zach Peterson: Yeah. It's interesting because not only is the desired part of it out of stock, but the substitute is out of stock. And the substitute's substitute, is out of stock.
Mario Strano: Yeah. We had to design in like three different Lynn tranceivers, because we designed in the one and then it wasn't available. Then the other one, that the alternate we selected was plentiful and then it was gone. And then third one, fortunately we found footprint and pin to pin compatibility there. But again, that's not the case typically with complex IC, these aren't complex, they're pretty simple. But yeah, it's just crazy these days.
Zach Peterson: Well, and I've had to have standing alerts on certain parts with distributors, in order to get some notification when they're having something come in stock. And it's immediately over to the client, "Hey, this is coming in, how many do you want? How many should we get?" And of course they're like, "All of them."
Mario Strano: Yep. Exactly. We are designing in an FPGA in a certain application, and they're talking 52 weekly time for the FPGA.
Zach Peterson: And in that instance, it's either alternative vendor, which impacts your development. Because now you've basically got to translate to all of that development over to that other vendor's development tool, or you got to just buy a larger FPGA and use less Silicon?
Mario Strano: Yeah. So what we're going to do is, we're going to buy some DevKits, or we have some DevKits already for the FPGA we're going to design in. So what we're probably going to do is, use that reference. That's my kitty. Use the DevKit to hook everything up, maybe make a custom board that interfaces from the DevKit to our application, or to the other boards in our system. And then prove out everything, control circuitry, code and everything. And by the time we're ready to go to production or have everything else proven out, the hardware is the last variable. We'd have to do our own carrier design and saw them in a carrier, or just our own custom chip down FPGA design, with all the peripherals on it, whatever. But it looks like we're going to have to do that for this application, because we just can't get the parts. Even getting samples to support just our prototype development, they're talking like 20 weeks. It's ridiculous.
Zach Peterson: Wow. When you said you're buying dev boards or buying, sound like evaluation products. I'm going to be honest, I was a little concerned that you were about to say, "Well, we're going to buy those in the and that's how we're going to get chips."
Mario Strano: You know what, actually that was something that I was thinking about, just to prove out the... So I was thinking about in desperation mode, maybe buying five eval boards, just so we could do some prototype validation. But it looks like what we're probably going to do is, Avnet has a lot of really good FPGA reference designs. They also have their own series of products called Micro Z, Pico Z, and Ultra Z, and they're just outstanding. When I worked at Avnet, I was in the board design group that designed those. And even those have long lead times though, but we could probably get a few evaluation kits, carrier in some. And just at least use that to get our code and control circuitry, all working the system. And then down the road, either buy Psalms in volume when they're there and use them in production.
Mario Strano: One of the things that Avnet will do with licensing agreements and whatnot, in a large they will sell you the design source files for their Psalms. Because it's Avnet branded product, it's not just a DevKit or dev board, these are their products. But you can purchase that, and once you get the design files, you can do the chip down version, just integrate the Psalm with the carrier instead of having plugin carrier. But the first phase would just be taking their Psalm as it is, designing our own carrier, or taking their carrier source files, which they will give away. And just signing that system.
Zach Peterson: Interesting. Okay. I'd like to switch gears now for a moment, because I'd mentioned in the intro, that you have a company called ECAD Central. And for those that are listening and don't know, ECAD Central is actually an all TM partner in Arizona. Maybe you could tell us all what ECAD central does.
Mario Strano: Yeah. So basically what the services I provide are, all TM servers set up in configuration whether it's Nexus, or Concord Pro, or A365. We have about eight years experience setting up these servers. I personally set up dozens of these servers from scratch. Several, when I was at Avnet. I also did database migration, going from Concord Pro to A365. I migrated all of our component data, all of our design source files. At the time, I don't know if there's anything now that makes that a shorter or quicker path, but at the time it was pretty much manual. And it was like moving a mountain and to have everything correct in the end, it's quite a feat, there's so many pitfalls that you could run into.
Mario Strano: But because I had a lot of experience prior to that, with the software and creating database libraries, I was able to do that successfully. I've done that for other customers as well. is phenomenal when it comes to this kind of service as well, I've actually done a lot of contract work for them. They're a bigger organization than ECAD Central, but I'm cheaper.
Zach Peterson: Well that's fair.
Mario Strano: But that's basically what it is, just the service setup and configuration, database migration. I also can do database administration, if they don't have a bandwidth custom component databases, I could create them and migrate them to their server or I can create them for them, and give them instructions how to migrate them as database libraries. I also do bond maintenance service, especially these days where component shortages are all too common. I could maintain your bomb, and just basically ensure that you're aware when parts start become unavailable in distribution, just basically be a monthly service. And they just scrub your bum once a month, and let you know of any problem parts that may be coming up, based on your projected volumes that you need of those parts.
Mario Strano: Library cleanup and migration, a lot of places have site libraries and then they want to go to Altium database product, like all A365. And sometimes you have libraries that are engineer A, engineer B, and engineer C, and then you want to use all those parts, but the slight variations, and text, font, pin length, all these things, whatever. But I could take all those parts, clean them up, unify them in appearance, and all aspects that can be unified.
Mario Strano: And then give that back to you. Or again, I could migrate that for you into A365 or Concord Pro, whatever your database product is. And also I have about 40,000 parts that I created myself, that are in my A365 server, that I can migrate as is for a certain price. It just depends. I realize getting libraries from other people there's always unknowns. You don't know what you're going to get, but I've been making my own parts for 14 years. It's very rare that I'll have an issue. Most of these parts, at least all the passive footprints have been production proven. And also design source file conversion, I could do that for you, I've done that many times for all different tool to tool conversions. Well, from other tools to Altium designer. The only limitation I have when it comes to Altium database products is that, I don't don't have much experience at all with the Nexus enterprise workflows, or the PLM integration part of that.
Mario Strano: But other than that, I know these systems inside and out. I have been setting up these servers, using them for about eight years now. But that's pretty much that.
Zach Peterson: So you brought up something interesting, because this is a question that I've been asked before. Which is, conversions and migration from another CAD platform, or maybe not full migration, but at least mirroring what's going on in your LTM server with respect to what they have stored in another server, as far as parts. Is that something that you've had to deal with? Let's say, a company wants to add LTM to their capabilities, but they've been working in PADS for the last 10 years or whatever, so they have all these parts in PADS. Have you had experience making sure that those two systems play well together, through either an LTM product or through a third party system?
Mario Strano: I haven't really done a lot of library conversion from tool to tool, but I can do it. I know how to ensure that the library is good, there's a lot of global edits. Altium has some really good global editing interfaces such as, the PCB lib list editor. Where you could globally change, what's on mechanical layer one to mechanical layer 13, or whatever. So if I get a library and port it into Altium, I could do global edits to clean things up and just make things comply with whatever Altium layer configuration they want. So I have the ability to do it, I just haven't done a lot of, "This is my PADS library, please migrate it."
Zach Peterson: Well, because something that comes up that I've been asked is, a company will say, "We want to migrate to Altium, but we still have this giant stack of designs from the last 10 or 20 years. And we're going to have to maintain one license in this old tool, just so that we can access these and set them up for conversion when we need to." Because if they've got 10,000 old designs, are they really going to spend a year translating every single design into the new tool, or are they just going to triage it as they need to? But they want to make sure that the parts are all in alignment. So then they look at, "Okay, how can we make sure that the parts are mirrored, between the two systems?"
Mario Strano: Yeah. What I would do is, I would get a copy of their design source or ask them for an output that can import into Altium. I'd import their design into Altium, make PCB and schematic libraries out of them. Take those, clean them up, based on their preferences for their Altium layer usage, for mechanical layers in particular. And once I globally edit all those, then I would release them. If they had A365 or something, then I'd set them up to release them into their new server. There's a little bit more work though, it would be the preferred method is, to create a database library. So using the, I think it's the parameter manager in the schematic lib. You could go in there and get basically, columns and rows. You have to do cleanup and whatnot, and it's best to do it component by component. So all resistors and all capacitors and whatnot, the parts with similar parameters.
Mario Strano: So sometimes you have to take that larger library and split it up into the specific component types. And then you go into that parameter manager interface, copy and paste into Excel, build your date back into your database, assign the symbols on footprints once you clean them up, and basically there you go. That's that's in a nutshell.
Zach Peterson: Okay. Well it's definitely not a simple drag and drop operation.
Mario Strano: Oh, no. Not that long.
Zach Peterson: I think it's the main takeaway here.
Mario Strano: Yeah.
Zach Peterson: Well maybe in the future it will be, but I guess until everyone gets used to standardizing their libraries with all those different parameters, it'll never happen.
Mario Strano: Yeah, that's true.
Zach Peterson: Okay. Well, if anybody out there that is listening, needs these services and I know that they are needed because as I said, they do come up from time to time. I would welcome them to contact ECAD Central or contact you directly. We'll include some links to ECAD Central and to your LinkedIn, in the show notes. So anybody that's interested, check out the show notes for those links. Mario, this has been a very fun talk. And of course, you have educated me on some of the capabilities regarding high or heavy copper boards. I never thought I'd hear someone say 57 ounce copper, but there you go.
Mario Strano: Yep. They're out there.
Zach Peterson: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining us, and I think we'll leave it at that. And everybody, make sure to check out the show notes and make sure to contact ECAD Central, if you are in need of any of these critical migration or server setup services. With that, make sure to hit the subscribe button on YouTube, you can stay caught up with all of our upcoming episodes. And last but not least, don't stop learning, stay on track, and we'll see you next time.