The Brave New World of PCB Data Management

John Watson
|  Created: January 14, 2019  |  Updated: June 23, 2020

PCB Data Management is the acquisition, storage, verification, usage, distribution and maintenance of all the data connected to the development of printed circuit boards or PCBs

In what some refer to as the “Olden Days” of the Electronics industry, it was definitely a different time. There wasn’t much need for PCB Data, let alone anything to manage it with. Tasks such as  creating schematics, BOMs, drawings, and gerber files were problematic at best.

Many times, such things were done in what can be best described as throwing caution to the wind and hoping for the best. It was very typical (and still is) that a PCB would be given a crumpled napkin with ketchup stains, and on it was scribbled a barely legible schematic. A little gift from the EE scrawled out over his double bacon cheeseburger and fries at lunch. With that, a PCB would only require a few schematic symbols, footprints, and maybe a few component parameters.

A practice was to simply copy and paste a single component and change it’s value. Entire designs were created in just that way. The amazing thing is, it worked. It advanced the entire industry in some extraordinary ways, which really speaks of the professionalism and skill of those early designers.

In this “Brave new world”, the PCB design industry has taken huge leaps forward. The advancements in technology, driven by what can only be described as an insatiable hunger by consumers for faster smaller and sleeker products with all the latest bells and whistles, is never-ending.

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Looking at some retail prices for those new devices gives the impression that money is not an object. This has brought about a completely different mentality, a “Paradigm Shift” one might say. It has been estimated that electronic technology doubles every ten years, and from what I see that is exceeding expectations. This “Paradigm Shift” has required a higher level of ability and competency in every area of the PCB design process and the CAD tools used.

In this “Brave New World”, a huge impulse exists to “keep up” with shorter development times of products from concept to market. In simple terms, we are forced to “get it right” the first time. The days of being able to design, fabricate, assemble and test multiple spins of the same PCB assembly with no clear results or benefits are over. This “Brave New World” is one in which our industry must work smarter, not harder, and the importance of that fact has been brought to the forefront like never before. Those that choose not to go that route are left on the corporate dust pile of history.

In this “Brave new world”, the impact of PCB Design Data Management has been nothing less than overwhelming. A single electronic “component” now has endless information attached: various parameters, sourcing information, availability, 3D models, compliance certificates, datasheets, company PLM information; the list goes on and on. Then just to keep everyone on their toes, much of that information is in a constant state of flux.

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What is meant by PCB Data Management?

This is an ever-changing and evolving area, which means the definition is always developing. It is far more than just managing PCB Data. A good definition would be “The acquisition, storage, verification, usage, distribution and maintenance of ALL the data connected to the design of PCB assemblies”.

Everything from here on will be structured around this definition and towards that goal.

Why is PCB Data Management so Important?

If someone has been in the PCB industry for any reasonable period, especially on the manufacturing side, they know the main objective of a PCB is not just to design “stuff”. I tell designers all the time that companies do not exist to simply “pay them” to design. Rather, it is the goal of every company to ultimately get that “stuff” into a sales catalog or on a shelf and have someone buy it. To accomplish this, the collection, organization and distribution of PCB design and manufacturing data will be vital. In this “Brave New World”, PCB designs are completely driven by information.

The bigger problem is not the amount of information or even how it is collected. Rather, it is having a system and process to manage all of it. As we will be looking at throughout this guide, it should become apparent that the structure of the Data Management System is far more important than the data itself. If the right data is not readily available to those who need it, when they need it, the Data Management System will be useless.

How to Understand Complex PCB Data Management Requirements

The famous quote from Creighton Abrams: “How do you eat an Elephant? One bite at a time.” is a principle that has guided my career and one that I will refer to several times through this guide. In its purest sense, what does it mean? To take something that is complex or overwhelming and maybe difficult, break it up into small manageable and simply deal with each single little piece.

This is difficult for some for several reasons. Many times, it is because the is looking at the wrong thing. No matter how hard they work, all they see is how much of the Elephant is still left, and get overwhelmed. This principle of eating the elephant will be absolutely required if we are to understand this area of PCB Data Management.

The Objective of this PCB Data Management Guide

The objectives of this guide are multi-faceted. Initially, we want to take a serious bird’s-eye-view of the PCB industry, and what the issues are that drive things in a new direction causing this huge paradigm shift.

Next, to provide the information needed to set up and manage a successful PCB Data Management System and process. If such a system does not exist for you right now, then you will be given the tools and techniques to get started.

Additionally, to show how that data is directly used in your design process. Finally, to provide the specific tools that are available to put this all together so that it will work for you.

Areas that will be covered in future additions to the guide, include:

PCB Data Management: the Great Paradigm Shift

To identify the significant drivers in the Electronic Industry that have caused influx and sometime outright chaos. Forcing a new direction and requirements for the entire PCB industry and specifically the Data Management area.

PCB Data Management System Structures

To understand the requirements for all PCB Data Management Systems if they are to be successful. The structure and process of the PCB Data Management System.

PCB Data Management in the PCB Design Process

The PCB Data Management system by itself is not the goal. It does not stand alone and really has no purpose if it does not fit into the PCB design process and the design flow.

This involves more than just how, to whom the data is distributed and when it is required at some point of the process. Rather what roles are involved in the PCB process and specifically what data would be involved in that phase of the design to be successful.

Data Management PCB Design Tools for Success

What specific design tools are available to support, manage and distribute the PCB Data.

The challenge I have for you the reader is this: how will you prepare for the massive changes in our industry? I can tell you that it will seem overwhelming sometimes. I can promise you, if you rise to the challenge it will be worth it for you both personally and professionally.

I recall several years ago sitting in a PCB conference presentation and how amazed people were that 5-mil traces were now going to be fabricated. I remember folks were just awestruck by that. It was like watching science fiction come to life. Now, that is very and they are going even smaller than 3-mil trace-and-space.

With all these changes, the burning question is where will we be in another 10 or 20 years? What will be the great breakthroughs of new technology? Furthermore, how will we as an industry provide the needed innovations and education that will propel us forward?  Mostly, who will lead this electronic insurgency? Who will be, as I like to say, the Builder of the Dreams?

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About Author

About Author

With nearly 40 years in the Electronic industry with 20 of them being in the field of PCB Design and engineering, John has stayed on the cutting edge of the PCB industry as a designer/Engineer and more recently as a trainer and mentor. His primary work has been in the Manufacturing field but it has also expanded to several PCB Service arenas. As a veteran, he proudly served in the Army in the Military Intelligence field. John is a CID Certified PCB designer. Presently pursuing his Advance CID certification. Now as the Senior PCB engineer at Legrand Inc, he leads the PCB Designers and Engineers in various divisions across the United States and China.

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