Drinking From the Firehose of PCB Data

John Watson
|  Created: January 14, 2019  |  Updated: November 11, 2020

There are several problems that are directly impacting the PCB Design area and specifically the PCB Data Management. For some time, it has not been business as usual, it is vital to understand these issues and develop a good strategy to handle them.

With the invention of the internet, civilization dragged itself (sometimes kicking and screaming) out of the industrial age and into the “Information Age”, as an official description of the 21st century and characterized by the sudden rise of technology that is driven by Information Technology (IT). There is a strong belief that the information age was brought on by the innovations created during the industrial age that preceded it. The great news for us is that in the very center of this occurrence is the electronic industry.   

The PCB design industry has been given no exception to this inundation of information. In no other time in history, has so much information been so readily available to so many. Which of course, has brought its pros and cons. With what seems to be endless information that is collected, stored, created and distributed to different individuals and parties - it is very easy to feel as if you are drinking from the proverbial fire hose. With the end results being that required or needed information is being lost in the noise.

In the words of Heraclitus, “Change is the only constant in life.” Our entire industry is in the throes of change and constant flux. Some may refer to it as “Organized Chaos.” Meaning, there are endless challenges that drive the PCB industry in interminable directions either voluntary or involuntary. Fortunately, all these issues in some way touch on the PCB Data Management area. I would further argue, good PCB Data Management systems do not just touch on, but literally guide this “river of information”, keeping it in its banks and controlled.

It is the intention of this chapter to discuss several problems that are directly impacting the PCB design area and specifically PCB Data Management. For some time, it has not been business as usual. It is vital to understand these issues and develop a good strategy to handle them.

PCB Design Software and Process    

This may seem a rather strange place to start when discussing the changes or issues in our field of expertise. But, it is a fine example of the “chicken or the egg” scenario. Does the industry drive the PCB software development or vice versa? I have seen both at various times. But, now I personally believe the latter. With ever-increasing advancements and challenges (which will be discussed later) it has been the PCB software that has grown and transformed more than anything else. As someone who has seen this over many decades, it amazes me to think that all this originally started from such simple beginnings as a few items of tape and mylar on a light table. Like a good carpenter, the first rule is to use the correct tool for the job. We would not use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail.

PCB design software companies have popped up faster than pimples on a teenager’s face after eating a large pepperoni pizza. But by far, the leader in this industry since they first came on the scene in 1985 has clearly been Altium (formerly Protel® ). I have seen firsthand the company philosophy is very simple: to be and stay on the cutting-edge of technology. That means being several steps ahead of everyone else. Altium has taken that principle to heart and by doing so have driven the entire industry in an astounding direction.

What is it about Altium? That may be a loaded question. One of the great joys that I have in life is it to take the grandkids for ice cream and to watch them create their masterpieces with the various toppings, and of course always having that cherry on top. In the same way, Altium has developed from the beginning “toppings”; the features, the wizards, the amazing tools that are intuitive and innovate and now are the most powerful tools in the industry.

Secondly, the investment that is made in the tool itself. Altium has always assured that they are listening to the needs of PCB designers and engineers. It is those ideas that drive the direction of where the company goes. Always investing back into improving the tool.

Advancements in Technology (1st Paradigm Shift)

In 1965 at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, engineers were developing the first manned flight into space. To help in the process, they installed the IBM System/360 Model 75s computer, which at that time was on the “cutting-edge” of technology. It only had 512KB of core memory. Costing a whopping $3.5 million dollars, it was the size of a car and no, not a Prius.

Jump to Nov 17, 2017, 52-years later with the release of the iPhone X, in a case the size of 5.65in by 2.79in. The iPhone X uses the 64-bit ARMv8-A six-core CPU architecture that has over 4.3 billion transistors. It uses what is called the “Neural Engine” that does 600 billion operations per second. In addition, 3GB of RAM with additional solid state storage of 256 GB. The bottom line is, most people hold in the palm of their hand tens of thousands of times more power than what was in the entire mainframe computer that sent a man to the moon.

True; this comparison is a bit unfair, almost like comparing a Model-T to a McLaren. But it clearly shows the major advancements in the electronics industry just over the past few decades. That is nothing less than astounding. It is estimated that the knowledge base of our entire industry doubles every ten years. If that is true, the bigger question is not where we have come from but rather, where are we going? What advances will be seen in the immediate future? We can only expect more of the same. Breathtaking growth and advancements towards an ever-moving finish line.

Impact on PCB Data Management

The lifeblood of these advancements has been and will depend more on “Information” in the future. Starting with the smallest of components to the greatest multiple-design systems with volumes of data.  But nothing is set in stone. The trait that is so needed will be flexibility. Yesterday’s components, information or processes may not particularly work in tomorrow’s environment. The days of simply rehashing prior designs without confirmation are over. How things are today, treating each PCB design as if it was brand new is the only way to assure that these changes will not impact our design projects.

Market Demands (2nd Paradigm Shift)

Following very closely with the first Paradigm Shift are the Market demands. Pass by any phone store a few days before a new mobile phone release, and you easily see on full display this thing called “market demand.” People camped out, with sleeping bags, lounge chairs and canned goods. What exactly are they demanding? Is it the shiny new toy? Maybe. But also, they are looking for the new innovations, the new features, the new technology. In layman’s terms, the new bells and whistles. Market trends clearly show that the customers are requiring these “toys” to be smaller, sleeker, faster, with more features. Their demands can be summed up in one word… they want POWER. And the electronics industry has provided just that. Furthermore, from what is seen, price does not seem to be an issue. With ever increasing prices, the customers seem to be willing to pay it.

Quicker Time from Concept to Market

Tied into these market demands is a huge requirement. A call has gone up from many a boardroom to reduce the time a product is in development. From that moment when it’s first scribbled down on a notepad by an engineer to the time the product goes to a customer is becoming a major concern. There is a lot motivating this: capturing more product market share while beating competitors to the opportunity.  

Many times these demands from management sound reasonable on the surface, but may not be the best thing. The risk of the product not working as expected forces the PCB designer to work hard to maintain the integrity of the design, to assure there are no mistakes. Knowing there will be no time or resources to re-spin the PCB design leads to an easy rule that’s extremely hard to follow: Do it right the first time.

Impact on PCB Data Management

With the present market’s “take no prisoners” mentality, there really is no second chance with a design. This section can be reduced to a single word: “accuracy”, which is closely connected to the previous discussion regarding technology advancements. These two issues are linked. When accurate, detailed information and data are used the results are extraordinary. BUT, the reverse is also true: when it goes bad, it goes horribly wrong. So, how that information is stored, verified and used is imperative.

Part Sourcing and Procurement

For the past couple of years, major component supply shortages have hit the electronics industry. Especially affecting discrete devices, lead times have been increasing to what can only be described as crisis levels. In particular, Multi-Layer Ceramic Chip (MLCC) and Tantalums Capacitors have been understocked, with some part lead times extending beyond 32-weeks, and in some cases as high as 80-weeks.


What is the cause of this drastic situation? Simply, the demand far outweighs the supply. But several specific sectors of the electronics industry are driving this problem.

Firstly, the Internet of the Things (IOT)

There has been an absolute explosion of devices in the residential and commercial industry of the Internet of Things (IoT), with such “smart devices” ranging from TVs to toasters, bluetooth speakers, Amazon Alexa and Google Home, to renewable energy products, solar panels, and cloud computing. It is estimated by Gartner, there will be more than 20 billion IoT devices deployed by 2020 which constitutes a 100 percent growth in the number of these devices in the next two years. This alone will bring about multiple problems.

Secondly, Mobile Phone Industry

Time to age myself. There was a time not too long ago, where there were things called “landlines”. According to the “Mobile Technology Fact Sheet", a special report published by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project dated 27 December 2013, in 2004 only about 45% of people in the United States between the ages of 12 and 17 owned cell phones. In just 4 years, that percentage climbed to over 71%, and by the end of 2008 77% of adults owned a mobile phone. By the year 2013, 91% of adults in the United States owned a mobile phone, and almost 60% of those with a mobile had a smartphone.

Currently, there are an estimated 1.5 billion new phones manufactured annually. It is also estimated that each new mobile phone uses about 1000 MLCC Capacitors. With the total production estimate of 3-trillion capacitors each year, the math is just staggering.  Nearly 50% of all the capacitors created are placed into mobile phones.

Lastly, Automotive

Major advancements have occurred in the Automotive industry, and not just for hybrid or fully electric vehicles. Advancements have crossed over into conventional gasoline vehicles with the addition of new technologies in Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS), including self-parking and self-drive modes, and automation in even small gadgets such as parking sensors and windshield wipers. The standard combustion engine car has somewhere between 2,000 to 3,000 capacitors. A hybrid or electric vehicle has up to 22,000 MLCCs required in a single car.

Only to exacerbate the component shortage problem, manufacturers have started to deprecate many of the component lines that have lower demand. Especially those components that are based on size, with many larger component packages going away to allow the production lines to switch over to more profitable.  

All this has contributed to massive component shortages across the global electronics industry. Component manufacturers and vendors are trying to cope by using the practice of allocation, but we will begin to see exactly why this is such an explosive “powder keg” problem.

Impact on PCB Design Data Management

So why should this be a concern for the PCB Data Management area? In the past, it was straightforward to procure whatever were needed for a design. And, since the backbone of a PCB design starts with symbol and footprint libraries, not much concern was previously placed on the components being used. With the onset of this crisis, more apprehension exists at the beginning of a project. We now must concern ourselves with not painting ourselves into a design corner with something that will never be possible to assemble. Once again “Information” is vital to provide part choice options for the Electronics Engineers (EE) to be able to make adequate decisions on components.

Similarly, the supply shortage has affected “how” designs are done. Having adequate component parametric information to allow for multiple component alternatives that will accomplish the same thing is important. As it is said, variety is the spice of life, but narrowing down to a single source is setting the stage for problems. As designers we’re now forced to be proactive during the design process regarding part choices. For example, loosening the requirements in some areas will broaden the possible supply options.

According to IPC-2221, the various Performance Classes of PCB assemblies are:

Class-1 - General Electronic Products,

Class-2 - Dedicated Service Electronic Products, and,

Class-3 - High Reliability Electronic Products.

In that light, many times the components chosen may be “overkill” for the class of design you’re working on. For example:

  • Unless it is required, it may not be necessary to use 1% tolerant . We could probably get by with using a 5%. This will result in an increased supply of components.

  • Following semiconductor app-notes guides on decoupling usually is overly conservative and a lot fewer capacitors may be required, and experimentation usually reveals this to be the case.

  • Using Y5V decoupling capacitors instead of the more popular X7R will work fine in the majority of places within the design, if not the entire product.

It’s important to have component availability data with multiple sourcing for each. With an ever-growing list of component suppliers around the world. The part procurement field looks more like the wild west.

Fortunately, to help in this problem Altium has one of those “ice cream toppings.” Called ®. allows the automatic search and linking of procurement and technical component data throughout the design process, including alternatives, availability and pricing, taking a Bill of Materials and determining the “status” of each component and whether it is a good choice. With things changing so quickly especially in this area. Some that were called out for use one day are gone the next.  

With an understanding of these stumbling blocks that are in our way; with some flexibility, accuracy and being proactive, we can turn those stumbling blocks into stepping stones as we maneuver through this ever-changing landscape.  

Listen to what John Watson has to say about using, even on legacy products. Click to watch below.


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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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