Walking around the grade school near my house today, I noticed a father practicing baseball with his young son. Now around here, it’s still rainy and freezing cold, so they were bundled up and wisely under the covered portion of the playground. I didn’t know whether to applaud their dedication, or classify them as a couple of nuts. I decided to go with the dedication angle, and admittedly, it was great to see the dad’s excitement when his boy connected solidly with the ball.
I love seeing parents pass on skills and experiences to their children in the same way we all transfer our skills and experiences to others. We in the printed circuit board design industry, particularly, have a lot to teach the next generation. The industry has changed so much over the years, and board designers today may not even understand the history or purpose behind some of the things that they’re doing.
Let’s reminisce a bit about the history of our industry, and how it impacts what we do today. Let’s also discuss the responsibilities we have to the next generation of PCB designers, and how we can help those who are just starting out in their careers. There are lots of PCBs that need designing out there in the world, with newer technologies and requirements coming each day. We owe it to the next generation to bring them up to speed so they can not only get the job done but also do it well.
Originally, electronics were relegated to gigantic machines with huge sparks and blinking lights. Think of your garden variety mad scientist laboratory from a 1930’s Frankenstein movie and you’ll get the idea. Then, someone had the novel idea of pounding nails into a breadboard and connecting their components and wires to create a circuit. Not only did this give birth to the “breadboard” in electronic design, but if timed correctly, they could grab a warm slice of sourdough to snack on while working.
Then came the era of laying out electronic circuits on a drafting table. These were works of art and the artists were the very first PCB designers. They would lay down representations of called “dollies” on a sheet of mylar film, and with great care, position holes and traces using sticky dots and tape. Multiple layers of mylar would be used for multi-layer boards, and when completed, it would all be put into a reduction camera to make the circuit board tooling film.
The next step in the history of our industry was taking these “tape-ups” and entering them digitally into a computer. Eventually, the circuit layers would be drawn with different colors for different layers, and then sent to the CAD department where they would be digitized. This quickly led to the birth of the modern PCB CAD layout tools that we are familiar with today, and they have continued to grow and evolve over the years. Now, we are seeing the next step as increasingly more PCB CAD systems are developing the ability to design in a 3D environment.
Early PCB designers needed a good understanding of the circuit board manufacturing process. To shave a pad down with an exacto knife, they had to know exactly how much that they could cut and what the consequences might be. Later on, with the earlier PCB CAD systems, much of that design process was manually controlled by the user. Still, you had to know upfront what you were designing for as well as the sizes and shapes of your pads and traces. The early photo plotters only had a minimum number of aperture positions available, and you were compelled to work within that constraint.
That is, largely, what drove the need for skilled PCB designers. We had to be able to understand and meet the design’s needs. That might have meant using a specific width of tape, or combining two different pads into a single size to eliminate an aperture position. Today, the level of automation in design tools simplifies this process. The only downside is that with automated tools, it is too easy to let the machine do all the heavy lifting without understanding why it’s doing what it is doing.
With so many designers approaching retirement age these days, there are many holes in our industry that need to be filled. The new designers coming up in the field are raring to go but lack the expertise of someone with long-term experience. Therefore, it is up to us to share our experiences, answer questions, and help however that we can. For all of the designers out there who are just getting started, don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. If you want to know what a thermal relief pad is and why it is important, request help. There may be a treasure trove of history and experience sitting in the next cubicle over, so learn as much as possible while you can.
Another way we can help new PCB designers with career growth is by showing them the tips and tricks that we’ve learned over the years with our design tools. When you’ve spent as much time driving the software like we have, you learn a thing or two. The software tools that we use to design PCBs are some of the most advanced that can be found, and we’re probably better at using them then even the engineers who designed them.
One of those tools that I frequently like to share with others is the PCB design software from Altium. Altium Designer® is an intuitive tool that works equally well whether you’re just starting out in design or an experienced designer looking for the best software to get the job done. To find out more, talk to an expert at Altium.