Mitigating Risk Factors for PCB Manufacturing Lead Times

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: August 7, 2022  |  Updated: October 6, 2022
Mitigating Risk Factors for PCB Manufacturing Lead Times

How to deal with nuances in PCB design and manufacturing? In today’s episode, Dave Young the owner of Young Circuits Design and founder of BlueStamp Engineering, and I will discuss mitigating risk factors early in the stage of electronic design.

Dave will also tell a story about his path to entrepreneurship as an engineer and his inspiration behind founding BlueStamp Engineering, a hands-on engineering program for high school students to design and create technology projects that they get to keep, from scratch!

Listen, watch enjoy, and make sure to check the additional resources below.

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Show Highlights:

  • Dave’s background, and the early days of his now 12-year designing firm
    • He learned most of his skills from his previous position as a Senior Design Engineer at Keithley Instruments
  • The world of innovative electronic design and hardware – the software, firmware, and hardware
    • Expectations vs. reality in manufacturing
    • Designers must know what’s going on in PCB manufacturing, know what’s reasonable to ask your manufacturer
  • How to deal with nuances in PCB design and manufacturing? Not only identifying risks but also mitigating all the risks
    • How to deal with hardware level risk?
    • Dave’s insight on the extent a manufacturer could step up and modify the design to make it manufacturable
  • Zach recalls his conversation with Kelly Dack regarding the solder mask being modified by the manufacturer to ensure accurate assembly
  • An electrical engineer’s path to entrepreneurship
    • Dave shares that he found his happy place working with small teams
  • Career challenges for engineers coming from academia
    • Zach emphasized the focus on the “value you can create” as an engineer
    • Is freelancing the classic route to enter the PCB design industry
    • The best path to entrepreneurship – start doing it!
  • A risk mitigating tip in PCB design – review all parts and address where you messed up (right away)
    • There is no fool-proof footprint
  • Challenges of CM (contact manufacturer) overseas
    • What should be manufactured domestically?
  • Educational programs such as BlueStamp Engineering could help address the workforce shortage in the Electrical Engineer Industry
    • How do engage the next generation of engineers to become more involved and interested in innovation and creating new things?
  • Firmware vs. software engineering – the good, the bad, and the headaches

Links and Resources:

Connect with Dave Young on LinkedIn

Visit Young Circuit Designs Website

Learn more about the BlueStamp Engineering programs

Related podcast with Kelly Dack: How to Panelize Your PCB Design with EMS Expert Kelly Dack 

 

Full OnTrack Podcast Library

Altium Website

 

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Dave Young:
Everybody who comes through the program gets that experience of, "I have a problem here and I don't know how to address it. And I don't know how I'm going to get there. And I don't know, but I know what my next step is." And that's really what we're trying to teach, is you don't have to know every step along the way. You have to know your next step and your general direction, and then you can get to where you want to go. Eventually you'll figure it out by doing the process of engineering this device.

Zach Peterson:
Hello everyone. And welcome to the Altium OnTrack Podcast. I am your host, Zach Peterson. And today we will be talking with Dave Young, who has been seen on the Altium blog, but who is also president of Young Circuit Designs and co-founder of BlueStamp Engineering. Dave, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dave Young:
Yeah, absolutely. It's great to be here.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. So as I mentioned, you have some articles on the Altium blog. What we'll go ahead and do is in the show notes, we will link to those and we hope some of the listeners will go and read those and learn a little bit. I think to get started because you're a designer, but you also have an education program, I think to get started, it'd be great to learn a little bit more about your background and how you got started doing your own design firm.

Dave Young:
Yeah. I've been at my own design firm for almost 12 years now. Really I designed electronics for small companies and startups. So people who have an idea, maybe an initial prototype, maybe not somebody who wants to get their product off the ground and into beta testing and in, into initial manufacturing, I've been working with them. I started by doing exactly that moonlighting for a small business. I was trying to get initial manufacturing going and I got that going and we got them to the production phase. And then I thought this could probably be a viable business to do for multiple clients at once. Because as you know, when you design stuff, it's a ton of work upfront and then some validation and some tweaking and then it's pretty much maintenance mode.

Dave Young:
So a small company that only has three or four employees, or maybe even 10 or 12 employees, they really don't want to keep an electric engineer on after that big push of work. So that's where I thought, "Oh, this is a great opportunity for me to jump in." And the other thing it did was it allowed me to leverage my... I have a broad range of experience from design work into manufacturing, and so being able to flex all of those skills was a pretty great opportunity I thought I'd take.

Zach Peterson:
So working with small companies, I work with a number of small companies myself. And one thing I have noticed, especially recently is a lot of folks that come into the electronic space and want to build something new or really advanced or they're trying to be really innovative, hardware is another world for them. Maybe they came from software and so they can do the application. They can do the firmware or something, but when it comes to actually doing the hardware, they just need guidance all the way through. Is that something that you found with the smaller companies you've worked with?

Dave Young:
Yeah, absolutely. And in all fairness, everybody's got to go through that because the difference between what should work and what does work is very large in the hardware industry. So in the software industry or firmware industry, you can figure out what those things are in a step wise manner like, this should work, that doesn't but I'll iterate here and it'll work, and then it should work, and it doesn't, you can go. But in hardware, you got these big steps where you got to release a board, you've got to release a product, you've got to release plastics, you got to release all that stuff. And so you end up with these yeah, these periods where you realize like, "Oh, oh, we didn't anticipate this and now our schedule's back one to four weeks." It's an uphill battle.

Dave Young:
So that's a lot of where the expertise comes in and some of the experience comes in where you can anticipate some of those problems, but even still, in trying to explain to somebody, they say, "All I want..." The most dangerous thing a client could ever say is I just want. They have it in their mind that this is a simple thing, but in reality, to get exactly what needs to be there and what has to be in something for a successful product or a great launch, there's a lot of nuance and there's a lot of specific things that all have to come together at once for hardware.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah, absolutely. And I've found that some of the clients that I've had coming from software, they have tried to get me or tried to run it themselves a software project. So they'll create these milestones and they... I think it's a big disconnect for them in terms of what you've been saying, which is you have these phases that you have to go through and you can't do stuff in parallel and you have to go through this specific workflow.

Dave Young:
Yeah. And there's oftentimes ways to optimize. You can fit things in here and fit things in there and run things in two tracks. And there's a lot of cool stuff you can do to keep things moving and to spend money. And of course, as I'm sure you know, if you have a little amount of time, if you have a lot amount of money, that's okay. With hardware, it's like you can throw money at a problem and all of a sudden your parts are there in three days. That is a thing to do. Yeah, it's a funny leap that folks have to take between expectation and reality on how to get hardware to a point where it's ready to be manufactured.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. The manufacturing seems to be, I think one of the most, at least if you go through it your first time in terms of the perception of it, the most challenging part. And so that's one of the areas where I think designers can provide a lot of value is to know as much as possible about the manufacturing process, even if it's just talking with manufacturers. Maybe you don't know how to program an SMT line or anything, but you still at least know all the stuff that has to be done and you can provide that perspective in terms of like, "Here's what you can expect when this design is ready."

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah. Another big piece that I find is you know what is reasonable to ask of a manufacturer? So some people say like, "Well, can't you just take apart a thousand units and do all the rework." And it's like, "You could, you don't want to." You could, you could, but that's not a very efficient way of doing things so the idea of let's make sure we do all this stuff up front so that we can get all the risk off the table and then move forward. And that's really what it comes down to... I tried to articulate what we're talking about here with trying to get to manufacturing and how to deal with the nuances of developing hardware and really it comes down to taking risk off the table. So the sooner we can take risk off the table, the better off we're all be.

Dave Young:
So let's identify what those risks are and figure out what path we have to take to get rid of those risks so we can know moving forward like, "Hey, this is a good design. It'll work not just once, but it'll work when we build a million units and it'll be ready to go." And that seems to be something that resonates with a lot of people, especially those that have an MBA degree or something like that where they can say like, "Okay, I don't like risk, it's bad. And while probably nothing bad will happen, I know at least one bad thing will happen so let's just mitigate all the risk so that we can get through and take the shortest path to production."

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. Risk is something that comes up repeatedly in discussions that I've had with that type of client. They're coming in and this is their first time. And for them, the uncertainty can, I think be paralyzing, which is why they want to come to a design firm that has gone through this process multiple times. But with risk, would you agree that oftentimes with the hardware level of risk, what's the best thing to do? Go to your manufacturer and get their guidance?

Dave Young:
Well, yeah. It depends on the problem, right?

Zach Peterson:
Sure.

Dave Young:
I've got a lawyer who says, "I ain't going to give you the answer I give everybody. It depends. Yeah. Particularly if you have a partnership with your manufacturing partner. If you already have done a board that's of similar complexity and similar nature, similar test suite, everything is very similar. It's super easy and super low risk. But as soon as people want some custom stuff or some unique things, now it's like, "Okay, so now we got to get that manufacturing partner involved. And we got to start talking to them about again, what is a reasonable request and what is an unreasonable request?" There are things that they have to do a little bit of work that can make a big difference for you. And then there's things that make a small difference for you, but it's a huge amount of work for a manufacturing firm. And so sussing that out is really super helpful.

Zach Peterson:
Well, I encountered just recently someone who had the attitude of, "Well, they're the manufacturer, they should just be able to do what I ask them to do." And I think once they get their first DFM report back, they suddenly realize that's not exactly the case.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Well, and the other thing is... That is true. It would be nice to go to manufacturing and be like, "Hey, build this." And they would just figure out the details and make it happen. But no engineer wants that because an engineer puts this part here for this reason and this in this use case and the manufacturer won't know like, "Oh, he's got this type of capacitor instead of that type of capacitor." If you're not plugged into the design, then they cannot deviate from what you have put in that design. So asking them to not change the design yet make it perfectly manufacturable is a tall order. It's a good thing to strive for, to be sure. But yeah, it's a tall order, but that's where those conversations happen like I mentioned.

Zach Peterson:
Well, and then the manufacturers, some of them will actually just modify stuff for you just to get it into production. And I mean, maybe-

Dave Young:
Especially this year.

Zach Peterson:
I'm sorry.

Dave Young:
Especially this year, because nobody can get any parts at all. And so they'll say, "Hey, I can keep production rolling if I'm allowed to use this part instead of this one." It's like, "Yes, thank you."

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. I didn't realize the extent to which that actually happened until actually we did a YouTube video, but I actually got to talk to Kelly Dak. I'm not sure if you know who he is, but he and I had about a 20 minute conversation about solder mask and I didn't realize how much something simple, like solder mask might get modified by the manufacturer just to ensure accurate assembly account for misregistration things like that. Yeah.

Dave Young:
Yeah. And those are the things that you'd really do unless you're doing some super sensitive analog measurement stuff. Those are the kinds of things that you really it's great to have a manufacturing partner would say, "Hey, I take this solder mask off and I can increase yield by X percent." That's really great feature that they do sometimes.

Zach Peterson:
Well, and for me the issue was really high density, but we weren't doing an HDI board.

Dave Young:
Oh yeah.

Zach Peterson:
So we had to know like, okay, what's the solder mask limit that we can have in terms of slivers and openings and things like that.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah.

Zach Peterson:
And then of course I talked to the expert and he says, "They're probably going to modify it for you.

Dave Young:
They're probably going to tweak it. Well, and the thing is, that's what you want, right? You want them to go and say like, "Well, we put it through the process and it is easier for us to really dial in this solder mask process than it is for us to dial in our reflow oven or whatever it is." And that's where that conversation's so helpful because they're running boards all day. They're making all this stuff happen. And so keeping that triangle of designer, manufacturer, clients all in the loop and everybody on the same page, yeah. A lot of emails, a lot of phone calls.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah. The email chains are always fun. And speaking of dealing with clients, I mean, I think entrepreneurship just in general and going this route is one way for a new designer to really break into the industry and make their mark. What drove you into entrepreneurship? And what were some of the challenges you faced? Because I know my path, but everybody's got a different path in terms of starting their own firm and getting into this industry through the path of entrepreneurship rather than going through a big OEM.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah. So for me, the entrepreneurship path is I like working in small teams where everybody has a lot of responsibility and it is very clear that everybody's on the same team, putting their shoulder against the same problem and working towards a solution. And the other thing is everybody on these small teams, if you work in the entrepreneurship ecosystem or in the entrepreneurship community, it's all about let's move together to get as far as we can. It's a lot of fun to work in that environment. And so really that's where I picked up.

Dave Young:
I like to move fast but move well, and so that is a good way to work in an entrepreneurship environment. You're not doing anybody favors to do something quickly that's not going to work in the long term, but at the same time taking forever doing the 13 month development cycle that doesn't need 13 months is not a great outcome either. So it's just a place I found myself happily working. And so one thing leads to another and next thing I know I'm just making more products and making more products and making more designs.

Zach Peterson:
So I was just thinking as you were talking, my difficulty with getting into the industry was coming from academia. The way we talk about what we do and what we know how to do is totally different and actually I think off-putting for people in industry, because it's always what you know and what you learned and not like, "Here's the value I can create." And learning how to communicate what you can do was a big shift for me. And once I learned how to do that, I think it was actually really helpful for landing some of my first clients. And no one had to look at me and say, "Oh, I think this person can do this. I'm going to talk to them." It was, "I can show you that I can do this," and then I was able to engage people.

Zach Peterson:
But my route in was through freelancing. Do you think that's probably the best way for someone to get into the industry and really cut their teeth in getting some of their first clients and hopefully they're successful and they build it up? I see that as like, that's the classic path of entrepreneurship, it starts small and it's in your garage and then eventually you build into your empire.

Dave Young:
Yeah, yeah. That's a classic approach. Personally, I worked as a senior engineer for years at Keithley Instruments. And that was super helpful to get tech down and to learn from some of these really great analog engineers working on very, very challenging measurement problems and very low level precision high speed. It was a spectacular experience. I could not have started Young Circuit Designs right out of college. There's no way in a million years. And I had some circuit experience from college and I had done some co-ops and I had built some things on my own, but even still that all pales and comparison to the experience I had of Keithley.

Dave Young:
And so working on a team where people are really smart, really capable and can get a job done and know have a lot of that experience say like, "You don't want to do that because of X, Y, and Z," it's that short circuit to get to a successful outcome. So working there for years was really helpful and then starting to go out on my own.

Dave Young:
And to your point about nobody wants to talk about what they know. I want to talk about what I can do, or more specifically the really what I found to be super helpful is talk about what I've done and how it's similar to the problem that you are now facing. Because if you can show that you've been down the road, you've tried something similar and you've learned a few of the pitfalls, it's going to be a lot faster and more efficient for the clients to hire somebody who's done something similar. So in my opinion, the best way to do stuff is to start doing it. Whether it's not for money or for hobby or for something, if you want to get into any arena, the best way is to dive right in and to get after it.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. As they say, jump in the deep end and learn to swim.

Dave Young:
Yeah.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. That's how it was for me with my first manufacturing run. I had a pretty extensive DFM report come back, I'll admit it. There were some things that needed to be changed, but it's okay, right? As successive runs piled up, the list of requests got shorter and shorter and shorter, and that's exactly what you want to see. But I like what you said, because if you're able to identify where you messed up and what the solution is, and then say, "Here's a pitfall for you. Let's address that now and that's going to reduce your risk." I think that's extremely valuable if you're running your own firm or even if you're just working at a larger company and you can see ahead of time like, "Here's one of the risks. We should think about this."

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah. Like you said, if you can address that at the beginning, it's always super fast and super cheap to address all of those things at the beginning. It's annoying to go through it. And I've had multiple clients roll their eyes in me and be like, "Guys, we got to do a board review before we send it out." Even silly prototypes, even something that's dead nuts simple, I'm going to sit here and I'm going to run it through my process. It's going to take time and it's going to be annoying. It's going to take me half a day or whatever, but I got to run it through my process. Even for a one LED, one connector board, it's got to go through the process because there are always things that come up if you don't look.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. And I think one of those important ones, because I just luckily caught this on a recent project was footprints.

Dave Young:
Yeah. I just had that experience earlier today.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. When they make the footprint from the bottom of you versus the top of you-

Dave Young:
It's always something. It's always something.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. It's always something. Yeah. If only they were interchangeable like that. Although I guess with some back to back shot if you dare to raise, you can get away with that. But most of the time, not at all.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah. But why bother? Why not just spend the 30 minutes and go through the review process for how do I make sure all my footprints are rock solid? And it's like, "Okay, well, I'm going to take all the parts and I'm going to look at each data sheet. I'm going to look at each pin one, pin two, pin three, pin four." And hey, it only takes half an hour, especially if you were the one designing, it takes half an hour, you do it and then you feel great about it. Especially if you've got somebody else making the footprints for you. Now it's so common to find footprints from all different sources and bring them in, because they're just a click away, you bring them in and to have blind trust on those. Like I said, earlier today I was dealing with the situation where that didn't work out and had to make an adjustment for a downloaded component.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. I will admit, even though in Altium there's the manufacturer search panel and it has footprints in it and then there are some external services that will make a footprint for you, there's even SnapEDA where it's community based. I think those are all good resources to get 80% of your footprints. Because 80% of your footprints are going to be what? Oh 603 packages or something-

Dave Young:
Yeah. And you already have those. No problem.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. It's going to be an SOIC, right? So if you don't have them you can go get them easily. But what about that fine pitch BGA, for that one integrated circuit that makes everything work.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I totally agree. No, I've got-

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. That's always fun to make yourself.

Dave Young:
I've got a dream that one day with the downloaded or with the cloud based components or whatever, I've got a dream that somebody will make a standard, maybe iTripoli or something we'll make a standard for how a chip manufacturer can document what the footprint should be like. And so there will be one standard of, "This is my document of where I want the copper, where I want the silk screen, where I want the solder mask, where I want everything." And then it is the responsibility of the CAD software to interpret that and bring it into their design. Because the problem with EasyEDA and all those other ones is you have to trust that their system is going to work the way it should. And if it's not native to the program you're using, whether it's Altium or Eagle or whatever, it's like, "Ah, I don't think I trust this.

Dave Young:
It's like you watch it doing little script or whatever. It's like, "What are you messing up right now? Because I'm not on the same revision or I'm not on whatever that should be the same way." And I think that's the solution where there is a native interpreter of a standard... iTripoli controlled standard of this is what a footprint document should be like for a CAD file to read. And then you can just go to the website, you click and download it and you're off to the races and you can have some confidence, but for now, all those things who knows where they come from, who knows what it's going to look like. It's yeah. They're just not trustworthy.

Zach Peterson:
Well, you would've thought that would've been solved already multiple times over.

Dave Young:
Yeah.

Zach Peterson:
And it seems like the CAD vendors or the parts search engines of the world just keep to defaulting to like, "We're just going to throw model files at you and hopefully it all works out."

Dave Young:
Yeah. So it's going to be like 50 clicks to get it imported plus I got to review it. Great. And that-

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. Right. Yeah.

Dave Young:
Meanwhile, I can design the component in... So if I'm on Altium I can do the IPC Footprint Wizard and within 25 clicks I could be done.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. You're right. You're right. And it's going to be IPC compliant because that one at least is programmatically generated and it's hard to go outside of the predefined range.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah. And for 95% of what I'm doing, I know I'm going to be good. I might need to tweak or I need to tighten some stuff up, maybe change some solder masks or whatever. I don't know, but it's great. So if we can get to that point, that is so programmatic and that's defined by a standard, you look at the data sheet and they document it, who were so close to being to the point of being able to the chip manufacturers instead of giving the stuff on the data sheet to give it as a file that a CAD program could pull in. It's like, "Ah, so close. So close."

Zach Peterson:
That's actually a really interesting idea. So it's a file you download, there's an interpreter built into the CAD tool that follows a specific standard and you can't mess it up. And then even the files could be standardized. So the files-

Dave Young:
Exactly. You go get something from TI, you get something from analog, it's exactly the same, then the CAD companies know what's going to happen. Everybody knows what's going to happen. It'll be limiting to be sure you maybe you won't be able to have the tight, medium and spaced out board options or whatever, you maybe have three footprints. But I dream of the day when I can download a footprint and not feel it's time bomb waiting to go off on me.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. So on that note with footprints and sourcing components and everything, I think this is one of those elements where... If you're dealing with clients, this is one of those things that is so foreign like, "Oh, shouldn't I just be able to click the component out of the catalog and it just..." Sometimes.

Dave Young:
You just described the PCV CAD industry as a whole, at least the whole time I've been designing stuff, is clients are always stupefied by the tool that I'm using, is like, "Wow, that's pretty involved what you got going there. That is not like using an iPhone."

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. What exactly am I looking at here?

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah. And there's so many buttons and features, and the names change, and Lord help you, if you got to switch to a different package, you got to go from Eagle to Altium or back or whatever, it's like, "Oh, this is very difficult to manage."

Zach Peterson:
Yeah, definitely. And then when you actually send this stuff out for production, assuming you got it all correct then you have to guide them through that process and choosing local versus overseas. I think I'm a little more fortunate because a lot of what I do is either ITAR explicitly or-

Dave Young:
Yes, you know what you got to do.

Zach Peterson:
Well, the manufacturer is 10 miles away.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah.

Zach Peterson:
I can call them on the phone.

Dave Young:
Yeah. And all you got to do is write the big check. Like, "Okay, write a big check. I can get ITAR and then I'm going to have all the things that I want."

Zach Peterson:
Yeah, exactly. But I've had a bad experience going overseas in the past. And I've dealt with a CM that does overseas when it's not one of those types of projects, but I don't know if I would have the patience to deal with a manufacturer where I have to call them at two in the morning, because I'm in the US, let's say they're in East Asia. I got to call them at two in the morning or I have to try and deal with this over email and maybe there's a language barrier, to put it kindly.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Plus you get one chance a day to solve the problem on email, right? "Here you go. Here's my one email." And then tonight they're going to email me back and then I'm going to get in and I have the whole day to decide what my email's going to say, but I got one email today to settle it. It is very challenging. That's for sure. Personally, I just like to stay up until 2:00 AM, rather than draw things out over a week of emails that... Yeah. I'll just stay up. I'll stay up.

Zach Peterson:
Well, I have a support staff that's overseas, so I'm lucky that I'm already up until 2:00 AM, it's just that I really needed to deal with? Yeah, I got to talk to them anyways. So I guess if I needed to, I could get on the phone with some guy in China or Vietnam or wherever and deal with some kind of manufacturing issue. But I think a lot of clients, once they realize what goes into manufacturing, they really start to appreciate the approach and going with someone local, even if it's not, ITAR or dual-use.

Dave Young:
Yeah. And I've had a lot of that. And actually surprisingly I had... I know China's locked down or whatever, but I quoted a prototype board, domestically it was 400 bucks and to get it offshore was 200. And if I went domestic, it'd be a few days faster. And it's like, "Wow." I'm used to a 10X cost difference where if something's $400 here, it's going to be 40 offshore. I was surprised there's only a two X cost and there's a two X, I'll buy the extra couple days and make this project move faster.

Zach Peterson:
Well, and the cost, when you just see the number, it leaves out a lot of context because I think some companies overseas they'll hit you with the like, "Oh yeah, buy quantity 20 for five bucks each," or whatever, right? And then of course someone sees numbers like that and it leaves out a lot of context in terms of processing capabilities, in terms of quality and inspection, things like that, in terms of just even layer count, little stuff like that. And it all adds up. And people just don't realize, "No, here's the board you want and here's what they're going to get you for $5 a board.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Right. Right. And then you end up just spending the 200, by the time you're done with all your upgrades it's like, "Oh, it's really a $200 board." Got it. Okay.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah, exactly.

Dave Young:
And it takes five days to make instead of the quoted 24 hours. So yeah. Yeah. It's pretty tricky. So I'm hoping that maybe we'll get some more volume back domestically. It starts to make more and more sense and once the cost. The other thing that is, I know it five or 10X cost difference is a striking multiplier. It's like, "I don't want to pay 10 times as much for my boards." But if it's a cheap board, it's a couple hundred dollars difference and it's obnoxious to spend extra money, but for a couple hundred dollars to save a lot of hassle and risk, again, it's about pulling that risk in. So all you have to do is go through one experience of boards beginning stuck in customs and you're like, "Oh, well that was a bad deal. I shouldn't have done that. And there are no customs between my local board manufacturer and me."

Zach Peterson:
I have had to order some parts from overseas recently because as we all know, it is impossible to get some parts or someone overseas will buy it all up as soon as it hits DGQ and then they turn around and 10X it. But I have had to buy some parts overseas recently and occasionally I do get hit with the, "Oh, your box is held in customs right now and it's like, "Oh my God."

Dave Young:
As soon as that happens, as soon as I see that, I have it set so give me alert. As soon as that happens, I reorder the boards. Yeah, because I don't know if it's going to be a day or a month that they're going to hang on them so I can't wait. I got just another $200. Sure. "Here's your $200. Let's do it again." And sometimes it comes quickly but there was one time where it was in mystery land between customs and DHL. I just took forever.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. I don't want to badmouth any of the shipping companies, but I will say because of the customs issues, I have preferred to avoid DHL for importing into the US for that exactly.

Dave Young:
Is that right? Maybe that was my problem, is I use DHL. I've always felt like they were fastest, but yeah.

Zach Peterson:
Again, not a official endorsement of any shipping company on behalf of myself or Altium, but I will just say that I have never had a problem with FedEx going international.

Dave Young:
Okay. Okay.

Zach Peterson:
So food for thought.

Dave Young:
Yeah. And maybe I'll change that up.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. I guess what you're saying here is something that the industry is starting to maybe wise up about in terms of the costs and the headaches and the risks associated with going overseas for some products. I don't think it makes sense to manufacture every circuit board for a microwave in the US. But maybe the circuit boards that go into stuff in aircraft carriers, we should probably keep domestic.

Dave Young:
Yeah. That's for sure. But on top of that, I found that the location of the box build is also a big factor. So if the rest of your build is in an offshore facility, then all of a sudden offshore PCB manufacturing makes sense. But I have a few clients that are doing onshore it's domestic box build and sourcing your boards from offshore it's like... The other thing is the percentage of cost. I know it's 2, 10, 5X cost, but the percentage of that cost increased in terms of the whole picture, because PCB assembly for many of these products is pretty inexpensive relative to the rest of it.

Dave Young:
It can again take a ton of risk off the table, especially at the early stage when you're trying to move fast and change things quickly and get things done and turn things around it's like, "Oh, we can't get this part. We got to change this quickly. Or oops, we forgot a piece of tape here. We got to open them up." All of those things are so easy to deal with here. That's just fast and low risk. So that's why I've been pushing people on low volume things and then I always say, "Well, when you're ready to go high volume, we can look at going offshore and we can see what that value proposition is," but it's a conversation for later.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. And that transition to offshore as I mentioned, I've had a bad experience doing it myself, but then trying to run high volume offshore, that is something where I have... There's a manufacturer that I work with that does, they do small volume all the way up to tens of thousands of units. And when I have a client that's ready to go and scale and they are considering offshore, I'm like, "Okay, here's the manufacturer that I work with and I'm going to send you to them." And they're going to take it over and at some point I'm no longer in the picture unless it's like, "Hey, why did we place this here? Or is this going to be a compatible swap for this component?" Those kinds of questions. But at some point I'm out of the loop and I'm onto the next thing.

Dave Young:
Sure. Yeah.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. I think that is a good way to handle it, especially in the initial stages with companies who are not electronics pros, let's say.

Dave Young:
Yeah.

Zach Peterson:
So I think I'd like to switch gears for a moment because in the intro I had mentioned that you were the co-founder of BlueStamp Engineering, which is actually an educational program. And I'm really interested to hear about this because as I'm sure you're aware, there is maybe a workforce shortage on the horizon if we don't do something to get more kids involved in electronics engineering and STEM education.

Dave Young:
Yeah. So BlueStamp Engineering, I've been doing for, I think this is our 11th year we're in the middle of right now. We're running both in Palo Alto and remotely, but the program was designed to get high school students to do what I do. So basically let's get you to build a project that you get to pick and then you get to keep and we'll just help you along the way. Our staff members are typically graduate and undergraduate students who have a ton of project building experience that are excited about building and they're happy to be building all summer along with a bunch of students. And so we get into a room and we build a bunch of stuff and we document it and we publish it and we put it on the web and then we carry on.

Dave Young:
It was an experiment that a friend of mine and I had kicking around ideas on a train platform when we were much younger. We tried it out and it was like, "Wow, this isn't just a little good, this is really good." We found that it was a ton of fun in the students what they learned. And the things that we didn't anticipate was their ability to be more independent and to be more confident to feel like they can do things on their own, to be self-motivated and to feel like, "I can do this. I don't need anybody's help. Just give me the internet." And that is a game changer for students, especially students who haven't had a ton of exposure into the open-ended problems. So it's a transaction thing with school, whereas school says you do this, they do it and then they get an A.

Dave Young:
That is the process that many students are used to. And it is not great for training engineers because as we all know, you go out and say, "Build me this," and you go and you work at it for a while and be like, "Ah, this is good. It could be great if we did X, Y, and Z, maybe later, maybe now, maybe whatever, we can have that conversation, but having these open ended problems," or you wanted me to build this turns out it's impossible with the technology and the budget and the time we need to have a conversation and figure out how we can change things. And engaging with that unknown and being comfortable with it is something that is not typical in the current high school curriculum. And so the unique nature of what we offer in the program is it's a lot of fun. And it's representative of everything that we do as engineers.

Zach Peterson:
This is really interesting because you've brought up something about the education system more broadly, that I think a lot of people miss, but you described it as a transactional, which I think is really interesting because like you say, you do this thing and then you get some kind of credit for it. And it sounds like the way you've structured this is, they have to do something but the objective that they have to achieve to receive some kind of credit, and even the idea of what that credit is, neither of those things are clearly defined.

Dave Young:
No. Well, yeah, they're generally defined without too tight specifics. And the other thing is they're defined by the student. So they are not accountable to me or any of the staff, they are accountable to themselves. So they say, "I really want to get this experience and build this project and I want to get to this goal." And so they go for it. And so some students it is like, "Wow, this is really hard. This library's deprecated or this part's unavailable. So I got to pivot this, I got to pivot that. I got to work through all these problems. I got to figure out how I can make it work." And so they get a huge challenge that way. And other students, they blow through the project, it goes exactly to plan and they have a whole bunch of extra time. And then what we do is we ask them to do modifications.

Dave Young:
So invent something new related to your project to make it totally unique or totally new. And so everybody who comes through the program gets that experience of, "I have a problem here and I don't know how to address it. And I don't know how I'm going to get there. And I don't know, but I know what my next step is." And that's really what we're trying to teach, is you don't have to know every step along the way, you have to know your next step and your general direction and then you can get to where you want to go. Eventually you'll figure it out by doing the process of engineering this device.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. And I think that's where the big divergence is from the traditional educational model, which is like you say, they may not know each of the steps, but it's almost the act of the figuring out the steps, that in itself is so important. And being able to figure out here's what we don't know, here's where we can try and go look for it, if we can get that figured out then we can address this next thing.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah. One step at a time. We'll get there. Big problem lots of little problems. We got to break it up and put it back together again. Yeah. Is a lot of fun. Again, it's just so similar to what I do. Particularly being a design consultant where I have clients... Like you mentioned, people are coming in all the time like, "Hey, I don't know how to do this. Help me out. Let me get this going." It's like, "Hey, hey, I don't know either, but I am confident I'll be able to figure it out." And so you go and you work at it and you go through that whole process.

Dave Young:
And the reality is engineering is building things that haven't been built before. And so the definition of visit is making it up as you go along. Sure. You got processes and techniques and education and tools, and you have all these things to help you essentially make stuff up and when you give that to a high school student they're like, "Really? That's awesome. I would like to do that all day long." So yeah, it's a good time. The accomplishment is the same. The accomplishment I feel when I finish a project for a client is the same that the students get. And I feel like that dopamine hit is one of those things that if you are an engineer, if you have the Dilbert knack it's like, "Ooh, I want more of that. Let me build something else." And that's what we're trying to foster here.

Zach Peterson:
I call them the Eureka moments.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah.

Zach Peterson:
When it works and it's like, "Oh my gosh, it works." Even if it's just something simple like, "Oh my gosh, I got this 555 timer circuit to work. Look at the bowl, it's flashing. It's so cool." But for me, when I was younger, when I was a student I did physics but we still had to do all the electronics classes and stuff. All of those moments were so important because it reinforced like, I can actually do this.

Dave Young:
Yeah. It's not just drudgery. So many people think engineers... Like I talked to some of my cousins in my family or some people, some high school students who don't know about BlueStamp Engineering. They think the guys like me do math and physics problems all day long in a cubicle. And it's like, "Oh no, I do math and physics problems small piece. I get to build stuff and make things happen. That is a big piece and it's really so much better than just doing problems."

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. Yeah. For me, getting into this industry, it was a big shift for me because you described as doing math and physics problems all day. When I was doing my research, I worked in lasers and optics and stuff before doing this, but I actually had to do that. I had to sit in front of Mathematica for a lot of hours, right? And up a script to analyze all of the data I had just captured from whatever experiment I had to build. And this is a big shift and you still do some of that, but you're right. You're not just sitting in the cubicle all day running simulations.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Totally different.

Zach Peterson:
I hired someone to do that for me.

Dave Young:
And I assure you they're trying to figure out how to get promoted out of that job.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. Yeah. They also write, which is enjoyable for some people. I think that can also be tough. For students, one thing I've been trying to... I don't know if figure out is the right word, but one thing I've wondered about is, what gets the next generation really engaged and want to jump in to hardware? Because I had talked about this with Judy Warner last year. And I had mentioned that when I was teaching engineers that nobody wanted to do circuit board design.

Zach Peterson:
Most of my students when I was teaching physics were actually engineering students because all the engineering students have to take physics of course. And then of that group, maybe 80% of those engineers were electrical computer engineers. There was an ECE program at Portland State where I taught. But those students, they all wanted to go into semiconductors, every single one of them or maybe they were doing civil or maybe they wanted to do automotive, but PCB never really factored into it or maybe they didn't know about it, but that wasn't the goal. Or maybe they were doing firmware or maybe they're doing embedded, something like that. But there was never PCB design at the forefront.

Zach Peterson:
And where I'm at in Portland, we have a huge Intel campus up here. So of course Intel's over the recruiting and stuff and they've got all their people out there and they do seminars and that kind of thing. So I think it's understandable to an extent, but I've wondered what is going to get the students to maybe shift towards manufacturing, shift towards PCB design? Look at it from the system's perspective and realize, "Okay, it's not just the chips and it's not just the programming. We're actually building an entire system." Do we have to capitalize on one of those other areas to try and get students to pivot and realize, "Oh, I can actually build an entire thing here if I just know how to design the PCB."

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah. I think you're right. I think that actually most students, when they want to do that, when they feel passionate about doing something like that, they end up switching from electrical to mechanical engineering. Because there's so many people I know that we're in the electrical engineering and you're like, "Oh, but I could build all kinds of cool stuff down in the machine shop if I do mechanical engineering and all I have to do is take a few thermodynamics courses." It's like, "Okay, I'm going to do that." Yeah. I think that's where a lot of them go. And then for the electrical engineers, the way BlueStamp does it is we get them excited about the experience and the end goal and then the tools are side featured.

Dave Young:
It's certainly cool to be able to use all the different tools like the CNC and the 3D printer. And we do make custom boards at BlueStamp. We do a lot of that stuff, but those are the side dish to the experience and the end result, the end product. And that seems to be super motivating for most students. It's like, "Yeah, I'm going to learn how to do board design so that I can do this other thing or so that I can do this extra thing or so that I can move forward."

Dave Young:
And so it's always like, "Keep your eye on the prize. We want to learn how to be awesome at doing this one skill. And we want to have the resulting..." One of the projects is an alarm clock that you have to shoot a Nerf gun at to get it to snooze. So they want that in their room and then they also want the experience of writing code and learning about piezos and learning about micro controllers and learning about LEDs and alarms and buzzers, and all that kind of stuff is exciting. And that's really where we focus.

Zach Peterson:
I've been a big advocate of talking to the student who equates technology with coding to get them into hardware design. Because, just look at the media, whenever the media talks about tech, what are they talking about? Facebook, Google-

Dave Young:
Yeah. Well, that's where the money is-

Zach Peterson:
sometimes Apple, but-

Dave Young:
That's where the money is.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah.

Dave Young:
Especially the new one.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You look at the software developer salaries and the fact that you don't have to learn how to physically build something doing software engineering, and I see it as a very low barrier to entry with a very high success rate. And so it makes sense that students are going to want to go the coding route. And so I've often thought that number one, we need to capitalize on that group of students and show them that, "Hey, there's this whole other area of where you can work in that is just as rewarding and frankly, financially rewarding, if you can then leverage those coding skills in electrical engineering, but then also with modern designs, there's going to be some component of that somewhere in some of the most advanced stuff. There's going to be an application somewhere that interfaces with this product that you're building, whether it's embedded firmware, whether it's an OS, whether it's a web app, I don't really care where it's at, but it's somewhere." So coding enters into it.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Well the other thing is we have so few firmware engineers right now. It's like we would really do well to peel some of those firmware engineers away from the software. Alicia White, she does a class for software engineers that want to get into firmware. And I was talking to somebody who just recently made that jump. There was a colleague of mine who used to write, just code on a computer and now writes firmware. And he was like, "You know what the most annoying thing is this? This thing is not doing what it's supposed to. There's probably a note about how it can't do what I'm asking it to do in that 1200 page reference manual and I don't know how to figure out what it is. Where this a computer, it would just do everything I want all the time, whereas this thing's got some piece of tiny piece of molten sand that says we can't do that one thing that you want to do that you should be able to do."

Dave Young:
It is very frustrating. I got to hand it to him. It is a challenge. It's super fun to work on something that's so small and you can ship it in a box and make it do all kinds of stuff, and many times it's a hard fought battle.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. I like that you brought up the 1200 page reference manual because, "Dude, I don't want to read that."

Dave Young:
>"No, I don't want to read that. I barely want to search it and I don't even know the terms I should be searching for right now." And sometimes you just got to sit down and you just got to go. Hopefully they have a table of contents and you got to read that 30 page section on why port B doesn't do an output when your ADC is running. It's like, "Oh God."

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. And that can kill you on the board design end too. If you didn't realize it, then you have to go back in and change something in the board as well.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah. And the other funny thing to talk about when people make this jump is like, "Have I explained to you what erratas are? Because you're going to love this." They said they would do it, but then they decided that they can't do it, and they're not updating that document for you so that you're going to have to read the other document about the document that was wrong. Boy, they love that.

Zach Peterson:
Oh man. Yep. Yeah, exactly. And then you got to hope that if there is a reference design for that chip, it's well documented enough to where they put a little note in the schematics, this port will not work if this ADC is running or whatever it is.

Dave Young:
Whatever the nuance is.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. Here's why we put these configuration resistors here, refer to page whatever in the data sheet.

Dave Young:
Yeah.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. Yeah. That would be very nice if everybody did that. Starting with reference designs, I think it's actually a really great way to just learn about a chip and supporting components careful with PCB layout. But if they could document that stuff as best as possible is really a useful tool to make sure that you're going to be successful with using that product.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Zach Peterson:
Cool. Well, I would encourage anyone who is listening to check out the show notes and learn more about BlueStamp Engineering. Is there something we can link so you can send it to me?

Dave Young:
Yeah. Bluestampengineering.com is the best way to find this.

Zach Peterson:
There we go. Perfect. Bluestampengineering.com. Go check it out. Learn more about the program. I am a fan of any of these educational programs that is going to try and get the next generation of kids and students interested in design at any level. I don't care if they're in high school or grade school or they're starting a graduate program-

Dave Young:
Yeah. Yeah. Or just making a transfer from one center section career to another, you can do it. You're 80 years old, you can transfer from being a software engineer your whole life to writing firmware.

Zach Peterson:
There you go. Perfect. Dave, thank you so much for joining us. We've been talking with Dave Young, president of Young Circuit Designs and co-founder of BlueStamp Engineering. To anyone that's listening, please check out the show notes we've got a lot of great links and you can read some of Dave's blogs on the Altium website. And also, are you okay with people connecting with you on LinkedIn-

Dave Young:
Yeah, absolutely.

Zach Peterson:
and learn more about BlueStamp.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Please reach out.

Zach Peterson:
We'll include a link to his LinkedIn profile. And yeah, thanks everybody for listening. If you haven't already make sure to subscribe to the channel, hit that like button. And last but not least, don't stop learning, stay on track and we'll see you all next time.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 1000+ technical blogs on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA). He previously served as a voting member on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee working on technical standards for quantum electronics, and he currently serves on the IEEE P3186 Working Group focused on Port Interface Representing Photonic Signals Using SPICE-class Circuit Simulators.

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