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PCB Design Education Through Content Creation

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: July 6, 2022  |  Updated: November 26, 2023
PCB Design Education Through Content Creation this OnTrack episode, Zach and Phil of Phil’s Lab Youtube channel exchange ideas on how they can stay on top of their PCB design game or learn new things. Phil Salmony, a successful youtube creator with 64.6K subscribers, shares with us how he was introduced to PCB design, his early career, and what got him to start his own Youtube channel. This is a fun episode. Watch it through the end and check out the additional resources below.

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Show Highlights:

  • Whiteboard – an essential piece for PCB design-related content
  • PCB design education from the university, theories, and ideologies versus PCB design for the real world
  • Phil shares that DSPs (Digital signal processors) are the coolest thing, and he has a dedicated section of them on his channel
  • Zach and Phil exchange opinions about their consultation and PCB design jobs
  • How do you go about learning new things? Zach and Phil have their share of different ways to acquire information to help them better their skills
  • One of the most asked questions in PCB design is about grounding. Phil and Zach suggested a couple of books supplement for PCB design
  • Phil talks about how he got started with PCB design
  • Designs and chip shortages and supply forecast, what to expect in the next few years?
  • The value of connecting with your (youtube channel) audience for content ideas
  • Altium Academy and Phil’s Lab history on Youtube and future projects

Links and Resources:

Subscribe to Phil’s Lab YT Channel
Connect with Phil on LinkedIn
Visit Phil’s Lab Website
How to Achieve Proper Grounding By Rick Hartley
Watch Podcast Episodes with Rick Hartley

Electromagnetic Compatibility Engineering by Henry Ott
Grounds for Grounding: A Circuit to System Handbook by Kai-Sang Lock
Connect with Zach on LinkedIn
Full OnTrack Podcast Library
Altium Website

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Phil's Lab: I mean, I'm quite a big musician, so guitar was always my thing. So actually making guitar amplifiers or effect pedals that you can plug into and write your own distortion algorithms for with reverb was one of the coolest and rewarding things. So, you get all the way from building a hardware to seeing the limitations of the hardware when doing FYR filters, or God knows what.

Zach Peterson: Hello, everyone. And welcome to the Altium OnTrack podcast. I am here today with Phil Salmony, who is famous for the Phil's Lab YouTube channel. There's so much great hardware design content on that channel and he is also a hardware design consultant. I think this is going to be a fun conversation today, talking about all of his projects and how he got started in PCB design. Phil, thank you so much for joining us on the Altium OnTrack podcast.

Phil's Lab: Well, thank you very much, Zach, for having me. It's been great.

Zach Peterson: Being involved with Altium and looking forward to chatting with you for the next hour or so.

Zach Peterson: Of course. Thank you for joining. I see you've got an interesting circuit diagram in the background on the board.

Phil's Lab: Yes. Appropriately placed just for this. Exactly. I mean, audio is a big thing of mine, so I don't know how you can make that out in the camera but it's basically the beginnings of a discrete headphone amplifier. So, finally got a whiteboard on my own place. Usually it's always just at work but I thought I'd nerd out and not put art up but rather a whiteboard for schematics. I'm not sure how that is in your home, but...

Zach Peterson: A man after my own heart. Yeah, I do have a couple of whiteboards and I leave some equations scrawled on them at all times.

Phil's Lab: Yeah. Do you actually record the Altium stuff for the Altium channel at home or how does that work? Because that's one of your whiteboards, I guess.

Zach Peterson: Yeah. That's one of the whiteboards. That's true. No, I have my home office that has whiteboards and I have some test equipment here and then we have another studio in downtown Portland where we have some other equipment and then our whiteboards. Yeah, we do a little of both.

Phil's Lab: Awesome. Okay. How did you actually get started with Altium? Because you are basically also a hardware consultant, right?

Zach Peterson: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I run my own firm and then also doing content. There's a real synergy there, as I'm sure you're aware. You're actually doing the stuff that you get to talk about. But I got started doing content and research for Altium and it just scaled up over time and now we're doing videos and it's a lot of fun. I think it's important for people who do what we do on video to actually design stuff for people because first of all, you can just get great ideas, you can see real problems, you can talk about them. And then, of course, along the way, you get a lot of interesting content out of it that get to use.

Phil's Lab: Exactly.

Zach Peterson: As long as it's not a client's IP.

Phil's Lab: Yeah, pretty much. I also thought it was good to have some sort of portfolio out there, I guess. Right? To show people at least you understand this, hopefully, and these are the capabilities and things you've worked on before, so that's been really useful for me as well. But I guess you did it...

Zach Peterson: Yeah. That's what I was...

Phil's Lab: Sorry.

Zach Peterson: That's what I was going to ask, if, being a consultant, the YouTube videos help you because I know I get asked sometimes about things in videos that actually end up becoming a project and I was wondering if it happened the same way for you?

Phil's Lab: It's exactly that. I mean, YouTube actually helped going freelance or being self-employed because now that I've got quite an audience and people can see, "Okay, this guy can do these kind of things," I got contacted quite a lot. But specifically about the stuff that I put in the videos, which is okay, I guess. It's pretty cool that you get this traffic but it does limit you to the stuff that you've done before, in a way. I don't know. So, a lot of my stuff is same-y, the kind of contracts I get in. Which is nice, of course, because I'm fairly good at that but then expanding out, I happen to do in my spare time, which might be different to a proper full-time job, I guess. However you'd call it.

Zach Peterson: Well, I think it's so important because you brought up something here that, not explicitly, but I think it's so important to continue learning and developing those new capabilities into areas that are interesting for you. Like for me, I've had to deep dive into FPGAs because we've gotten so many FPGA design requests and they're coming back in vogue for some of these more advanced applications.

Phil's Lab: Yes. Yeah, okay. Are basically you working on your own or do you have some sort of a group of consultants you work with?

Zach Peterson: So, I have a small group of designers that work for me and then I have an overseas group of guys that do some software and embedded. They're mostly serving legacy projects that have just been ongoing for years. And then I have a small marketing team and then I have my own videographer. It's a lot of fun. It's stress, but it's so rewarding, as I'm sure you're aware. Doing what we do and being out there in front of it and knowing that you're helping people. I mean, that's what's rewarding for me, at least.

Phil's Lab: No, definitely. I mean, it sounds like you've got quite a larger operation than I have. Basically it's just me doing this, whereas you've got, I guess, several employees.

Zach Peterson: I don't know. I suppose. I didn't want to make it about me. Listen, man, you're the one that's getting the views on YouTube, okay?

Phil's Lab: Well, I'm not sure how, is still the question, but there seems to be some sort of niche. As you say, it is very rewarding. Also, you get the occasional email saying I've helped with getting jobs or succeeding at certain questions in interviews and I think that's one of the coolest things. And also seeing people, of course, use the information to design stuff that hopefully works. Usually does. So, that's been...

Zach Peterson: I agree with you about the job thing. "You really helped me understand this thing that nobody else could explain for me properly." Because, I mean, everybody learns differently and I think when you're out there on YouTube, you see a lot of explanations that are just a repeat of whatever was done 10, 15, 20 years earlier and no one really puts a new spin on it. So I really appreciate creators that can make something fun and engaging, put a new spin on things, maybe a different way to look at a concept and hopefully, through that method, help people learn something that has always been troubling.

Phil's Lab: Yeah, exactly. For me, university was, I'm sure for many people, just purely theoretical. I mean, we didn't even have a single course on PCB design or whatnot and actually taking those theoretical skills and putting them to use making practical projects. So, the channel I have is isn't just electronics, it's also DSP and control theory and "How do you implement that in the real world," and "How much can you, actually." You know, moving away from the ideologies that you get taught at university. It's nice to put that into practice and that for myself was a way to have these little projects to present and show that this is actually useful.

Zach Peterson: So, that was one thing I noticed was you have a whole section on DSP on your channel and actually, for any of the viewers out there, we'll actually link to your channel in the show notes, so make sure to go check out Phil's channel.

Zach Peterson: But you've got a whole section on DSP, which I thought was really interesting because I'm having trouble thinking of another channel that has a section on DSP where you're literally doing it on the hardware and you're not just showing the equations on the board. Not to say that showing the equations and talking about the concepts is bad or anything, I think you still need to do that, but it's always nice to just see it in action.

Phil's Lab: Exactly. Yeah. I think DSP is one of the coolest things, but once you implement on hardware. Of course, you can write software and do simulations in MATLAB and Python scripts, but actually seeing... I mean, I'm quite a big musician so guitar is always my thing, so actually making guitar amplifiers or effect pedals that you can plug into and write your own distortion algorithms for reverb was one of the coolest and rewarding things. So, you get all the way from building a hardware to seeing the limitations of the hardware when doing FYR filters or God knows what. But you're right, I didn't see, maybe I'm wrong, but other channels do that to that extent. So, hopefully that's filled some sort of gap until now but I'm running out of ideas for more DSP videos because, I don't know, I guess there's only so much you can do with a guitar.

Zach Peterson: That's fair. I mean, you could build a modular synth.

Phil's Lab: That's true. And I guess I'll whip out the keyboard skills then. So that's to come next month, modular synth design, I guess. Yeah. Yeah.

Zach Peterson: Go start doing some Eurorack modules or something.

Phil's Lab: I mean, that is actually a pretty good idea, like these Eurorack kind of stuff. I mean, I'm actually working on, on the topic of FPGAs and stuff like that, a new version of a studio effects processor based on a Xilinx Zynq.

Zach Peterson: Oh, that would be so cool.

Phil's Lab: Yeah. Do you play music or do you play any instruments?

Zach Peterson: Okay. When I was 10, I got my first guitar and so, of course, I thought I was Eddie Van Halen, as any 10 year old young man will think when they get their first guitar. But no, I don't play any instruments.

Phil's Lab: Okay. Yeah. Yeah. I think that's also what spawned the whole engineering thing, was actually working on the electric guitar and seeing, "How does an amplifier work," and then hopefully now moving on to siding system-on-chips and actually doing the hardware processing on there. So, that's a fairly large project and something I'm doing in my spare time. So, hopefully that will feature on the channel with DSP things as well and then how to program, because that's another thing I don't see on YouTube channels is actually implementation, VHDL further than just, "Okay. Here are the statements and here are the basics." So, that might be an untapped resource. Who knows if that's the new channel direction?

Zach Peterson: Oh man, you are absolutely right and I think a lot of people rely on IP and I'm wondering also if some of this is maybe becoming a lost art, in a way. There just aren't enough people who have spent time doing it over the recent past and now that FPGAs are coming back as the processor of choice for some applications, rather than using an MCU, now that you have to go through and actually learn how to program these things and how to work with the development tools and just even understanding what an FPGA is and all that. There's this whole generation of engineers, they were trained on Arduino.

Phil's Lab: Yes.

Zach Peterson: Or they were trained on Raspberry Pi.

Phil's Lab: Yeah.

Zach Peterson: And now it's a big gear shift.

Phil's Lab: Yes. And also, in terms of hardware, if you don't buy a Dev Board or something, getting an FPGA system up and running is, as you know, such a difference from getting an MCU system up and running or programming that. But I mean, do you know Adam Taylor? Or have you heard of...

Zach Peterson: I don't.

Phil's Lab: He writes, I think... Jesus, I forgot the company name, but he writes a lot of... What's it called? MicroZed Chronicles? So basically, text blogs on how to program Zynqs and get the Vivado systems up and running. He did some videos with Robert Feranec as well, I believe, so that's...

Zach Peterson: Okay.

Phil's Lab: Would be cool to get him on to show how to do some stuff like that. But yeah, basically, that's what I'd like to move the channel into is, "How do you go that next step up from MCUs over to FPGAs and how do you get started there?" So, that's...

Zach Peterson: Sorry, what was his name again?

Phil's Lab: Adam Taylor, I believe.

Zach Peterson: Okay. Adam Taylor, if you're out there and you're listening, find me on LinkedIn. We'll talk.

Phil's Lab: Yes, I believe. I hope I didn't get the name wrong, but yes, that would be great to also have him, I guess, on the OnTrack podcast as well.

Zach Peterson: I hope you didn't get the name wrong because otherwise some random Adam Taylor is going to...

Phil's Lab: Adam Taylor's going to be in touch pretending he knows all about FPGAs.

Zach Peterson: Right?

Phil's Lab: Yes. But yeah, I guess that's the evolution. I mean, what's more difficult than FPGAs and system-on-chips, right? I think.

Zach Peterson: I think it's like anything. I think the first couple dives are tough and they require extra effort and if you're doing this as a consultation or a design job, you're going to have to invest some extra time because you might not know what those hiccups are, you might not know the things that could potentially derail the project and you quote it one way and then, of course, something happens and you're going to be up for a few nights until 4:00 AM, reading articles online, learning how to solve the problem.

Zach Peterson: I think new projects have always been a little bit like that for me. I mean, I have talented people that I rely on to, of course, anticipate and get past those hurdles, but sometimes something new comes along and it's like, "Okay, I have to do some research."

Phil's Lab: Yes.

Zach Peterson: And I think, as a design engineer, you have to be willing to invest that time to expand out your skills and really learn the solution to problems to get the job done.

Phil's Lab: Yeah, definitely. I mean, how do you go about learning new things? Is it just scraping through books, the internet, asking people in your network? How do you personally go about it?

Zach Peterson: Wow. No one's ever asked me that. Okay, so I learn best by studying well-documented examples. That is the fastest way for me to learn something, because once I've studied the well-documented example and I understand the basic concepts, then I can reverse engineer the example and do whatever I need to do.

Phil's Lab: Okay.

Zach Peterson: If you give me enough time, I can pick up a book and just read all the stuff and then I'll get it, but it's a lot faster to find a well-documented example and reverse engineer it.

Phil's Lab: Okay. No, that makes sense.

Zach Peterson: What about you?

Phil's Lab: Yeah, I find it difficult because I never spent time in a proper job, so to speak. So, straight after university, I did my own thing and then I joined a startup where you don't have a mentor or anything, you're self-dependent. So, it's the usual data sheets, app nodes. As you say, examples. If I'm looking at a new FPGA design, MCU, I will look at the guys who made it, put on a dev board and as you say, reverse engineer. "Why did they do this? Why did they do this?" But I always wonder if there's a faster way, if I were to join a quote unquote "normal" company, have a mentor, some guy who's been in the industry for 30 years, how my skills would be different to if I'm just going my own route.

Phil's Lab: But yeah, I've recently actually gone to quite a few different seminars and there's PCB West and PCB East and I've recently... I live in Germany and Rick Hartley actually gave a seminar in Munich about a month ago now, so stuff like that is how I try to at least stay on top or learn new things. But I wonder if there's any limit to doing it yourself, but I guess that's the...

Zach Peterson: Yeah, to an extent. And some companies have gotten really great about putting those resources out there on-demand and then trying to make sure that it's always the most current resource, so it's not some seminar from, I don't know, 2010 or whatever. It's something that's recent and it's still current and it's still relevant, so kudos to the companies that put those webinars out there. I know Altium tries to do a good job of that as well.

Phil's Lab: Yes, definitely. On the topic of seminars and webinars, do you know IPC CID and CID+?

Zach Peterson: Well, I know what it is. I've not gone through the course.

Phil's Lab: Yeah. I've actually signed up for it now. I'm wondering what that's going to be like. I'm familiar with the standard, of course, but actually doing the accreditation, I thought, "Okay, if I'm going it solo, the single man consultancy, I better get all the credentials I can." So, let's see how that goes. I guess always just trying to develop and try new things and see what goes on.

Zach Peterson: Well, I did the PCEA Certified Printed Circuit Designer, CPCD, course. I was actually in the beta course and that was supposed to have been modeled after the IPC CID, so it's a mix of manufacturing knowledge and then DFM.

Phil's Lab: Yes.

Zach Peterson: And so, I think that's what you could expect from the CID.

Phil's Lab: Okay. Is the PCEA one by... Was it that online course, like a week long or something?

Zach Peterson: Something like that. I'm not sure the format that they're doing lately, because it started in late 2020, early 2021, which, of course, mid-COVID.

Phil's Lab: Yeah.

Zach Peterson: So everything was still online.

Phil's Lab: Okay. Yeah. I think, if we're talking about the same one, I was having a look at that as well. The problem is the time zone difference, because it's based in the US, so I'd have to do a normal work day and then stay up until 03:00 for eight hours getting roasted on PCB design. I think actually Rick Hartley was part of the team that developed the course or something and when I met him, I asked him if they can maybe shift that to a European timezone, so let's see if that ever happens.

Zach Peterson: Well, they got to find a European instructor, I guess.

Phil's Lab: Exactly. Yeah. Actually really surprised, Rick Hartley's almost 80. He seems a lot younger than his age, which is... But he is some pretty cool stuff. I don't know if you've spoken to him before, on the podcast.

Zach Peterson: Yeah. Yeah. I know him. Yeah. Not on the podcast, but I was just at PCB East and I got to see all the PCEA guys. I'm a member, but I actually got to go in and talk to everybody and I got them on camera. Actually, what the heck. We'll just link to that video in the show notes if anyone's interested. But yeah, I got to talk to him and my impression of Rick Hartley has always been young at heart.

Phil's Lab: Definitely.

Zach Peterson: He definitely has that young, jovial spirit and I consider him a friend.

Phil's Lab: No, he very cool. I mean, I love that.... I first discovered him, actually, through the Altium channel. It was a two hour video on proper grounding in PCB and I never thought I'd say that that was one of the best videos I've watched is a two hour video on grounding. I mean, if you tell anyone outside of PCB design, they think you're nuts, but that's my first introduction to Rick Harley and ever since then, been a huge fan.

Zach Peterson: You though, that has to be one of the most common questions that I get. I've also done several videos on grounding in different contexts and it's extremely important and yet, I think it's one of the last things that people think of and it's one of those things where if you don't do it correctly, there are noise problems that can come up and bite you. But it's interesting, I get a lot of questions and I think that is one of the most common is, "How should I ground this?"

Phil's Lab: Yes. No, definitely. I mean, all the videos I do, every time there's a USB connector with a shield. I think people freak out because as soon as you put something in a video, people debate that topic to no end and especially grounding, you know? I'm sure you have it as well, Henry Ott's book on EMC. I guess it's...

Zach Peterson: I'm sorry, whose?

Phil's Lab: Henry Ott.

Zach Peterson: Oh, Henry Ott. I thought you said Henry alt.

Phil's Lab: It's my weird pronunciation.

Zach Peterson: No, it's fine. It's my weird hearing.

Phil's Lab: Okay.

Zach Peterson: Yeah. I don't have that textbook.

Phil's Lab: Okay. Yeah. So that, I believe, is the Bible on that, as far as I've been told. So I just go by whatever older people and more experienced people than me have written.

Zach Peterson: There is another one. Oh man, I'm trying to remember the name of the author, but it's like, "Grounds for Grounding." There's another one that I've seen out there that's actually really good and highly regarded as well.

Phil's Lab: Okay. I haven't heard of that, but if you maybe also leave a link in the...

Zach Peterson: Yeah, I'll find it. Yeah, I'll find it. These are great resources. One thing I wanted to ask you though, how did you get into PCB design? Because, like you said, when you were at university, they didn't have courses. And same thing when I was at university. I mean, I used to teach at university and I was teaching engineers and I never met a single engineer that said, "I want to do circuit board design," or "I want to do circuit board manufacturing." It was all semiconductors and then there were civil and computer systems and things like that, but no one ever was like, "I'm going to go design boards."

Phil's Lab: No, definitely. That is completely by luck. A friend of mine had found this program called KiCad, which I'd never heard of, but it looked cool because it had a black background, you can draw these weird lines on it. And he showed it to me just a year or two before graduating university and for some reason it instantly was hooked because it changes everything with electronics. You can move away from breadboarding and using through-hole components and it opens a whole new world of using these tiniest ICS and it's not just connect-the-dots and unfortunately, I think that's what most people still think. You know, "It's just connecting the dots and there's no real sense to it. What's so special about design PCBs," rather than it being one of the most critical parts of an electronic system.

Phil's Lab: But yeah, basically, at university, a friend showed me there was nothing in the university courses about it, I don't think even a mention that electronics end up on PCBs. So, that was very lucky and then I just got hooked because it's such a niche area, but it's like a puzzle, like a 3D connect-the-dots with a lot of constraints and a bit more thinking than just connect-the-dots. And ever since then, it's just been, I guess, self-taught. KiCad, luckily, is free. It works for the basics. Although being sponsored, I'm much happier with Altium just because more capabilities and so on, but there's many other great CAD programs. It just opens so many doors and I don't think a lot of electronic engineers fully appreciate PCB design or can do it as... Doesn't sound mean, I hope, but there's a lot to be improved on when I do design reviews from electronic engineers who weren't trained or have an interest in PCB design. I don't know what your experience is with that.

Zach Peterson: Sure. It's interesting. I think for some folks who are engineers and who get and appreciate PCB design, they are so involved with their own tasks and projects and a lot of circuit design or reliability engineering or whatever it may be. Because working with clients, you've got four or five different heads working on a problem and they're all just in their own world. None of them have time to really figure out the process for solving these puzzles that really are, just like you say, PCB designs is a puzzle. So, none of them really have the time to just deep dive into it is, has been my experience and so they rely on somebody who can do it quickly, do it efficiently, knows the software. It's more than just knowing where to put the MCU versus where to put the resistors, right? It's how to do all the bookkeeping around putting all this stuff into a board. That's one thing that... The way I've described is it's a lot of bookkeeping. There's a lot of spinning plates and you have to keep them all spinning.

Phil's Lab: Yes. Yeah. Definitely. How is it in the US? Because in Europe, or at least in Germany, there aren't many completely dedicated PCB design jobs. It's oftentimes an EE with, "You've used Altium before, you've designed PCBs before." I don't know if that's different in the US or generally with the companies you have over there.

Zach Peterson: Yeah. So I will say this, the clients that I have worked with, they tend to be at larger companies and they may have a design group and it's EEs, maybe some MEs, a simulation person, something like that. Someone's doing firmware or software or something and then there's a designer. There's just a guy, you know?

Phil's Lab: Okay.

Zach Peterson: Or a woman or whoever. It's just a person and they're responsible for it. Maybe there's a couple of them, if they're an EMs that also does design services, so maybe they have a small staff, but that's why you've had these service bureaus grow up, where like, "We're just a service bureau. We contract with 10 or 20 different companies and all we do is design." And it's just outsourced.

Zach Peterson: Not that that's a bad thing. I don't think it's a bad thing at all. You got to go where you can and if you can't support an employee full-time in a design job, then yeah, you contract with an external service and okay, everybody's happy. So it's not that there aren't designers full-time at some of these companies. That exists. I think it's less common than you might be led to believe. You don't have a group of a thousand PCB designers. It's a thousand engineers and 20 PCB designers, but the engineers have to understand something about PCB design and the PCB designers have to know how to analyze circuits. They have to be able to look at a schematic and say, "Hey, I think that's incorrect. Here's why."

Phil's Lab: Yes. No, definitely. Yeah. I don't know how you are, but I just find PCB design the most enjoyable out of all. Doing schematics and designing circuits is pretty cool as well, but I know... How much of your job is the actual PCB design?

Zach Peterson: Right. We'll do both and I think it's common because... I mean, you're a hardware design person yourself, right? I'm sure you've been asked to go through and analyze the schematics and do a review first before going into the PCB. Yeah. So, you still have to do that review. You still have to have those skills and maybe you're not spending three months creating it from scratch. So, we'll actually create it from scratch if needed. Usually, we're starting from somebody's sketch on a napkin but then we're actually going through and figuring out, "Here's all the components, we'll compile the BOM."

Zach Peterson: But I agree. I think once you get to the physical layout, especially with some of the more challenging stuff, like we have multiple radar designs going on right now. Doing stuff like that is really fun, at least for me, because I started my career teaching physics to engineers and doing research and optics and stuff. So, for me, that's what I like to do and it's always something to do with the physical system.

Phil's Lab: Okay. Yeah. No, definitely. I have the same. Oftentimes, before the schematic exists, part selection, system level design, all the way through to PCB design, but it is, I think, the PCB design that's the most enjoyable for some reason. I still can't explain why, but maybe because you're actually working on the physical product, you can see how it's going to shape out and have to work with mechanical teams and God knows what.

Zach Peterson: Well, there's also so much stuff that happens in the actual physical product that you will never capture in the schematic. It's like what Bogatin says. He says, "Signal integrity..." I think I'm going to misquote him here, but he says something like, "Signal integrity happens in the white space in your schematic," or something like that. Because it's that white space that captures all of the real electrical behavior and you don't know what it is because it depends so heavily on the actual layout.

Phil's Lab: Yes.

Zach Peterson: And that's where the engineering comes in.

Phil's Lab: No, definitely. Definitely. Yeah. I think I've heard that quote before as well, so I think you're right. Unfortunately these days with the whole chip shortage as well, a lot of the designs are basically redesigns. I'm sure you have a similar problem, so to speak, which is it can get frustrating if you've seen the same design except it's just the different specific IC or something like that. I'm looking forward to... When's it going to be? 2024? Until we get out of this? Maybe?

Zach Peterson: Oh man. I think there's going to be overcapacity by then and you're going to have some hiccup with the PCB supply chain. Copper prices going through the roof or something like that. But yeah, I think there'll be overcapacity by 2024, so economic drop-off a little bit with demand waning or just everybody thinking, "Hey, we need to build new fabs." Suddenly you increase supply by 50% or 100% or whatever. So yeah, I think to those two factors combined, you probably have a little bit of oversupply.

Phil's Lab: Yeah.

Zach Peterson: And then it's just back to normal, right? We'll have six months of just, "Eh, you know. We'll source it later." You know?

Phil's Lab: Yes. I hope so. It's weird because I started in a startup in Denmark basically just a month or two before the chip shortage started and it was... What a nice feeling just to not have to worry about resourcing parts. Especially in a startup, you don't have the funds to source a lot of components.

Zach Peterson: Well, I'm sure there's a lot of risk that you have to manage there too because in the good old days, I guess you could say, you just go on to Digi-Key and throw your BOM on there and maybe there's one or two things that are obsolete and you swap them out. And then now, for a client project, what we'll have to do, I'm sure you understand this, is we'll look at the BOM, we'll say, "Okay, here's four ICs that I see here. Three of them are TI, so that's it. They're out of stock. Some of the most popular stuff in the world, right? Forget about that. And then this microcontroller, maybe we can get a tray of 40. Let's see. Maybe we have to go overseas, but we got to do it right now."

Phil's Lab: Yeah. Yeah. It's horrible but as you say, hopefully the world will settle back in the next year or two. I mean, as you say, that's probably going to be an overshoot and then it'll settle. Some sort of weird response. Yeah, for a startup, that wasn't great. Definitely. Because mitigating risk, trying to get enough pieces and seeing how much demand will you even have before the product is out. And anytime, I guess, you change ICs, there's a risk of making mistakes and getting a bit careless every time you do a redesign. And it's also not the most fun, I guess. For personal projects, I'm just trying to source all the parts before I start the design and hope I haven't forgotten anything because there could be, what, 20,000 pieces in stock? And an hour later you're gone, so it hasn't been great. But I guess that keeps us in business as well. Loads of redesigns and things along those lines.

Zach Peterson: Yeah. I can't complain about that, although I will say people balk at the time involved in redesigns sometimes, especially if they don't do this. I'm wondering if that's happened to you because someone will say, "Oh yeah, this one microcontroller went out of stock. We need to swap it out." Well, "There's nothing pin-compatible, so now we've got to redo portions of the layout. Oh and by the way, it's not just pin-compatible in terms of the footprint, but now pin count is different too so now we've got to do some re-engineering." And then people are like, "Wow, I didn't think one out-of-stock part would force me to do this big of a change in the design," but it becomes a pretty significant change.

Phil's Lab: Completely. Yeah. And I've had that pretty much right now or recently, having to do a redesign of about four or five PCBs, which all go into one product and the estimate on their side was like, "Two weeks should do it, right?" Yeah. It's quite a bit more. Conveying that over is sometimes a bit difficult, as you say, for people...

Zach Peterson: Then if they have an application, let's say they have firmware, and now you're switching from microchip, let's say, to a Nordic or whatever. Now there's firmware work that has to be done on top of it.

Phil's Lab: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And that's the thing, just getting the different debuggers or getting the firmware guys to switch over to a different environment. Who knows what drivers they might have to adapt. We actually have that recently. It might sound odd, because all the SDM32 devices are basically completely gone now, but Raspberry PI... You know that RP2040? The microcontroller they brought out? That seems to be still fairly abundant in stock.

Zach Peterson: Not for long.

Phil's Lab: Not for long, yeah, at least for now. But they sell pretty much direct to businesses, so just getting a stockpile of those seems to be the way to do it now. But that's a completely different environment from ST, so that's going to be interesting for the firmware guys.

Zach Peterson: Well, you know it gets bad when people start buying the eval boards or the Dev Boards and de-soldering the Ics.

Phil's Lab: Oh God.

Zach Peterson: Just so they can get access to chips.

Phil's Lab: Yes. No, that is grim. The thought did cross my mind and I was like, "No way I am doing that." Also for the Xilinx parts, a lot of the Spartan-7s, actually re-balling those BGAs, I'm like, "Mm. Maybe not."

Zach Peterson: Oh man, you're asking for a quality issue there.

Phil's Lab: Definitely. Yeah. So, let's hope in the next year or two that we can get return back to normality and not have to worry about specific parts or redesigning that much anymore.

Zach Peterson: Well, if the issues are still persisting, we'll have you back on and we can commiserate about it some more.

Phil's Lab: Yeah, exactly. Do kind of a sad podcast or something like that.

Zach Peterson: Yeah. "Ugh, the chip shortage."

Phil's Lab: Oh God, yeah. I'm sure it'll be fine, one way or the other. Otherwise, I guess, take a two year sabbatical and come back.

Zach Peterson: But you know it'll happen, right? It's going to be oversupply of senis and then the shortage will roll back into MLCCs, like we had in 2018.

Phil's Lab: Yes. Probably.

Zach Peterson: >"Oh, we can't get capacitors," you know?

Phil's Lab: Yeah, exactly. So maybe that's the trick now, to stock up capacitors and passives and then, you know... I guess that's also what we're going to do best.

Zach Peterson: Every distributor has a million, 5 million, 10 million in stock.

Phil's Lab: Yeah. Yeah. No, definitely. So it's going to be interesting, let's say. I wanted to ask, actually, how do you, on a completely unrelated note, but your video content? Because that's sometimes what I think of, "What do I provide that's novel," or video ideas three or four times a month. I mean, you, with Altium Academy, I've seen you've released quite a lot of content, right?

Zach Peterson: Yeah. Yeah. Well, part of the great thing about doing that is that we're getting questions directly from users or potential users or just people who want to see something interesting and so, that can drive video content. It can drive a series, even. The stuff on grounding, that was related to a group of questions. Not anything specific, but that was related to a group of questions that I had received repeatedly and so I said, "Okay, yeah. We're going to do this series on grounding," so I think that makes sense. I'll just give you an example. We did two videos on stubs and back drilling and "When do you need the back drill?" "What's the maximum data rate that you can accept when you do have a stub, versus the stub length?" That was driven by a viewer question. I always say, "Hey, send your question to this email address," and, "We'd love to hear your questions." For a while, it was inundated. I just couldn't even keep up with them.

Phil's Lab: Okay. So no lack of content ideas.

Zach Peterson: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, some of them are kind of like, "It's not really a question, but we'll see what we can do with it," but we always get really good questions. I think if you're out there on LinkedIn, too. People will get into my inbox and ask me something. I mean, I've had people ask me to, "Help me lay out this board," and it's like, "Dude, this is my job. I'm not going to do this for free, I'm sorry. I'd love to help you. I'll give you some advice, but I'm not throwing this into Altium for you. You got to do it."

Phil's Lab: Yeah. No, I have had similar requests and although I would love to...

Zach Peterson: So people are getting ahold of you, on LinkedIn and...

Phil's Lab: Well, it's mainly through mail on my website. I'm not the biggest fan of LinkedIn or not the biggest user of any social media platform, I guess. Does YouTube count? I'm not sure.

Zach Peterson: I regard YouTube as a social media platform.

Phil's Lab: Okay. Well then I am active a bit, but other than that, I'm pretty useless at social media. So yeah, mainly through website mail. Get a quite few requests. But also, as you say, quite specific design requests. "Use this certain IC in this configuration." If I had infinite time, sure, but a day is already full enough as it is. Content-wise, I don't... Occasionally, yeah, through comments. "Okay, could you cover this," or, "Something like this," but I usually try to combine it with some sort of project that I'm working on myself, I guess. Same with the guitar pedal [inaudible 00:38:40]

Zach Peterson: So, it sounds like you've got personal or just fun projects going on in addition to what you're doing with consulting, because I've said this repeatedly, I would love to show more project stuff. We're just maxed because we've got a lot of client projects and we really can't show, in-depth, the client's project. You can adapt things and make something new and totally remove the application and the IP and at that point, no one's going to know what it is or what it's for or you can grab a footprint or whatever and use it as an example for something. That's one thing, but we're not showing client products. We can't do that, you know? So, I will admit, and I've wished I could do more of this, I just don't have enough really cool projects to show and I regret it. I almost need to hire somebody to just do some cool projects.

Phil's Lab: Yeah. I think you're a pretty cool channel.

Zach Peterson: So I appreciate guys like you that have the pet projects going on like that, because I think they're great. Like I said, I learned from example, so I respect the folks that can put good examples out there that I can maybe poach some ideas from or copy from and use that in my own work.

Phil's Lab: Okay. So I guess in your spare time, you also don't have any time to do engineering projects or prefer to do other activities, so to speak.

Zach Peterson: Well, I mean, yeah. I prefer to do a few other activities. No, we have a few small projects going on here and there.

Phil's Lab: Okay.

Zach Peterson: But then, with spare time, not all of those video requests are our project requests. Some of them really are conceptual stuff. "I don't understand what this is, can you help me," or, "I have this particular type of board and the app note recommends doing this. Why would they say that? Doesn't that go against what so-and-so said?" I mean, that kind of thing.

Phil's Lab: Okay. Do you do them kind of off the cuff or how much do you plan out the video when you get a request like that? Or general content ideas?

Zach Peterson: Yeah, a little of both. I mean, I'm going to say this. I try not to make a video out of a question if I don't have a really good answer for it and I can't go deep on it. Sometimes what you have is different people asking different things or different aspects of the question, so aspect A from one person, aspect B from another person. We had that recently with length tuning, so meanders in a PCB layout. That was fun because we were able to make it like a little Q and A, so that was a cool format. So, yeah. That's just how I approach it is I try to make sure I'm only taking stuff that I can do reasonably deeply and make sure it's a fun, reasonably long video.

Phil's Lab: Okay. Yeah. That makes sense. And do you do... Was it one a week? Or more, right? Of video.

Zach Peterson: We're cranking them out all the time. I mean, all day Friday.

Phil's Lab: Seriously? Okay. So, you will do multiple videos in a day.

Zach Peterson: Yeah.

Phil's Lab: Not bad. Okay. Yeah. I find it hard enough doing one a week. I mean, it's good fun once you get into the... But it's the whole thing of having... At least in my case, I design the hardware I have to test, I write the firmware for it, see if it even works and then go back from the start and document everything for a video, basically.

Zach Peterson: To be fair, if you're going to compare... I mean, I don't think we should be comparing ourselves because I see some of your stuff is an hour long, you know?

Phil's Lab: Oh God, yeah. I don't know why people even bother watching that but yeah.

Zach Peterson: You're going deep on some of these topics and like you say, it's the hardware, it's the testing, it's the firmware, the application. I think those are all good things and why not put it into a half hour long video This is the kind of thing that someone who may not have ever touched STM32, let's say, now they can go watch one of your videos and really see how to get started from start to finish. And they don't have to break it up into five or six sessions, it's all there. I mean, I think there's value in that.

Phil's Lab: Yeah, no, I hope so. And I've got a fairly good response. I never thought close to 63,000 people would be interested in watching someone click on a computer screen for a bit, but I think it's that...

Zach Peterson: You'd be surprised what people are interested in on YouTube.

Phil's Lab: Oh God. Okay. Yes. I think it's that bridging that gap. You know, after you go from Arduino, what do you do from there? If you want to make your own boards, if you want to go to a STM32 microcontroller, which actually have debugging capabilities and so forth, I think that is hopefully the niche that it's addressing and then hopefully moving on from there as well for future projects. I'm always impressed by, also, these larger channels. There's guys that are electronics-based and have 900,000 or a million subscribers and I'm like, "That's pretty cool. How do you do that?" I always wonder. There must be some sort of cap or some ceiling to the number of people that want to subscribe to the stuff that I do. I wonder when that is going to be.

Zach Peterson: Much respect to Feranec and ElectroBOOM, because those are the types of folks I think you're talking about.

Phil's Lab: Yeah, exactly. Or EEVblog and there's...

Zach Peterson: Yeah, yeah.

Phil's Lab: Another German guy, GreatScott, who's got nearly a million and pretty cool stuff. I guess that's their whole, what do you call it? Career? Basically, that's their full-time job is being a YouTuber, which I don't think I'm anywhere close to getting to that level yet.

Zach Peterson: They're living the dream, man.

Phil's Lab: Yeah, exactly. And how cool is that? I'm not sure what, if you ever decide to do something else, what you could do then. Like, if you want to go back to a normal job, so to speak, how that would be perceived.

Zach Peterson: Well, I mean, what would you feel about it? Okay, so you had said you didn't really work a normal, what I'd call a "job-y job." Like a nine-to-five kind of thing, right?

Phil's Lab: Yeah. I have had interviews for companies when I was thinking, "Okay, do I really want to go the self-employed life," and all that and YouTube has actually been one of the... The biggest response I get is through that and people see what I can or can't do and see that I have a genuine interest in engineering and electronics, so it has been an immensely helpful. It isn't just your conventional route, I guess, not working a "job-y job" as you say it.

Zach Peterson: Well, I will say this. Putting up some of the stuff that you've put up, it's a pretty powerful way to show what you can do because it really helps make things tangible. And I think that's why I have always recommended to people, because I've been asked this a few different times, I've always recommended that if you're looking for work, do a couple of projects, do something that you can actually show and walk through with somebody and talk about deeply and justify the design choices. Have a small portfolio, make sure it's nothing from a client, of course, but develop that portfolio that really showcases your skills. Doesn't have to be a YouTube thing. I mean, put it on GitHub, you know?

Phil's Lab: No, definitely. I think the biggest response is exactly that. Having just your own personal portfolio and that'll help with job interviews or getting clients to do that, exactly. So yeah, in that sense, YouTube has been a great help and also basically got recruited by the startup, which was in Denmark, through YouTube as well. Everything has led from that, which is bizarre in a way, but I'm not complaining, definitely. I wonder where it's going to take for the next coming years, if that still exists, but yeah, it's been... But how did you actually get involved with Altium Academy and actually starting with videos? Because I guess you were busy doing your consulting stuff before, really.

Zach Peterson: I've been working with Altium since early 2018, so I've been working with them a long time and we care so much about the little guy, the individual designer, and I think we just thought, "This is going to be a great way to reach people and try and make it interactive."

Zach Peterson: And that was really the key was, "Zach, you need to be in the comments talking to people." I'm like, "Yeah, sure. This'll be fun. Let's give it a try," and the rest is history. It's been about a year. How long have you been... I don't even know how long your channel's been up. How long has your channel been up?

Phil's Lab: I mean, it used to be my private channel, so ever since YouTube started, but I only uploaded the first video I think about, what was it, two years ago or something?

Zach Peterson: Really? Okay.

Phil's Lab: Yeah.

Zach Peterson: So your age on YouTube is double mine.

Phil's Lab: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. You started a year ago, you said, right? Yeah.

Zach Peterson: We did. Yeah, we started it last year.

Phil's Lab: Okay. But you've had quite a bit of success with it already, so that's pretty cool. Right? I mean it's what...

Zach Peterson: Yeah. The validating thing for me is, kind of like what you said, is people reaching out and saying, "Hey, I love watching this stuff," or, "You really helped me understand something." That for me is the big validator for what we do and I think it's really important because, at least in the US, there's such a talent issue coming up and passing on that knowledge and how do you telegraph the knowledge that is now buried in textbooks onto the next generation? And the next generation is not necessarily the textbook type, you know?

Phil's Lab: Yeah.

Zach Peterson: They're on YouTube, they're on TikTok, they may be reading blogs, but that's not going to be their only source or their only way of learning new things.

Zach Peterson: So what you're doing with... I mean, dude, especially with the application development and some of the microcontroller examples and things like that, I dig it. I'm not a programmer. I can do some cool things in Python, but I'm not an application developer or software engineer or anything, so I have to rely on other people to do that very well and I always appreciate people that can do that and make engaging content out of it.

Phil's Lab: Yeah. No, definitely. I mean, I also like with your videos that you go very much in-depth into very niche topics, like back drilling or stubs and stuff like that. I mean, who would normally ever think to make a video on that, right? But it's incredibly useful, as you say, because where do you find that information other than you?

Zach Peterson: Yeah. I feel like people who are in your position or maybe my position, I think the important thing to do to assist that next generation is to really be a filter, right? We're filtering down the need-to-know within this one question and giving that to people in an easy to consume format.

Phil's Lab: Yes.

Zach Peterson: And back drilling may be one of those questions. How to get started with Raspberry Pie may be one of those questions. Whatever the issue is, I think that's our job.

Phil's Lab: Yeah, definitely. It's surprising that it gets quite a decent response, right? I mean, a fraction of the population of the world, but still, that's pretty incredible that... I mean, in your case, what is it, like 25,000, 30,000 people subscribed?

Zach Peterson: Yeah. We just put up the 25,000 Q and A recently, since we passed 25,000, so that's always nice. You got to have those milestones, right?

Phil's Lab: Exactly, yeah. I think that's awesome that quite a substantial amount of people are interested in this very niche stuff, right? And that there is some sort of audience for it. My parents still don't believe that I can support myself with YouTube and other things, so at least there's people who think that.

Zach Peterson: Prove them wrong, man.

Phil's Lab: Exactly. Yeah.

Zach Peterson: Well, this has been a lot of fun and we're getting up on our time limit but I think before we close out, I just wanted to maybe get your ideas here. What are some things you haven't done on the channel that you would love to do and just haven't made time for, haven't had enough motivation for? What's your dream video on the channel?

Phil's Lab: The dream video. That's a tough question. There's so many different projects I want to do. I think mainly the next things I want to do is really FPGA-based system-on-chip stuff because I believe that doesn't exist yet on YouTube, at least to a depth where you can actually design your own board and do the firmware, software, whatever you would call it on that. There's lots of tutorials on VHDL and Verilog, but bringing up your own board? I've never seen that, I think. So that is not a specific project, I guess. I mean, then it would be this audio processing system, from start to finish. I've gone from choosing the parts, doing the layout and then actually writing some DSP algorithms on it. I don't think that exists yet and I think that would be pretty cool, for me personally. So, I don't know if anyone would watch it, but...

Zach Peterson: Dude, I would watch that.

Phil's Lab: Okay. At least one viewer then. Okay.

Zach Peterson: Yeah. No, I would love to see that kind of thing because just for myself, like I said earlier, I've had to nosedive into FPGAs recently and I've been trying to consume it anywhere I can, so yes, I would love to see that so please do it.

Phil's Lab: Awesome. Well, thank you. That gives me more motivation, so hopefully within the next few months. It's just getting the PCB assembled. It is taking quite a while. Hopefully by the end of this year, I'll have the first few videos out.

Zach Peterson: All right. Well, anybody out there who's watching and wants to see exactly that subscribe to our channel, subscribe to Phil's Lab. We've got links down in the show notes and I'm looking forward to seeing that kind of thing, so hopefully you get on it soon.

Phil's Lab: Oh, thank you very much.

Zach Peterson: Thank you so much for being here.

Phil's Lab: Well, thank you very much for having me, Zach. It's been a pleasure.

Zach Peterson: This has been a lot of fun and we'd love to have you back in the future, especially if you come up with some great FPGA content.

Phil's Lab: Definitely will. I'd be glad to be back, so thank you very much for having me.

Zach Peterson: Absolutely. All right. Everybody out there listening, make sure to hit the subscribe button, hit the like button and keep up with future episodes and we thank you all for watching and listening to this very fun conversation with Phil Salmony of Phil's Lab. That's all I've got for today, folks. Don't stop learning, stay on track and we'll see you 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 2500+ technical articles 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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