Why PCB Design Courses Are Essential in an Engineering Curriculum

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: March 15, 2022  |  Updated: February 5, 2023
PCB Design Course

If semiconductors are like the organs in the human body, then a printed circuit board (PCB) is like the skeleton and vessels that give an electronic device its structure. Modern electronics as we understand them today would not be possible without PCBs, and the use of PCBs as packaging for electronic components is not going away any time soon. The PCBs in electronic devices, ranging from smartphones to the home appliances, have to be precisely engineered and carefully manufactured, otherwise products will not work correctly.

Despite the importance of PCBs in virtually every electronic product released to market today, you’d be surprised at how little the university system has focused on fostering educational programs focusing on printed circuit design and manufacturing. Understandably, the semiconductor industry has taken a place of prominence due to the massive engineering challenges involved in keeping up with Moore’s Law. The result is that PCBs are sometimes seen as an overblown way to connect computer chips together.

The reality is none of the electronics we enjoy or rely on can work properly if circuit boards are not designed and manufactured correctly. Circuit board design and manufacturing also draws on other areas of engineering beyond electronics. A PCB design course can help prepare students to tackle both sides of the design and manufacturing equation, ultimately making them more valuable when they enter the workforce.

Why Include PCB Design in Engineering Courses?

PCB design combines many of the fundamental concepts in electrical and electronics engineering with a focus on designing a physical product. Creating a manufacturable PCB is like solving a complex puzzle, where the rules are based on fundamental concepts in electrical engineering. It’s a fun and rewarding profession that includes multiple engineering challenges in every project.

Aside from being fun, PCB design is also a critical function in the electronics industry, one that has been overlooked throughout the past few decades. As a result, demand for competent PCB designers is expected to increase in the coming decades as the current workforce retires. PCB design courses will give students a head start should they pursue hardware engineering as a career. Students can gain some important benefits from PCB design courses as part of a regular electrical engineering curriculum.

Exposure to Industry Design Processes and Software

More than in other fields of engineering, PCB design follows a specific engineering workflow that guides design teams from product concept to a fully manufacturable design. A PCB design course exposes students to a standardized workflow that is implemented throughout the electronics industry. This workflow is enforced in PCB design software, and students will have a chance to see how real projects are completed in a professional environment. This is valuable experience that would normally require a student to participate in an internship.

PCB Design Combines Multiple Engineering Disciplines

At its core, PCB design has a solid foundation on electrical engineering, requiring students to draw from concepts in digital, analog, power, and microwave electronics, often when working through a single design. In any project, a designer will have to draw on concepts from multiple engineering disciplines to complete schematics, the physical layout, and ultimately a fully manufacturable design. This includes:

  • Fundamental circuit design and schematic capture
  • Simulation and analysis, ranging from SPICE to full-wave 3D field solvers
  • Physical layout, often within mechanical constraints
  • Electromagnetics concepts, specifically regarding wave propagation and radiation

Given that a single PCB project can draw concepts from so many areas of engineering, PCB design is an excellent opportunity to show the convergence among these fields in a practical sense. Even if students don’t end up working in the PCB industry after completing their degree, students will have gained exposure to the types of collaborative, multidisciplinary engineering projects they’ll encounter when they enter the workforce.

Exposure to Manufacturing

At the end of the day, hardware engineering is all about creating a design that can be manufactured at volume. PCB design places a heavy focus on design for manufacturing (DFM), where the constraints imposed by manufacturing processes are considered when creating a physical layout. PCB design gives students a great introduction to DFM strategies, and it helps students develop a thought process for approaching projects where manufacturing constraints apply. Students that have an understanding of DFM are better prepared to enter the workforce and start working on products that can be manufactured at volume.

PCB design courses
Electronics engineers that understand and can manage the PCB manufacturing process are in high demand.

A side effect of exposure to the PCB manufacturing process is that students might gain an interest in working in the PCB manufacturing field. With a renewed focus on onshoring and new investment in advanced manufacturing techniques, students will find fun and interesting engineering challenges in this area. A PCB design course can prepare students for success should they choose to pursue manufacturing as a career.
Before getting to full-scale manufacturing, students can get an excellent introduction to the front-end design and engineering process through functional prototyping and building proofs-of-concept. The next step to advancing student skill and knowledge is design and production of a custom circuit board that matches the functionality of the first-round prototype. According to Siddharth Deliwala, Director of ESE Lab Programs at School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Pennsylvania,
“Understanding prototyping skills is a necessary step for ECE students to be great designers in RF and high speed digital design. Altium Education is the perfect introduction to PCB design for students to take before any advanced engineering class.”

PCB Designers Are In-Demand

Perhaps most importantly, PCB designers are projected to be in very high demand in the coming decades due to a workforce shortage. Even today, there is a workforce crisis looming on the horizon as the majority of PCB designers in North America near retirement age. According to recent survey results published in Printed Circuit Design & Fab (PCD&F) magazine, the workforce shortage among the North American cohort of PCB designers is only projected to get worse. Their survey found:

  • 61% of designers report being aged 50+ years, while only 23% are younger than 35 years
  • 55% of designers plan to leave the profession within the next 10 years
  • Of those, more than 25% will retire within the next five years
  • 78% of designers said they will no longer work in the field within the next 15 years due to aging out

Meet Altium Education

The electronics industry and academia have an opportunity and responsibility to start cultivating the next generation of design engineers. Due to the unprecedented workforce shortage and the difficulty in finding high-quality educational resources online, Altium set out to create a free educational program for high schools, community colleges, and universities.

The Altium Education program empowers instructors and students to incorporate industry-leading PCB design instructional content into their own curriculum or independent learning. The curriculum is designed to be consumed in a modular format; instructors can incorporate individual modules into their existing engineering courses, or they can use the entire course as-is. Students who are interested in PCB design can also work through these courses independently. Best of all, these courses are available free of charge. As long as students have a valid email address from an educational institution, they can request an educational license of Altium Designer so they can work through the design examples in the course.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Altium Education curriculum for college students, register for course access today. It’s free to sign up and start exploring our educational resources. We hope these resources can inspire you to incorporate PCB design topics into your electrical engineering coursework.

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 2000+ 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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