Operational Process Improvements and PCB Data Management

June 28, 2019 John Watson

Is it practical or indulgent to look at exactly how the principles of good PCB Data Management can and should change our normal PCB Design processes? It is practical and necessary for operational processes to benefit from continual improvement. Let’s explore how to do so with PCB data management.

Root Causes

You need to allow specific PCB Data to change your operational processes so you can analyze and find the root causes of problems. However, most of the time we only see the cosmetic issues on the surface. We do not dig deep into the problems to find the root reasons for them. 

An excellent way to analyze and determine any root cause is through a line of questioning called the Five Whys. As we saw in a previous blog, to ask the question “Why” gets down to the real motivation of an issue. This line of questioning can go further, but five iterations of asking why, are generally sufficient to get to a root cause. Let’s look at an example of using the five whys:

The problem - The room lights do not turn on. 

1.    Why? – A blown a fuse in the panel. (First Why)

2.    Why? – A short across a circuit (Second Why)

3.    Why? – Shorted house electrical wiring (Third Why)

4.    Why? – House wiring was far beyond its service life and not replaced

5.    Why? – House was not kept up to code (Fifth Why, a root cause) 

When solving these issues, you begin with the root cause and work your way back to the problem. 

I can say a lot about this as it is a vast area. I would highly recommend for you to study and start using it.

How Can You Change Your Operational Processes To Improve PCB Data Management?

No one seems to like change. Even when you have problems and issues in your process, it is never faced, analyzed with the five whys, and fixed. The common practice is to bury your head in the sand and hope it all just goes away. Well, the truth is that we PCB designers are responsible for identifying the issues and fixing them. 

Know Your Component Library

How you start analyzing your library represents a philosophical change. The library is by far the most critical piece of your PCB Design Process. I have always found the librarian has one of few vital positions in the company.

Once you realize your library’s importance, know that it represents a vast resource to the company. That initial data is the foundation on which you will build every PCB Design. Really what that library embodies is money to the company–either a profit or a loss. 

Gatekeeping Your Process

One significant change I saw in our procedures was allowing the Data to drive the process. An excellent example of this was when we created a new component. While we could  use the component in a particular design, we could not release the PCB for fabrication until that single component was verified and released. In this way, we protected ourselves from unnecessary risk. Throughout the design process, you need such gatekeeping policies. They force you to stop and ensure that you are still headed in the right direction.

Communication is Part of the Process

In the classic 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman and George Kennedy, there is the famous tagline of “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”  That can be a major problem in your PCB Design process if you let it. As PCB Data Management becomes more of a focus, communication between the various involved roles increases.significantly.This communication converts the entire design process from a single-person activity to a Team Sport.

That directly results from focusing on the specific data used by certain individuals at particular points in the process. For example, as the project moves out of component placement on the PCB, it moves over to the Mechanical Engineer (ME) to check the product mechanicals. We saw the increase in communication significantly improve the entire workflow of the design as well.

Tailoring and Continual Improvement 

PCB data Management does not end when we hand the design over to the fabrication house. It is only the starting point. Because of the dynamic aspects of our data, we had to continually improve it through the Fifth tailoring pillar of PCB Data Management. We found we focused much more on the backend of the process than the beginning. We allowed what we produced and several specific PCB build reports to go back to our Component library. Using excellent Root Cause Analysis let us determine if any problems we found came from a defective component. In other words, the process is not a straight line, but a circle that feeds back into itself. Meaning, that as a circle, it is a never-ending process. 

Conclusion 

While the specific changes will be different for your situation, you must find the root causes of your issues. Let the solutions you find to change your process. That is where I see significant changes. Nothing with your process should be set in stone. You should always look to make improvements even if you need a bit of courage to see your mistakes.

Be proactive regarding changes. Make the changes when you can make them. Do not wait for them to become an emergency. The money and time are already lost. It is much easier to think through problems when they are not emergencies for you. 

Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you with your next PCB design? Talk to an expert at Altium.

About the Author

John Watson


With nearly 40 years in the Electronic industry with 20 of them being in the field of PCB Design and engineering, John has stayed on the cutting edge of the PCB industry as a designer/Engineer and more recently as a trainer and mentor. His primary work has been in the Manufacturing field but it has also expanded to several PCB Service arenas. As a veteran, he proudly served in the Army in the Military Intelligence field.

John is a CID Certified PCB designer. Presently pursuing his Advance CID certification. Now as the Senior PCB engineer at Legrand Inc, he leads the PCB Designers and Engineers in various divisions across the United States and China.

Follow on Twitter Follow on Linkedin More Content by John Watson
Previous Article
How Can You Make Sure PCB Design Data Is Both Accessible and Secure?
How Can You Make Sure PCB Design Data Is Both Accessible and Secure?

In PCB Design, it is all about balance.

Next Article
Printed Circuit Assembly and Design for Cost
Printed Circuit Assembly and Design for Cost

Understanding the standard pricing matrix of PCBs can optimize performance and lower costs over the lifetim...