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Molly Knewtson is an engineer in her early 20s who recently graduated from college and is now working for a pharmaceutical company. Hired as a mechanical engineer, Molly was asked if she would consider learning PCB design and taking on some design projects. She agreed, and admits that prior to this, she had never considered circuit design as a career path. I sat down with Molly at PCB West to learn how she came to this position and what might be done to inspire more people from her generation to join the industry.
BARRY MATTIES: Molly, I understand that you are moving into PCB design. Tell me about that.
MOLLY KNEWTSON: Yes, I graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering and was hired by a pharmaceutical company to do mechanical design, MCAD work, around healthcare IoT type devices and was asked to also take on printed circuit board design in ECAD.
MATTIES: What sort of training are you pursuing at this moment?
KNEWTSON: We do some IoT type devices, RF boards, and so I'm interested in that, and some of the chips that we're using are 0.4 mm BGAs, so HDI. I’m trying to soak up everything I can.
MATTIES: When you look at circuit design, that's a lot different than mechanical of course, right?
KNEWTSON: Yes, very.
MATTIES: Some of your engineering principles apply, of course, but how do you get into the nuances of circuit design? What sort of lessons do you have to learn?
KNEWTSON: There's a lot. I've been referring to everything from online forums to YouTube videos to understand circuits as fields, not just traces. I understand a little bit of breadboarding, but just drawing a trace as if it were a wire isn't enough. That's been a jump, coming out of the basics of electricity into printed circuit board design.
MATTIES: What is it about circuit design that's so appealing to you?
KNEWTSON: I like that it incorporates the math and science and the physics of what I learned in engineering school as a basis and the artistic ability to create something really pretty. I like the look of printed circuit boards at the end of the day. For me, being able to have printed circuit board design up on one monitor and the mechanical CAD up on the other monitor lets me play with the shape and size of the enclosures while selecting components and understanding the traces and everything you need for the printed circuit boards. It's all one process.
MATTIES: Being able to work with the enclosure and the board together, I think, is an advantage.
KNEWTSON: Absolutely. I have a little bit of an understanding of power consumption and battery life and things like that, so even down to the sizing of power supplies and up through selecting sensors that are appropriate. It lets me control the size and shape of the overall device with an understanding of the electrical requirements of the system.
MATTIES: What about tools? Have you explored the various tools, and have you formed any opinions yet?
KNEWTSON: I have not had the chance to explore very many tools. Currently, we are just using freeware. I have not gotten to see the capabilities of many PCB tools really.
MATTIES: What's the greatest challenge been for you so far?
KNEWTSON: I don't have a lot of resources at the company. I don't know anyone at the company who has done printed circuit board design before.
MATTIES: There's no other circuit board designer within your company?
KNEWTSON: Not that I'm aware of or connected to.
MATTIES: How do you feel about that?
KNEWTSON: I feel confident that I can learn if I can get connected to the right resources. My company has been so supportive in allowing me to educate myself and in connecting me to people, even when they don’t have the resources internally—like sending me to this conference, for example. Trainings are important. Reaching out to board fabrication houses and board assembly houses and not being shy to ask questions. I understand that some of the questions that I ask are probably things that, once I've been in the industry for 20 years, aren't things that I would have to ask. I try not to be too shy to ask them now, because the end goal is not me keeping my pride. It's me designing a board that works well.
MATTIES: Do you have any finished products yet? Where are you at in that progression?
KNEWTSON: We have done a couple of boards, a system, RF transmitters and receivers. There's a couple of boards that we have completed in a prototyping stage that have been out for printed circuit board fabrication and assembly and have worked so far. We have not done our EMC testing on them yet. That's upcoming, so right now we're at functional, assembled boards. We'll see how it goes from here.
MATTIES: What's the most exciting part of this job for you?
KNEWTSON: I really like the combination of having ECAD and MCAD up on two screens. That's really the core of it to me. The ability to have so much control over the final product's look and feel and understand the pros and cons that go into every design decision.
MATTIES: Where did you go to school?
KNEWTSON: I went to school at the University of Pittsburgh for Biomedical engineering. I graduated in 2016.
MATTIES: What about formal training?
KNEWTSON: I've heard great things about the CID program, but I haven't begun the process yet. I'm definitely interested.
MATTIES: What sort of timeline do you think will be required for you to be a proficient designer where you have plenty of confidence to where you know that your designs are solid?
KNEWTSON: I would expect it to take a year or two. It's not the only thing that I do in my work. I think with my time not able to be focused on printed circuit board design, it will take a little bit longer to feel proficient.
MATTIES: How much time do you dedicate to circuit design now?
KNEWTSON: It depends on the week. There are weeks that I'm completely dedicated to it, and there are weeks that I'm not touching printed circuit boards or mechanical assemblies and I'm writing protocols or user manuals or helping our software guys wireframe an app. Our team operates kind of like a startup within a big company.
MATTIES: Sounds like fun for you.
KNEWTSON: It's a lot of fun. I love the variability. It's definitely allowing me to go broad before deep, so I think that that will just take a little bit more time.
MATTIES: Going broad will allow you to pick where you want to go deep into as well, right?
MATTIES: You're young, and you have a whole career in front of you. Good for you. What advice would you give somebody who's entering into circuit design that is perhaps in your position?
KNEWTSON: Just embrace it and be a sponge, and soak up as much as you possibly can. The one thing I love, though, is that this industry is continually changing because there are continuous improvements in technology. It doesn't get stagnant. Just because you're here a long time doesn't mean you're doing the same thing that you were doing when you started.
MATTIES: One of the things that we're talking about in the industry is that, when you look around, there are not a lot of young people like you.
KNEWTSON: That's true.
MATTIES: What do you think the appeal about this industry would be to young people? You just stumbled across it, right? You didn't pick it.
KNEWTSON: I think I did stumble across it a little bit. I chose to be in a healthcare field, and I chose engineering. Beyond that, I think I have stumbled into my exact job role and definitely stumbled into printed circuit board design. It's not something that you see every day as a consumer. It's not something that you understand as a career option when you're growing up. I don't think that there's enough awareness. I certainly didn't know in high school or even in college that this was a profession or an option for me. PCB designers are not a group of people that you interact with as a consumer. It's something that makes all of your devices function, and you just don't have awareness of who to attribute that to.
MATTIES: If we turned circuit design into a video game when you're eight, maybe by the time you're 20 you would be the world's best circuit designer?
KNEWTSON: Certainly. Just as 3D printers are getting more common in households, there are now circuit board 3D printers that may be gamified and be something that's introduced younger and younger. The process of PCB design involves a lot of the left brain and right brain working together, and you need to have an artistic ability and spatial awareness and an understanding of the science behind it. It seems like something that would appeal to a lot of people, but they just don't know it exists.
MATTIES: I think a lot of youth say, "I want to go into computers. I want to go into coding or programming or be a YouTuber." There are a lot of YouTubers out there. Some very successful. Others should probably go back to school.
KNEWTSON: Computer science is a great field too. I think that it's another field that combines spatial awareness and artistic creativity with the understanding of math and science, and you go through a rigorous academic curriculum to get you there.
MATTIES: Thank you so much for your time, it's been a pleasure talking with you.
KNEWTSON: Thank you for the opportunity.