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For years, I’ve been running into Susy Webb at PCB West, where one of the classes she teaches is PCB design basics. I always ask Susy about the class, especially the attendees’ backgrounds. Over the years, her class has begun drawing more and more degreed engineers, with fewer “traditional” PCB designers attending.
In this conference call with I-Connect007 Editors Happy Holden and Patty Goldman, I asked Susy to discuss the next generation of PCB designers, some of the trends she’s seeing among new PCB designers, and the need for designers to take charge of their own design training, whether their management agrees or not.
Andy Shaughnessy: Susy, you teach a PCB basics class. Why don’t you give us a quick review of the class and what you teach in the class?
Susy Webb: The class started out as a two-day class and it has changed over the years, sometimes going down to half a day and sometimes up to a full day. For the last few years it's been a full day class. There's way more material than can be covered in one day, so that requires me to step back to 10,000 feet and shoot at the major topics involved with design like building library parts, placement, and routing techniques. Since it's a basics class, I never know ahead of time whether I’ll be getting somebody who's been pulled into the realm of design from other areas, and is completely new to design.
Some people come in that way, needing the absolute basics, or some people come in for a refresher, or as engineers, and they all want slightly different information discussed in the class, and when there is just one day, you do what you can do. I do explain that when we start the class. So it can be rather basic for some and sometimes over-the-head for others. It’s a hard line to draw to figure out what goes into a class and what doesn't.
Shaughnessy: I started asking you about your class years ago, and it was almost all designers with the occasional engineer. Tell us how that's changed.
Webb: I do think it's been gradual. My honest opinion is that most engineers don’t really want to design boards, they just want the designs done right, and the boards to function properly. The technology has changed so much and the vision that engineers and their management still have is of designers being connect-the-dots kind of people. So, that leaves it to engineers to pick up the gauntlet and move forward with it. And that's not a bash on engineers at all; I'm glad they want to know about PCB design. But I don't think they want to be a designer full time. I think they want to be engineers, designing and testing circuits rather than designing boards. Both have equal challenges and both have equal rewards. But if you've been trained in college to be a circuit designer, you don't necessarily want to design the board as well.
Designing has gotten so much more complex over last 15–20 years, and perceptions have not kept up. People tend to think that the engineers need to do it, but that's not necessarily the case. I believe that the people who have been in the field, or are interested in the field, need to work at getting training and continuously learning in order to show managers that they have what it takes. They also need to push their management to pay for the training they need, so that they can deliver the best product. Because it's challenging. You have to understand how the signals work within the board structure itself, as opposed to understanding how this signal needs to connect to that part, and everything else that goes with it.
Shaughnessy: Do you find that the EEs in your class get any sort of PCB layout experience in college, any sort of education on PCB design?
Webb: You're going to pin me against the wall on that issue [laughs]. I understand that many engineers have been taught to design a simple circuit and make it into a simple board, and maybe even have it fabricated and assembled. So they say, “Yeah, I've done a board.” But that's not really what board design is all about.
To read this entire interview, which appeared in the July 2018 issue of Design007 Magazine, click here.