Julie Ellis: Communication and Fabrication Knowledge Critical for Designers

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Field Application Engineer Julie Ellis of TTM sees it all: good designs, bad designs, and everything in between. Her classes on proper DFM techniques are always a big draw. She taught at the inaugural AltiumLive in 2017 and was back at this year’s event. I caught up with Julie and asked her to discuss some of the things she covered in class. As she points out, many issues could be eliminated if designers communicated with their fabricators and had a better understanding of how PCBs are manufactured.


Andy Shaughnessy: Good to see you again, Julie. You did a class yesterday with Carl Schattke, and I saw you on a panel this morning. One thing I noticed was that, from your point of view, a lot of design problems that you see stem from a lack of communication—people not knowing where their boards are going to be built and if they're going into production overseas or not. Tell us a little about that.

Julie Ellis: I'm a field applications engineer, so I have to pay attention to all of the design details. The design details are based on fabrication capability. Every fabrication site has slightly different equipment, and different regions have different types of equipment. I have to pay attention to the process tolerances and the minimum design guidelines.

Since I also support quality problems, I'm going to see something that fails in the factory, with the customer, or an assembly if I don't design it right in the first place. My best way of approaching my customers is to be there with them upfront. I need to communicate with the customers and know what their plan is so we can design accordingly.

Shaughnessy: Last year, you jokingly, or half-jokingly, said that you always train your customers about what constitutes a good design and good data.

Ellis: Oh, yes. I think it is a matter of training customers because this is my area of expertise that I've spent a lot of time in, and they have different areas of expertise. Part of what I do is try to share with them how the processes work, why it's important, and that we need them to follow this design guideline. I think if you can train and educate customers to empathize with your position and capabilities, it makes them strive to create designs that are more of a match with our process capabilities.

Shaughnessy: Everyone always recommends that designers should talk to their fabricator early in the design cycle, but designers tell me, "We don't know where the prototypes are going to be built. We don't know who's going to do it overseas. We do it in Gerber and ODB++, and it's gone.” Is that what you find, that they don't know where it's going to be built?

Ellis: For some of our existing customers, a lot of times the answer is no. The customer partners that we have now do know, but when we start getting calls from new customers and sales brings in new customers, a lot of times, they don't know. Many times, it's because they're a corporation that separates design, manufacturing, engineering from purchasing. We do that too. We have to limit the scope of responsibilities for people because we can't keep up. I'm on the engineering side of TTM, and there are times when I will say that I need to get the commercial and sales team involved in something like this because I don't have access to pricing. I think we're separated within our own organization, and customers have the same separation, but it hurts them worse when buyers are not necessarily purchasing the parts from the supplier that the design engineer may have designed with.

Shaughnessy: Right. That reminds me of one of those cases you had in your class with Carl. Somebody didn't realize that their board was going be going overseas and the design had geometries that the overseas manufacturer couldn't handle. You seem to have a never-ending supply of these horror stories.

Ellis: Yes, when you're in this kind of position, a lot of times you backtrack, trying to figure out what went wrong and correct problems from previous designs. For a long time, I seemed to get all of the horror stories. When I first started, if something went south, Julie got it because I was also supporting quality.

Julie Ellis teaching AltiumLive.JPG

Shaughnessy: I laughed when you told the class you were like Mikey in the cereal commercial from the ‘70s.

Ellis: Yes, Mikey from the Life cereal commercials: "Let's get Mikey. He'll eat anything." But now it’s "Let's call Julie. She won't say no to anything." That was a really fun class. I think it went well. The audience was very engaged, and Carl is a good counterpart to me because he has a great mind for the global picture. I still tend to spend most of my world paying attention to the details to make sure that everything works out okay. We could banter back and forth about that.

Shaughnessy: Yeah, a lot of designers don't have that sort of circumspect view where you take all of these other things into account. I know you and Carl were at the show last year. Did you teach together last year too?

Ellis: No, we did not teach together last year. He was the keynote speaker last year, but Altium changes keynote speakers from time to time. I actually asked him if he would be interested in doing a class with me; he agreed, and it was fun. Carl is a great guy. He's fun to work with.

Shaughnessy: That panel was really good too. Did you learn anything interesting on that panel?

Ellis: I learned more about Industry 4.0 and how to apply it, which I thought was very interesting. I'm learning more about that. I look at the fabrication processes that we have—25 major processes with hundreds of chemistry tanks. In my mind, it seems so insurmountable to totally apply Industry 4.0 to a complete fabrication site. I look forward to seeing how the industry solves this issue and applies this.

Shaughnessy: Yeah, I think it was Lee Ritchey who made a chart showing that there could be up to about 117 steps in a fabrication process.

Ellis: A lot of DFM guidelines are based on our registration through different processes. Our Toronto facility did a Kaizen exercise one time and identified 86 different locations in their process where parts could misregister. It could be copper to copper, layer to layer, solder mask to copper, solder mask to drill holes, or copper to drill holes. How do we apply all of this in Industry 4.0?

Shaughnessy: We're hearing people are waiting 50-week and even 80-week lead times. You can't find a lot of the discretes now; maybe there's less profit in manufacturing discretes. A lot of people are having a hell of a time just sourcing these components. Are you affected at all by the shortage of components?

Ellis: Yes, I think a lot of it has to do with electric vehicles and the shortage of capacitors. It doesn't affect me as much. I get a few customers who ask if we do embedded chip components in PCBs. As a result, we still have to find the components. So, it hasn't affected me personally, but it does affect our ability to deliver boards for some customers, or customers may not order as many circuit boards if they can't find the components to go on them.

Shaughnessy: Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you’d like to before we finish? How is your horse doing? A lot of readers liked the photo of you riding your horse in the last article.

Ellis: Oh, the horse is doing very well. I took riding lessons on him every Saturday morning, but my trainer has a knee injury, so he's out. I'm doing lighter exercises on the horse because I'm not motivated by the lessons. Maybe he's a lazy horse. He would rather be scratched and rubbed and everything, so he's happy with the lighter workload.

Julie Ellis horse sized.JPG

Shaughnessy: Our editor Nolan Johnson just joined our company a few months ago and has a couple of horses too. Everybody in this industry has some way to blow off steam.

Ellis: We live on a wildlife refuge, and there are very large hills. We also do Nordic walking to stay in shape. We've been doing that since Christmas, and it's been really fun. I probably walk about 20 miles a week.

Shaughnessy: Well, it’s been great talking with you, as usual. Thank you for your time.

Ellis: Thanks, Andy. I appreciate it.



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