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Jeremy Blum—prolific inventor, educator, and author, and currently director of engineering and lead electrical engineer with Shaper Tools—had a somewhat chaotic journey to Frankfurt, Germany, arriving with only minutes to spare. But that did not prevent him from delivering an energetic and highly informative keynote presentation on “Holistic Product Design for Electrical Engineers” AltiumLive 2019 European PCB Design Summit.
Why “holistic?” Blum defined the term as “characterised by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” His holistic approach meant thinking about the big picture, knowing that each change made to one part affected the whole. Blum illustrated this with an array of interlocking jigsaw-puzzle pieces. Electrical engineering took the central position, with industrial design, mechanical design, factory fixtures, design for excellence, quality assurance, embedded software, user interface, user experience, and customer story surrounding it and all linked together.
Next to the puzzle was a list of specific attributes required in the product, which, in his case, was the new machine he had designed—a hand-held CNC router (in this context, a profile-cutting tool rather than a networking device or a CAD function for PCB design). Blum’s router traced pre-programmed shapes using computer vision and augmented reality to determine its location relative to the workpiece with an auto-correct interface and precision motors to continuously fine-tune the position of the spindle along the intended cutting path, relying on the operator only for approximate positioning.
Blum had been responsible for the whole of the electrical engineering and system architecture design of the machine, as well as managing regulatory certifications, building the assembly line, and developing in-house tools and equipment for stress testing the products. He actively avoided the consequences of “tunnel vision” typified by his cartoon of one engineer looking at electrical architecture while a second focused on factory testability, neither considering the other’s point of view nor compromising their own interests to benefit the other.
Blum was cautious about oversimplification of complex problems and relying on “rules of thumb,” meaning procedures or principles with broad application, based on practical experience rather than theory, that were not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation but were easily learned and easily applied. A humorous example of oversimplification he used (with no apology to the theoretical physicist to whom it was attributed) was to consider a cow as a frictionless sphere of uniform density in a vacuum, for the sake of simplicity, in computing its aerodynamic characteristics. Oversimplification always risked losing sight of the context in which the electronics would operate.
Reverting to his title theme, Blum was a great advocate of considering the PCB in its holistic context and designing beyond it. Understanding the software needs ought to be of prime importance for the designer, and he believed that writing even the most basic firmware would help to ensure that the resulting electronics would be debuggable and equipped to handle the needs of the software development team. “By better understanding the constraints that impact the other parts of a larger product, you can make better decisions in your PCB design that will increase its likelihood of it performing to your specifications when integrated into a larger system.”
An addendum to the DFM, DFA, DFI, DFT, DFX, etc., series of designing for desirable attributes, one that I hadn’t heard before, was Blum’s DFH—“Design for Humans”—the humans typically being the designer himself and his peers, manufacturers, and customers. He emphasized DFH particularly applied to documentation. “Things that might be obvious to you at the time of implementation might not be obvious when others view the generated documentation. By creating documentation that is truly designed for humans, you’ll eliminate problems before they arise and reduce the load on you in the future as it becomes necessary to support the product in the field.”
Blum’s keynote was enthusiastically received by an audience well-impressed and inspired both by its content and the vitality and intensity of its delivery.