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PCB design and design engineering are evolving constantly, and design education and training must also evolve to meet the needs of tomorrow’s young designers—yes, there are young designers again.
The I-Connect007 Editorial Team recently spoke about this issue with design instructor Susy Webb, CID. Susy meets many of the new designers through her various PCB design classes at PCB West and other PCB design conferences.
We asked Susy to discuss how design and training have changed in the last few decades, where design education is headed, and how today’s crop of new designers differs from the “graybeards” who are planning their retirements. She also recommends design education resources from a variety of media formats.
Andy Shaughnessy: Nice to talk to you again, Susy. Would you share your training background?
Susy Webb: I was brought into this field by a friend of mine. I didn’t have any engineering background at that time, but you really didn’t need it then. What you needed was the manual dexterity, a lot of patience, and the ability to basically lay down parts and connect the dots; that’s pretty much what we did 35–40 years ago.
But things have changed so dramatically over the years to where currently you need to know a lot of physics, signal integrity, power integrity, EMI and DFM, organizational skills, and good communication, you name it. And now, since we who design boards are like the cog in the wheel, we need to know basically everything. Not only do we need to know it, but we need to know why it is important, so that we can choose what priority or what focus we are giving the particular board that we’re designing. Because sometimes things compete, like power integrity and signal integrity, or the SI and the EMI, you need to know which one to give the highest priority to as you’re designing each board, because each one is different.
I started doing basics design classes in 2004. I’ve been doing this for 17 years. My basics class has changed dramatically over those years; in the beginning, it was, “This is a component symbol, and this is a PCB symbol.” It was to teach people who were green to the business about how to do it. But now, so many of the people coming in not only want to know the basics, but they also want to know how everything else works in the design, and so my classes have changed to cover that kind of information as well.
Shaughnessy: Right. It does seem like we’re asking designers to do a lot more of what used to be in the electrical engineers’ domain.
Webb: And vice versa. I was brought in by the friend who just recognized that I had some ability to do something like this, and we did it on Mylar with black tape. But then EDA computer software came along, and it required a whole new set of skills. Time has also brought in the need to understand and implement many more engineering needs like how to work with impedance control, signal and power integrity, and EMI control.
Shaughnessy: What are some of the other changes that you’ve noticed in your classes? When the attendees come in, they’re dealing with a whole different skill set than 15 years ago, right?
Webb: Fifteen years ago, the classes were filled with technicians or others who wanted to try their hand at design but didn’t really understand the ins and outs of the profession. Or it was somebody who had an idea that they would like to learn about it all but didn’t really know where to start. But now, I stand in front of the class and ask, “Who is an engineer?” And most of them are. A few are mechanical, assembly, or some other discipline along those lines, but most are electrical engineers, and their companies are asking them to design boards.
When that started being a trend, the engineers really didn’t have any place to learn about the ins and outs of the job and who you had to please, which is a really important part of the job. You have to please the DFM people, the testing people, the people who may use the board in the field, and you have to please the other electrical engineers on your team. It’s very important that as many of their issues as possible are addressed for design so that the design is easy to build, test, and use. We can’t always please all of them, because sometimes things conflict, but the more you can design to good standards and meet as many of the other people’s needs as possible, the better the board or project will turn out. Unfortunately, it is very easy to design a board that is not manufacturable, with an exorbitant cost, and that does not work properly. Since we don’t want to waste our time, it is important to understand the physics and electrical needs of the project and implement them into the board as we design it.
Shaughnessy: Years ago, speeds were slower, so you could be close and it would still work.
Webb: Right. Things were so much slower back then. You could wander a signal all over the board and it really wouldn’t make a difference. But that hasn’t been the case for more than 20 years. It’s increasingly more of an issue as time goes on, because electronics are changing dramatically, and if you’re not keeping up, you’re falling behind. You just can’t rest on your laurels; you have to continue to learn.
To read this entire interview, which appeared in the August 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine, click here.